Heartbreak

4 Sneaky Biochemical Ways Your Brain Tricks You Into Loving Your Abuser

Photo: Yuliya Yafimik / shutterstock.com 
woman looking sad holding flowers, sun behind her head

Many survivors of narcissistic abuse are confounded by the addiction they feel to the narcissist, long after the abusive relationship is over.

Recovery from an abusive relationship can be very similar to withdrawal from drug addiction. That's due the biochemical bonds we may develop with our toxic ex-partners.

Understanding why we are addicted lets us recognize that our addiction is not about the merits of the narcissist, but rather the nature and severity of the trauma we’ve experienced.

Knowing why we feel like we can't stop loving an abuser enables us to detach and move forward.

We can use this powerful knowledge to can propel us toward healthier relationships.

In addition, it challenges the victim-blaming discourse in society that prevents many abuse survivors from gaining support and validation for the traumas they’ve experienced.

Survivors may suffer many relapses on the road to recovery from the relationship, so I thought I’d explore how our own brain chemistry can lock us into this addiction to the narcissist or sociopathic partner

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A few biological reasons it's hard for survivors to detach from narcissistic partners:

1. Oxytocin is why you love them even when they abuse you

Oxytocin — AKA the “cuddle” or “love hormone” — is released during touching, orgasm, and sexual intercourse, and promotes attachment and trust. It's the same hormone released by the hypothalamus to bond a mother and child. During “love-bombing” and "mirroring" in the idealization phases with abusive partners, it’s likely that our bond with them is quite strong as a result of this hormone.

Many survivors reminisce about the electrifying sexual chemistry they had with the narcissist — one they feel they're unable to achieve with future partners.

This chemistry exists because charming emotional predators like narcissists are able to mirror our deepest sexual and emotional desires, which leads to a strong sexual bond, and in turn, the release of oxytocin.

Meanwhile, the narcissist, who is typically devoid of empathy and does NOT form these types of close attachments, is able to move on to his or her next victim without much thought or remorse.

The addictive nature of oxytocin is also gendered, according to Susan Kuchinskas, author of the book, The Chemistry of Connection. Because estrogen promotes the effects of oxytocin bonding — whereas testosterone discourages it — makes it more difficult for females in any type of relationship to detach from the bond as quickly as men.

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2. Dopamine makes you believe them when they say they'll "change"

The same neurotransmitter that is responsible for cocaine addiction is also responsible for addiction to dangerous romantic partners. According to Harvard Health, both drugs and intense, pleasurable memories trigger dopamine and create reward circuits in the brain — essentially telling the brain to “do it again.”

Do you remember recalling the pleasurable, beautiful first moments with your narcissistic partner — even after you'd broken up? The romantic dates, the sweet compliments and praise, the incredible sex? That's the dopamine talking. The salience theory of dopamine suggests that our brain releases dopamine not just for pleasurable events, but for important ones that are linked to survival.

As Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D, puts it, “Dopamine is not just a messenger that dictates what feels good; it also tells the brain what is important and what to pay attention to in order to survive. And the more powerful the experience is, the stronger the message is to the brain to repeat the activity for survival.”

Studies show that dopamine flows more readily when the rewards are given out on an unpredictable schedule rather than predictably after conditioned cues. So the random sweet nothings whispered to us after an incident of emotional abuse — the apologies, the pity ploys, the rare displays of tenderness during the devaluation phase — right before another incident actually help solidify this type of reward circuit rather than deter it. 

Combine this with powerful experiences of abuse that alert our brain to “pay attention” as well as pleasurable memories we recollect over and over again, and we’ve got ourselves a biochemical bond from hell.

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3. Cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine make you an adrenaline junkie 

Cortisol is a stress hormone, and boy, does it get released during the traumatic highs and lows of an abusive relationship. It's released by the adrenal glands in response to fear as part of the “fight or flight” mechanism. Since we're unlikely to have a physical outlet of release when cortisol is triggered during cycles of emotional abuse, this often traps the stress within our bodies instead.

As we ruminate over incidents of abuse, increased levels of cortisol lead to more and more health problems. Christopher Bergland suggests numerous ways to counteract the effects of this hormone, which include physical activity, mindfulness, meditation, laughter, music, and social connectivity.

Adrenaline and norepinephrine also prepare our body for the flight or fight response and are also culprits in biochemical reactions to our abusers. 

Adrenaline promotes an antidepressant effect, triggering fear and anxiety, which then releases dopamine — this can cause us to become “adrenaline junkies,” addicted to the rush of vacillating between bonding and betrayal.

Withdrawal from that “rush” can be incredibly painful.

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4. You can become bonded to your abuser through trauma 

All of these jolts of fear and anxiety in the face of danger can reenact past traumas and create trauma bonding. Trauma bonding occurs after intense, emotional experiences with our abusers and tethers us to them, creating subconscious patterns of attachment that are very difficult to detach from.

It is part of the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims of hostage become attached to their perpetrators and even defend their captors. Survivors of narcissistic abuse come from many different backgrounds and anyone can be a victim of narcissistic abuse

Trauma bonding is even more significant for those who grow up in violent or emotionally abusive homes, and/or have had a narcissistic parent in addition to their most recent experiences with trauma and abuse.

Survivors of multiple incidents of abuse by various narcissistic individuals can further reinforce subconscious wounds they experienced in childhood in the trauma bond with their current abusers.

It is important to understand the various types of biochemical and psychological bonds that often create attachments between abusers and their victims.

Better understanding these bonds enables us to move past victim-blaming and move forward into greater understanding, compassion, and support for survivors who struggle with leaving abusive relationships.

We must not judge but continue to empower ourselves and others with this newfound knowledge.

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Shahida Arabi is a writer and the founder of, Self Care Haven, a popular blog for abuse survivors. She uses her knowledge base in psychology, sociology, gender studies, and mental health to help survivors empower themselves after emotional abuse and trauma. 

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This article was originally published at Self-Care Haven. Reprinted with permission from the author.