Did you know it’s normal for our brain to have an addicted feeling toward the people we love? Yes! It is nature’s way of ensuring we mate and also properly care for any helpless beings in our care.
Equally as important as humans, is our social relationships. They are crucial to our mental and physical health. Having an ‘addiction-like‘ connection to the people we love is great when there is no pathology involved.
Fathers will care for their children; men/ women will care for their pets; friends will care about each other – you get the idea. In the absence of imbalances or disorders, we are naturally built to connect with other living beings. That means we will hurt when we lose someone we love.
The reward system (along with other systems of the brain) is responsible for this process and will automatically carry this out. It is this system in action if you have ever said,
“We have chemistry!”
“I feel so drawn to him!”
“I can’t stop thinking about her!”
Or simply – “I love him so much!”
The tough and in my opinion neurobiologically unfair scenario is the case of survivors of narcissistic/psychopathic abuse – they will have an addictive connection to a dangerous partner.
Three Important Points Regarding Falling in Love with an Abuser
1. Survivors were usually duped by their abusive mate to fall in love with someone that was not their genuine self. The survivor’s brain will go through the normal process of bonding at the beginning of the relationship, without knowledge of the games that lie ahead.
2. Abusers rarely share that they have a vicious, vindictive temper or a preference to interact through meanness, lying, manipulation, gaslighting, projection, blindsiding, and blameshifting. The survivor will have no idea they are connecting to a person who will display very dark, emotionally cruel traits in the future.
3. It is very difficult to reverse the process of bonding once it has happened. For most survivors, there is more than just bonding working against them when trying to heal, but also trauma, humiliation, and betrayal.
On a daily basis as a neuropsychologist, I share with patients and their families, the neurobiology behind many of the symptoms they are experiencing. This is common in neurological environments to provide information of this nature to those who seek our care.
Given that there are neurobiological mechanisms at play behind all behavior, mood, and thoughts, it can be helpful to understand a little about some of the brain systems that are at work behind the scenes.
I want to touch on the reward system through Sara’s situation.
Sara had been in a five-year relationship with Steven that was full of upheaval and vile behavior. It had been seven months since he left and during that time, she devoured information online regarding people with traits similar to him. She came across a condition called narcissistic personality disorder and was shocked when she read stories of others with mates exactly like Steven.
“What is going on? How can this be?”
Sara could not understand how completely different people could share overlapping commonalities in their behavior, personality, and treatment of other people. “It’s as if these other women were all dating Steven!”
It took a while for Sara to process the information regarding pathological narcissism. For months, she was in denial that she was with someone with a personality disorder.
“I’m a smart woman; I would’ve recognized narcissism! Steven wasn’t extroverted, grandiose, or arrogant.”
It was only through further exploration that she learned narcissistic personality disorder and psychopathy could present in more ways than one. It was through her readings that she learned that some individuals with those conditions are quiet, tense and introverted.
After educating herself more in the area of Cluster B Personality Disorders, there were a few weeks that Sara wanted to help Steven with her newly discovered information. Her mind felt like it was on fire with intense emotions and plans to reunite.
“Maybe if he knew that he has a condition, he could get help, and we can get back together again… when he’s healthy.”
Sara began to feel ashamed. She took a look at her behavior and began to wonder, “What is happening to me!” She found herself thinking of Steven daily. She frequently wondered what he was doing. She made excuses to take the route home from work that passed by his neighborhood. She sent short texts and emojis in hopes that he would respond – but nothing. She cycled between anger and feelings of despair.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. He is the one who was abusive to me, yet I’m chasing him!”
Sara checked each of his social media pages several times a day. She even woke in the middle of the night thinking of him. There were several occasions that she thought of devising a plan to retaliate for the pain he caused. Sara felt plagued with intense feelings of craving him.
“I feel like I’m going crazy! Why do I have such longing for someone who was horrible to me?”
In seeking comfort, Sara shared her feelings with her friends. However, she also tried to recruit some of them to give her updates on Steven. After being asked for the fifth time in a week about him, one of her friends, who works with him said, “honey you are so addicted! You need to stop this. Who cares what he’s up to – I say good riddance!”
The Reward System
There are many factors involved in Sara’s reaction to the ending of her relationship. One might think it would be easier to move on after a partner that was abusive. But it is not. For some individuals, it can be more of a struggle to deal with the emotional challenges that come after a disordered mate.
It is likely that the reward system of the brain is heavily involved in Sara’s emotional and behavioral changes.
The reward system refers to specific pathways and neurochemistry within the brain that respond to certain conditions in our lives or stimuli. It is associated with the overall process of attachment, wanting/ desiring, and pleasure (via endogenous opioids). This system is involved with addiction of various types, such as to substances, people, or things.
When we ‘lose’ something that was valued by the reward system, it can result in feelings of withdrawal, craving, and yearning (through the activation of many other brain systems and chemistry beyond the reward system).
The bottom line is that the strong desire to be with an ex-mate, even one that was potentially dangerous, stems from an involuntary neurobiology response. Often one associated with the reward system, in conjunction with other systems. To crave a past partner is not a personal weakness.
This reaction is not isolated to relationships of abuse but can happen after any romantic relationship. What makes this experience more difficult for survivors of callous and selfish partners, are that her cravings to reconnect are often in conflict with her beliefs about his fitness as a good partner.
The survivor may fully understand (cognitively) that to stay or re-commit to a dangerous person could result in severe emotional injury or possibly the loss of her life. However, once the mesolimbic dopaminergic system (reward) kicks into high gear, even she will have to fight against craving someone she understands is neither healthy nor safe.
This is a crisis that many who have been through ‘regular’ relationship breakups are not likely to experience. The intensity may be more profound and longer lasting than one who was with a non-disordered partner.
This type of breakup can often require resources that extend beyond that of reminders to “just move on” or “let it go.”
Craving can take over for many survivors after an abusive relationship because the rational area of the brain might take a back seat to the reward system. The very region, the prefrontal cortex, which is needed to help regulate some of the symptoms tend to be less active when it comes to romantic love (Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong, & Mashek, 2010).
Reaching out for assistance through the comforting support of safe loved ones or the interventions of skilled mental health professionals can make a tremendous difference.
Rhonda Freeman, PhD