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How our brain keeps us in toxic relationships

Editor’s note: Joyce M. Short is the author of a soon to be released book, “Carnal Abusive Deceit When a Predator’s Lies Become Rape.” The book chronicles her life with a predator, the subsequent aftermath and her road to recovery. It also provides advice for victims and their supporters, and discusses the issues surrounding criminalization of rape-by-fraud. Joyce lives in New York City, where she’s a real estate broker, professional tennis instructor and a strong advocate for her community.

The Betrayal Bond — an oxytocin craving

By Joyce M. Short

We often see stories in the news about people who meet tragic ends by remaining in a relationship with someone whose behavior should have signaled a disturbance. Having been “one of those women,” and having had the ability to figure out why I remained, I feel it imperative to shed light on this issue.

Romantic love is not simply an emotion. For most of humanity, our fully developed brain contains the neurologic and chemical components to form loving bonds. Neuroscientists have recently uncovered the functions of our brain that, together with electronic stimuli, chemicals called endorphins, and neurotransmitters, all work simultaneously to cleave us to our love interests.

Lesser beings in the animal kingdom have less developed intimate relationships. Human brains are ingeniously planned to function as social beings. While some animals lead singular lives, the chemical and electronic functioning of homo sapiens is designed to bond us to a mate and sustain the relationship at least for the duration of our offspring’s growth, providing them with shelter and aiding in their development to mature, complex, adult beings.

Oxytocin

Paul Zak’s book, The Moral Molecule, the source of love and prosperity, recently contributed to our body of knowledge pertaining to oxytocin, the neurotransmitter that provides us with feelings of trust, warmth and connection toward another. Scientific American referred to oxytocin as “love glue.” Much as oxytocin supports our feelings of connection, it is thought that high levels of testosterone inhibit oxytocin production and may explain why psychopaths, who show elevated levels of testosterone, may not be able to deeply feel the connection of a relationship.

Whether a predator will consciously “love bomb,” or whether they unknowingly engender high levels of oxytocin through their testosterone-driven behavior, their victim will experience elevated levels of hormone production that will cleave them to their love interest in a form of addiction. Just as an alcoholic craves the chemical high that alcohol produces, romantic mates are biologically drawn together by the production of brain chemistry. When we experience separation from a mate, even for a short business trip, we will interpret this chemical cleaving as longing.

Craving

The abrupt shock of betrayal, and the cessation or threat of cessation of oxytocin production, can establish the toxic glue “craving” that keeps victims in relationships when they should be running for the hills. This emotionally shocked reaction is a “betrayal bond,” which is an unconscious desire to continue receiving the chemicals that make us feel loved.

A bystander to betrayal can easily witness cruel emotional behavior toward another without the impact of brain chemicals interfering with their opinions. For the person who experienced the betrayal, however, such objective reasoning becomes encumbered. We often hear a bewildered “what were they thinking?” expressed in reaction to the inability of betrayal victims to free themselves from toxic relationships. The common metaphor, “love is blind,” is often used to excuse an inability to see through treachery. When looking back with the objectivity of retrospect, after the brain’s neurologic responses subside, even the recovering victims can be totally bewildered at the abuses they tolerated.

The Betrayal Bond, Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships, by Patrick J. Carnes, PhD., can give you far more extensive awareness of the problem than what I can convey here. Through my up-coming book, Carnal Abusive Deceit, When a Predator’s Lies Become Rape, I hope to provide a greater awareness of a betrayal bond’s real life effects, and establish a pathway others can embark on toward recovery.

 


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18 Comments on "How our brain keeps us in toxic relationships"

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Thank you Joyce – it helps to know that there are physical and psychological reasons why it’s so hard to break away.

Very interesting but how does this explain the same sort of bonding between a parent and their child? This bond can be just as deadly when there is no sexual relationship involved. There must be more involved than oxitosin.

Oxytocin is produced in many ways, not simply though intimacy or romantic love. Even affection from a puppy could raise your level.

Dr. Lianne Leedom explains the connection between parental warmth and oxytocin production in developing children in her book, Just Like His Father.

Joyce

I have to wonder if sociopaths know this when they target a lonely woman in a bad relationship that has been lacking in affection for a long time. Being one of those, I’m sure that the production of increased oxytocin after none for a long time bonded me to the sociopath almost instantly. I’m sure he studied up on himself years ago and knew all about the bond. Pure evil.

Kmiller-

I’m so sorry to hear of your misfortune and I hope that recognizing the reality of what you’re going through can help you recover your sense of well-being.

Unfortunately, sociopaths are REALLY good at sizing people up instantaneously. They have elevated cognitive empathy although their affective empathy is out to lunch. This imbalance makes them good at spotting the means to get over on their “marks” and minimizes any sense of caring or conscience.

