Have you ever wondered why anyone might become addicted to an abusive partner and simply cannot leave them for long?
As most adults know, a lot of women seem to have a great deal of emotional difficulty leaving an abusive spouse. In fact, some women will stay forever with such a spouse, though he (or she) destroys their mental and emotional well-being, crushes their self-esteem, and — perhaps — even threatens their lives or the lives of their children. And, sometimes, abused men have much the same problem leaving an abusive spouse as abused women do.
However, it now appears that science is in the process of revealing the underlying reasons why (1) women seem to have such difficulty leaving an abusive spouse, and why (2) women seem to have much greater difficulty than men leaving an abusive spouse. But to understand what science has to say about it, we must begin by discussing popular notions of love.
If you ask most people who are in lasting relationships — including marriage — to describe love to you, they will most often describe the warm and fuzzy feelings that oxytocin produces in us of trust, love, and so forth. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that creates in us the emotions we usually associate with our most important emotional bonds to other people. Such as our warm and fuzzy emotional bonds to our kids, to our parents, to our siblings, and to our spouses. When people talk about their feelings of love for someone, they quite often describe the emotions produced by oxytocin.
Oxytocin is highly addictive. Some scientists even describe oxytocin as being more addictive than heroin. And — although it doesn’t have all that much to do with newly minted romantic love, oxytocin seems to very frequently dominate the feelings we have in long-term, lasting relationships. It’s addictive qualities are cumulative. That is, the longer you are physically with someone, the more oxytocin will bond you to them.
Like many addictive chemicals, oxytocin does not immediately produce withdrawal symptoms. Usually, there’s about a three (3) day wait between your last oxytocin fix and the onset of withdrawal symptoms. So, if you are like most of us, then you can expect to go from two to four days before you start missing — painfully missing — someone to whom you are heavily bonded.
To put all of the above in context, a woman leaving an abusive relationship has roughly three days before the onset of oxytocin withdrawal symptoms, when she will discover that she is painfully missing her ex. And, according to some scientists, those withdrawal symptoms, when they hit her, can even at times be more severe than if she were withdrawing from an heroine addiction.
But the above is further compounded by the fact the poor woman — the woman leaving an abusive relationship — has been taught her entire life to call the feelings produced by oxytocin — to call those feelings, “love”.
So, three days after she leaves the person who is beating her, and/or in some other ways abusing her, she starts to crave him. She starts to miss him painfully. And she thinks — she believes — that her painful feelings of oxytocin withdrawal mean she is still in love with him.
Both her feelings and her beliefs about her feelings encourage her to return to her abuser.
Up to a point, abused men go through the same process as women. But there is one major difference between men and women here. It seems that the effects of oxytocin on us are significantly stronger in women than in men. Studies have now shown that estrogen, the so-called “female hormone”, multiplies the effects on us of oxytocin by — at the very least — a factor of 10. Hence, women usually find it far, far more emotionally difficult to permanently leave an abusive partner than men do.
At any rate, that seems to be the most recent, up to date, explanation that science currently offers as to why anyone might become addicted to an abusive partner, and why women tend to become more addicted to abusive partners than men. Do you think the science on this matter sheds any light at all on any relationships you have known about? Why or why not?