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.


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.


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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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)


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.


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.


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!

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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