While they may not understand a Betrayal Bond or even recognize what oxytocin is, they surely know what works for the goals they have in mind. They conduct their wrongdoing in a serial fashion and become very accomplished at it. They’ll often look for people who they can “rescue,” who later find that they’ve jumped from the frying pan into the fire with both feet.

Now that you know your oxytocin level can become supercharged through love-bombing, you’ll be much more difficult to snare the next time!

All the best-
Joyce

I believe my husband knew exactly what he was doing!In looking at our wedding pictures,I don’t see the smiles;the happiness normally seen on a groom’s face.Now I know why.He wasn’t marrying for love.Yet,as we were leaving the reception,and I was crying as I was leaving friends to move to another state…he bent over to kiss me.I ripped the picture up and threw it away,as I recognized it as the beginning of real love bombing.I’ll save the rest of our wedding pictures for the girls.

Thank you for this article. I have been thinking this for a while as I thought my desire for my ex seemed more like an addiction bc there wasnt much to love, especially after the wedding day. I can relate to blossom4th in that my ex did not smile on the wedding day and there was a picture of him wiping his brow like a “phew” moment… that pretty much sums it up!

I was finding a bond with my current partner, as the more days we are apart, the more agitated I was becoming. He began to recognize this and we talked about it, at first thinking it was separation anxiety of some form, and to just do things to get me to be more comfortable on those stretches when we could not connect in person. Is it possible that we (survivors of spaths) are now predisposed to fall into an oxytocin addictive pattern bc we were once addicted? Does this mean we have to abstain or moderate in oder to reality test the situation? Thx 🙂

Thanks Joyce,

Funny, I was just thinking about the frying pan into the fire thing this am. I chuckled a little as I compared my x husband (frying pan) to the sociopath(fire). The sociopath made my alcoholic x look like Little Bo Peep. Can’t wait for your book to come out.

Kat

Thanks for this article – it helps to understand the force that drives me crazy! I was wondering if the excess testosterone levels in spaths can be treated as a disorder such as we receive meds for depression or anxiety? If too little of it can be treated as a medical condition, it seems that an excess of it should be treated as well. The only problem is getting one of them to admit that they even have a problem because to them the problem is actually you and everyone else!

BDOF-

You’ve hit the nail on the head! Getting someone who has this disorder to admit they should be on meds would be quite a feat! If not something to curb testosterone, than perhaps something to increase oxytocin. I’m not aware of a magic pill that can accomplish either.

Joyce

jm_short,
Funny that you mentioned petting a puppy can increase your oxytocin levels! I was just doing research on pet therapy the other day and came across an excellent website that claims the same thing!That being true(I know how much better I feel hugging and petting my puppy!),I think having a puppy or cat is a better ideal than a pill!If you’re not feeling desperate for an “oxytocin high” and you use your knowledge of the red flags,you’re less likely to start a relationship with another sociopath!

http://www.pawsandhearts.org/P&Hbenefits.htm

Blossom-

Yup! There’s neuroscience behind dogs being a man’s best friend. They can be a woman’s best friend too! But we still need to focus on all the healing things that rid us of emotional predators and keep them away.

Best-
JmS

From the age of 10…to the age of 21…I endured such bonding. I confronted my so-called ‘friend’ but it was over the phone. Actually…that was better because facing someone may have made it worse.

Any thoughts on this? Was I cowardly? Speaking of cowardly…this ‘friend’ (TBC)

Barb-

Relationships with morally disordered people make us doubt ourselves just as you are doing. With no specifics about the relationship, I can only understand that it made you feel as though you were used, and you needed to protect yourself by withdrawing.

No matter what manner of withdrawal you used, you would question your actions. The important thing is that you recognized you had a problem and did what you could to protect yourself.

Don’t think twice about how you got away, and don’t let backlash from others get under your skin about it either.

Joyce

Well put, Joyce! Some people DID tell me I was courageous in ‘telling her off’.

I remembered them just as I was reading your reply to my comment.

Thanks!

I’m so glad you got that support from your friends! Unfortunately, sometimes people are very loathe to acknowledge the misuse a psychopath victim encounters. They fail to see the disordered morality in the person who caused harm. When that happens, it can feel very isolating, heaping insult onto already sustained injury.

Be well!
Joyce

We have a long, long way to go. People still believe the old axiom: “Nobody is going to do it for you.”

If we see someone being bullied, especially at work where ‘getting away’ from it is virtually impossible, it is DEFINITELY our responsibility to intervene and acknowledge/support the victim. We are in a horrifically challenged society that ‘blames the victim’, exacerbating the problem and causing the victim more anguish.

We can only set an example. And many work environments are so dysfunctional that the bosses themselves ‘join in’ with the mentality of attacking the victim. I am also a survivor from these types of situations.

Very enlightening.

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