A dear friend is trying to leave an abusive boyfriend.
She has spent years walking on eggshells around him while he has spent her every paycheck on himself. When he is not ignoring her and her needs, he is threatening her, opposing her, condemning her.
He barely acknowledges her physical beauty. He knows nothing of her intellectual graces. He has never fathomed what a good mother she is. And he is oblivious to the poetry of her spirit.
She understands he’s abusing her. She understands she ought to be treated better. And she understands he won’t change. The intellectual recognition of her situation is there. Yet, when she leaves him, she longs for him. She worries for him. She suffers his absence. And she goes back.
Consequently, she is in turmoil. One moment she is furious over his abuse of her. The next, she is tenderhearted. One moment he is a jerk and a fool. The next he is her oldest lover, her longest friend — and he needs her. Her thoughts and feelings just won’t align in any stable way. It’s as frustrating to her as trying to solve a Rubik’s cube in a pitch dark room.
Ordinarily, she is a strong woman, a brilliant woman. She has proved many times she can accomplish anything to which she sets herself. But this petty little leech of a boy might defeat her. For, despite all of his abuse of her, she has a very strong emotional bond to him.
How is that even possible? How can a person be so bonded to someone who abuses her?
There might be several ways to answer that question, but one of the more striking ways is to look at the role of a oxytocin in forming the emotional bonds between people.
Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter and hormone found in humans that is most responsible for creating the emotions of attachment — especially in women. When you have warm and fuzzy feelings about someone, you are experiencing its physical effects on you. It also increases your feelings of trust for someone, while at the same time decreasing the sharpness of your thoughts.
Oxytocin is released when you have skin to skin contact with someone and when you have an orgasm. Of course, your mind then associates the good feelings you have at those moments with person you’re with. He or she — and not the oxytocin released in your body — is perceived as the source of those feelings.
Oxytocin is highly addictive. Leaving someone you’ve been sleeping with is precisely the same as withdrawing from a drug. You might make it for two or three days without your partner. But then on the second or third day, you begin to crave contact with him or her. This most likely explains why so many people in abusive relationships are quite happy for a few hours or days after they leave their partners, but then begin to yearn for them as the oxytocin withdrawl symptoms set in.
I have noticed over the years that people quite often identify the feelings created by oxytocin with love. I am not going to argue those feelings are not love, because there are many ways to define love. But I would like to point out that such love can be found with anyone — no matter how incompatible they are with you — with whom you sleep with often enough. It is clear oxytocin does not guarantee we will bond with people who make us happy. Yet, oxytocin comes very close to offering us an iron-clad guarantee we will bond with someone we often sleep with.
Women need to be especially careful who they sleep with because the female hormone, estrogen, multiplies the effects of oxytocin. That is, it’s possible for women to become bonded to a man much sooner than a man becomes bonded to a woman.
So far as I can figure, my friend is not really in love with her abusive boyfriend; or if she is, it’s not a very healthy kind of love for it does not make her happy. Instead, what is keeping her with him is an oxytocin addiction.
Please note: Anyone who wishes to learn more about oxytocin and its various effects on us might do well to visit Susan Kuchinskas’ blog, Hug the Monkey. Susan has written an excellent book on the subject, called The Chemistry of Connection.