Why did she stay? This is often the first question that comes to mind when someone hears of a bad outcome between a victim and her harsh mate. They wonder why did she decide to stay with a person who demonstrated a pattern of unstable, vile behavior.
For the outsider, it looks like a simple logical decision to walk away from anyone who poses a threat or causes psychological damage.
But the reasons that many stay entangled in harmful relationships are complex.
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple, as ‘Your behavior is unacceptable. I’m leaving.’ Some people have real struggles with this and for legitimate reasons.
Behind the scenes (in our head), the brain has established an intense bond to the psychopathic or narcissistic partner. And often the last thing it wants to do is let go.
This means that leaving an abuser is not solely a cognitive decision (based on thinking), but rather one that is also tied to neurochemical, psychological and emotional anchors.
When it comes to the brain ― when given the ‘choice’ to follow emotions or logic, in circumstances like this, it follows emotions.
- Nyla found herself alone in the apartment she shared with Brett. He moved on to someone new and she had no idea how it happened so quickly or even why. She was unable to bring herself to say the “A” word (abuse), because she never thought she would be in that situation, but she knew it fit the bill. Brett was harsh, cruel, in control of every decision that involved her, and preferred to manipulate rather than interact honestly.
- Nyla recalled how gentle, attentive and generous he was during their first several months. He was nothing like the man she knows now. There were days that she felt a glimmer of hope before he left. He was occasionally nice and she breathed a sigh of relief and thought, ‘ok, maybe things will be good again’. But then he would resume the unacceptable behaviors.
- Although Brett was gone, Nyla could not stop thinking about him. She checked her phone constantly hoping for a text and lurked each of his social media accounts compulsively. She ached for his return. Friends would attempt to comfort her,“He was awful to you! It’s best that he’s gone.”
- Nyla was aware of that, but it was as if those thoughts were not getting through. She understood she deserved someone that did not hurt her - but all she wanted was him. Nyla felt addicted and there were no words, not even her own, that could change that.
Let’s explore some reasons that a perfectly logical adult, can feel strongly attached to someone that abuses them.
It all starts at the beginning of the relationship.
Intermittent Reinforcement And Power Differentials
In 1981 Drs. Donald Dutton and Susan Painter posed a theory they referred to as “traumatic bonding.”
Essentially, the theory explained that there are two features within abusive relationships that seem to strongly seal the emotional attachment that many victims have to their abuser – the power differential and the intermittent style of “bad - good treatment.”
Callous And Nice
If we examine the intimate relationships of individuals with disorders such as psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder, we often find these patterns in their interactions with their mates ― extremely good treatment, extremely bad treatment, dominance, control, and insidious escalating abuse.
Due to their poor emotional empathy, individuals with psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder do not care how they treat others.
Their focus is themselves, their pleasure, their stimulation, and their comfort, often at the expense of others.
Therefore, fluctuating waves of kindness, gentleness, and fun, will be mixed with cruelty, disdain and hate.
It is an emotional roller-coaster that the brain of their victim responds to with neurochemistry that can increase the bond and attachment to the abusive person.
All About Power And Me
Abusive relationships tend to include a tremendous difference in power. Most with disorders of narcissism and psychopathy require they be in the dominant position and will ensure this through manipulation, emotional abuse or physical violence.
They tend to require unreasonable control over their partners. Victims and survivors find it a struggle to establish a cooperative or fair relationship.
Non-Psychological And Non-Neurological Factors
Others factors can be strong contributors to a victim’s decision to stay with an abuser (social and environmental).
For example, children, finances, safety, aggression level of the abuser, fear, sharing of the home, family, mate retrieval through stalking, and so forth.
Not All Bonds Are Positive ― Negative Bonds Are Even Stronger
Relationships with power differentials and fluctuations in treatment create stressful bonds that cause the victim to feel on edge, rather than comforted by the connection.
It is a bond that the victim or survivor may actually desire was not there. Some even feel ashamed and responsible for the traumatic bond.
“I want to leave because he hurts me. But I just can’t!
Given that we tend to associate bonds with positive relationships, this phenomenon of feeling intensely attached to someone displaying negative behavior (abuse) can be perplexing to the victim.
