Neurobiological and Psychological Contributors
Why did she stay? This question is at the forefront for many when they consider the actions of some abuse survivors. For the outsider, it looks like a simple logical decision to walk away from anyone who poses a threat or causes psychological harm.
But the reasons that many stay entangled in these relationships are complex. There are underlying neurobiological causes for the intense bond that many have with individuals with psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder.
Leaving an abuser is not solely a cognitive decision (based on thinking), but rather one that is tied to a myriad of neurochemical, psychological, and emotional anchors.
There are factors that are much stronger than thoughts that usually win out.
Let’s explore two of these factors.
Intermittent Reinforcement & Power Differentials
In 1981 Drs. Donald Dutton and Susan Painter posed a theory they referred to as “traumatic bonding.” The theory explained that there are two features within abusive relationships that seem to cement the emotional attachment that many victims have to their abuser – the power differential and the intermittent style of “bad – good treatment” (Dutton & Painter, 1993, p. 105). They described the slow process of escalating abuse as a “social trap.”
If we examine the intimate relationships of individuals with Cluster B personality disorders such as psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder, we often find these patterns in their interactions with their mates. There will be extremely good treatment, extremely bad treatment, dominance, control, and the social trap (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 increases the bond and attachment to the narcissist or psychopath.
Nothing is more reinforcing than intermittent kindness from the partner who is in control. Intermittent reinforcement is extremely strong (e.g., think of gambling and that most will continue to play although they are losing.)
Abusive relationships tend to include a tremendous difference in personal power. Given the low emotional intelligence of abusers, they usually interact with their mate by violating her boundaries or rights as a human being.
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 require unreasonable control over their partners. Victims and survivors find it a struggle to establish a cooperative or fair relationship.
Psychologically, the combination of the power differential and intermittent reinforcement can foster dependency,
“I need him in my life.”
“I miss him so much.”
“I can’t stop thinking about him.”
Social and environmental factors are also strong contributors to a victim’s decision to stay. For example, children, financial security, safety, aggression level of the abuser, fear, sharing of the home, family, stalking, and so forth.
Not all Bonds are Positive – Negative Bonds Are Even Stronger
Relationships with power differentials and intermittent treatment create stressful bonds that cause the non-disordered partner to feel on edge, rather than comforted by the connection. It is a bond that the survivor may simultaneously 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! What’s wrong with me!”
Given that we tend to associate bonds with something positive, this phenomenon of feeling intensely attached to someone displaying very negative behavior (abuse) can be perplexing to the victim. Bonds of this type reflect an addiction to a negative source.
However, if the victim were aware that traumatic bonding is also a type of bond that is not based on a positive connection, they would not attribute inaccurate interpretations to the relationship (Dutton and Painter, 1993). For example, some victims assume that given that they feel such a strong connection to the abuser that it means they must really love him or her. There must be something very special about that person. They may even ascribe “soul mate” status to the abuser based on the chemistry they feel with them. The victim may believe that the abuser loves them in return. However, bonding is not always a synonym for love. And chemistry can be extremely strong even with the wrong person.
Our brain can connect to negative sources, sometimes with even more intensity than to positive sources. This is important to know because some bonds are detrimental. This is usually so when one partner consistently violates another and strips the rights of safety and autonomy from that individual. That is clearly not love.
Neuroscience Underlying the Gripping Bond to Individuals with Narcissism & Psychopathy
As with all psychological symptoms, there are underlying neurobiological substrates or mechanisms at play 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). These are broken down further into subtypes – D1, D2, D3, D4 and D5 receptors. Through these receptors dopamine can be involved in vastly differing actions and behaviors.
For example, in certain regions of the brain dopamine is associated with movement and implicated in conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens are related to reward processing (e.g., wanting; addiction). There are other areas of the brain where dopamine acts to impact cognition (e.g., motivation/ attention) or emotional functions (e.g., depression/ schizophrenia).
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 have some negative effects on behavior and actions.
For many, in the aftermath of psychopathic and narcissistic relationships, oxytocin and dopamine become dysregulated. These neurochemical changes will place the victim in a tough position because dopamine and oxytocin can lead to actions that could compromise her safety. The imbalance of chemistry will cause the victim to experience intense cravings and wanting her (ex) partner. Her thoughts will often follow to make sense of her feelings and behavior. Therefore, it is not uncommon that she will offer excuses to herself and others to rationalize her behavior.
“You don’t understand, he’s trying to change.” | “I love him so much, we can make this work.”
Staying When Logic Says Go
The brain’s reward system is often the impetus behind a victim’s decision to stay. Staying with someone who is callous, emotionally inconsistent and possibly dangerous is usually a non-cognitive driven action (not one based on a logical decision). 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 places such a great deal of importance on the abuser. This combination of neurochemistry has tagged the abuser its drug. It causes the victim to hyper-focus on the perpetrator, to want and crave them and intensifies the bond to them – even if they are awful partners. This reaction can occur even if the victim does not like the abuser as a person.
Narcissistic and psychopathic relationships can have a tremendous impact on the reward system of the brain. This reflects the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of the traumatic bond. Therefore, the decision to “stay” is not really a decision at all. It is an addictive response that brains have when associated with a relationship of significant value (e.g., love). This could happen to anyone after a toxic relationship, particularly if the victim has the capacity to bond.
Dependency and Avoidance of Withdrawal – It’s Just Like a Drug
Due to the dysregulation of oxytocin and dopamine, the victim requires a connection to the abuser to keep from going into withdrawal. She or he has become dependent. This dependency is not co-dependence, but rather a reflection of the same neurocircuitry of drug dependence.
The withdrawal symptoms that many experience in the aftermath can be extremely painful. It can be set off by the act of leaving, abandonment/ discarding by the perpetrator, or discontinuation of the relationship (no longer being able to connect with the abuser).
It is similar to the feelings one has after they have discontinued a drug of abuse. The brain seeks it, craves it and struggles to make it without the drug. The abusive partner has become their drug. Brain chemistry can be very difficult to override, particularly when the victim is unaware that this process is taking place internally. Disconnection from the partner can be a very difficult time period. For many victims, they are in withdrawal.
Symptoms of withdrawal, craving the toxic relationship, or deciding to stay are not a sign of personal weakness on the part of the victim. It is a reflection of normal brain functions, and we do not have the ability to over-ride the process from taking place.
When there is a traumatic bond, the brain will be prone to recall the positive, more than the negative aspects of the abuser’s behavior. This is likely in association with the neuropeptide oxytocin.
This situation can improve. 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, yearning, wanting) is changeable and usually not a permanent state. The brain will need time to recover. It does this best when an environment of calmness is fostered, and the individual focuses on self-care. However, note that when there is an emotionally charged environment, such as continued engagement with the abuser or seeking acknowledgment and contrition from the disordered partner, or retaliation then the healing road will be longer and more difficult.
Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Clinical Neuropsychologist
Updated 2020 (© 2016 NeuroInstincts | All Rights Reserved)
Freeman, Rhonda (2011) Therapists Treating the Aftermath training – Neuroscience of Women’s Trauma Following Pathological Relationships. Ashville, North Carolina
Freeman, Rhonda (2012 – 2015) Healing the Aftermath Retreat – Neuroscience of Psychopathic and Narcissistic Relationships.
Neuroinstincts (2013) Lingering Pain After an Abusive Relationship II