However, if she or he were aware that traumatic bonding is also a type of bond, but it is not based on love, they would not misinterpret the value of the relationship.
For example, some victims assume that because they feel such a strong connection and have gone through many ups and downs that they must really love the abuser. Perhaps it means they were meant to be together.
They may ascribe “soul mate” status to the person based on the chemistry they feel with them. The victim may believe that the abuser loves them in return.
Bonding is not always a synonym for love. And chemistry can be extremely strong even with the wrong person.
Our brain is able to connect to negative sources, sometimes with even more intensity than to positive safe sources. This is important to know because some bonds are detrimental and not based on love at all.
Neuroscience Underlying The Gripping Bond To Individuals With Narcissism And Psychopathy
As with all psychological symptoms, there are underlying brain functions that are responsible for the behavior. Two of the most prominent neurochemicals linked to traumatic bonding are dopamine and oxytocin.
Dopamine is a catecholamine, a neurotransmitter, in the brain that is associated with several different functions due to the presence of two general types of dopamine receptors (D1-like and D2-like).
Through these receptors dopamine can be involved in many different actions and behaviors (e.g., movement disorders, emotions, mental illness).
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide and a hormone that is synthesized in the hypothalamus. Many have termed it the “cuddle hormone” however; quite like dopamine it has a wide range of actions.
Depending on the brain regions and social stimuli present, oxytocin can even have some negative effects on behavior and actions.
All That Chemistry
In the aftermath of psychopathic and narcissistic love relationships, for many, oxytocin and dopamine become imbalanced and unregulated.
These neurochemical changes will place the victim in a tough position because dopamine and oxytocin can lead to actions that can place her/his safety at risk.
The imbalance of chemistry can cause the victim to experience intense cravings and wanting her partner. Her thoughts will often follow to make sense of her feelings and behavior.
They might offer excuses to themselves and others to rationalize the violating behaviors.
- “He’s trying to change.”
Staying When Logic Says Go
The brain’s reward system is often the motivation behind a victims decision to stay. Unfortunately, this has led to negative consequences for many survivors. Some have lost their lives.
But it is extremely difficult to think clearly when oxytocin and dopamine place such importance and value on the abuser.
This combination of neurochemistry (along with endogenous opioids) can create an addictive attachment that is difficult to break.
For the person who has developed post traumatic stress disorder or complex post traumatic stress disorder, their return to the abuser will worsen their mental health.
Having reactions of craving, dependence and withdrawal can occur even if the victim is aware that logically the partner is a poor or dangerous mate.
Therefore, the decision to ‘stay’ is not really a decision at all. Rather it is an addictive response that brains can have to a relationship of this type.
This could happen to anyone after a toxic relationship, particularly if the person has an attachment style that makes them vulnerable to intimate partner abuse.
Dependency And Avoidance Of Withdrawal
Due to the surge in oxytocin and dopamine, the victim will require a connection to the abusive individual to keep from going through the painful feelings of withdrawal. She or he has become dependent.
This particular dependency is not co-dependence, but rather a reflection of the same neurocircuitry we associate with drug dependence.
The Distress Is Not A Sign Of Weakness
Symptoms of withdrawal, craving the toxic relationship, or deciding to stay are not a reflection of personal weakness on the part of the victim.
It is simply normal brain responses to an abnormal situation (the kindness/abuse mixture). Those with insecure attachment foundations will unfortunately respond more intensely to these circumstances.
Healing And Recovery
With support, treatment with a skilled mental health professional, and time, the neurochemistry can settle down and return to homeostasis.
The withdrawal stage (craving/ seeking/ wanting) is changeable and not a permanent condition or state. The brain will need time to recover and it does this best when there is calm and focus on self-care.
However, note that when there is an emotionally charged environment, such as continued engagement with the abuser, seeking contrition from the disordered partner, or retaliation, the healing road will naturally be more difficult.
Adapted from “Spellbinding Bond to Narcissists & Psychopaths,” by R. Freeman, April 2016, Safe Relationships Magazine
- Rhonda Freeman, PhD - Neuropsychologist. Exploring the neuroscience of healthy and abusive love relationships (Visit Neuroinstincts!)
This content is informational. It is not intended to serve as any psychological service/advice and is not a substitute for consultation with your health care provider.