The Science Behind Why We Go Back
I wrote this article, and initially included a lot of my story.
I want this article to focus on the science behind why victims stay- without my story being the focus.
I will share my entire story soon.
So let’s put my fancy degree to use.
Why do victims stay with their abuser?
I have NOT met one victim who has NOT gone back to their abuser. You read that right- I have yet to meet one person who hasn’t gone back!
Now let’s dig into the why behind it and I promise to make this an easy read.
Your brain’s chemistry changes when you are a victim of abuse. Your abuser becomes your drug, and you become addict to it. It is not the abuse you are addicted to, it is your brains chemistry misfiring the signals, and neurochemicals leading you to stay. Let me explain.
We are looking at four major neurochemical’s
Oxytocin- bonding to people
Endogenous Opioids- pleasure, pain, withdrawal and stress
Corticotropin Releasing Factor- withdrawal and stress
Dopamine- craving, seeking, wanting
Your brains chemistry reacts to what your environment is. Most abusers are Narcissist, they believe others are inferior so they master manipulation, gaslighting, and they get joy out of tearing their victim down to nothing. This leaves their victims in a constant state of worry, fear, and abuse of all kinds. When it comes to our brain, context is everything and this is NOT a healthy relationship. So the longer you stay, the more your brain changes.
When you are in a state of duress Oxytocin is released from the receptors in our Lateral Septum. This response is mostly related to someone being in pain and/or withdrawal. Normally, we release it from the amygdala relating to positive feelings (mothers holding their newborn babies). The release of Oxytocin is a powerful thing and something that you cannot turn off. Women have two times the amount of Oxytocin than men, which is why we see more female victims.
Two things happen when you are in an abusive relationship, and both of them together override any proper reasoning when it comes to the situation.
The Trauma Bond
Cognitive Dissonance is when you have two opposing viewpoints of a situation. Your brain tries to make sense of it through reasoning and rationalization and it has to made this decision in an instant. For domestic violence victims we choose to self-deceive. We stay despite the deception we clearly see.
An example of this: He kicked in the door to beat me, because I broke his phone. I am the reason he acted that way.
Remember, all of our chemicals are messed up, not allowing us to think correctly.
The Trauma Bond breaks this down for us even more. The four neurochemical’s I mentioned above, mix together and becomes irregular due to the trauma we endure. So like addiction, victims get this craving for the abuser and the value of that person increases- thanks to the Endogenous Opioid. So the victim hyper focuses on the feelings which leads them to conflict resolution to ease the pain. This is where you see the self deception and cognitive dissonance kick in.
To make it easier, the thought of leaving causes extreme pain and withdrawal feelings (endogenous opioid), so the victim does whatever they can to alleviate the symptoms and pushes towards resolution with the abuser (oxytocin). So both of the neurochemicals work against one another in domestic violence situations making it almost impossible to leave.
So when a victim tries to leave two things happen:
The Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis Stress System (HPA) activates creating the ‘social stress’ response which is driven by Oxytocin.
So in English, you go to leave your abuser and your HPA activates. This is how our body responds to stress and trauma. This response is what gives you the energy to fight for your life. It releases hormones, like Cortisol on higher than normal level to get you through the traumatic event. After the HPA activates your social stress kicks in. Then victims start to feel the pain of leaving, the wanting to make it work, and the only way to make this stop is to stay and work it out. A victim is in a constant state of war with their abuser means their HPA system stays active- never returning to a normal level. Over time, all of those excess of hormones and neurochemicals is what changes the structure of a victims brain. So the only way a victim can get any peace of mind, is to focus on the abuser. To make sure you do not do anything to upset them, you shoulder all the blame, and pine for the good moments that the two of you had.
So how does a victim break to bond of their abuser?
When victims build good social bonds, making friends, going out, etc. this elevates the Oxytocin in the Amygdala giving them positive feelings. However, this is the hardest thing to do. The abuser, in almost all cases, will not allow the victim to leave and do things without them. Many are financial abused and have no access to money and the biggest issue victims face are friends. We have none. Either the abuser scared them off, or the ‘friends’ get tired of the excuses the victim tells for not leaving sooner. So they leave the victim alone in the worst possible situation, adding to that vicious cycle of staying because it is impossible to leave. Now let’s add one more level to this. The victim gets enough courage to report the abuse to police. A statement may be taken, a restraining order placed, but nothing else is done. There is no added support after that, the victim is left to fend for themselves. In almost all cases, it just adds fuel to the fire and the victim is now doing everything possible to stay safe and alive. Therefore, getting back with the abuser, is the easier less painful option. I mean, we had some good times right? If I obey, maybe he could change this time… right?
Victims of abuse walk away with PTSD and Depression
The easiest illustration is like living right in the middle of a war zone. Bombs are dropping everywhere, and you have no idea, when your last breathe will be taken. Domestic abuse is just like that. Your entire body stays in fight mode all day, everyday, leading to your hormones and neurochemicals levels to rise and deplete over time. So when you are finally free of the abuser physically, mentally you are still in that war zone. Your brain does not know how to check out of that fight mode. This is why mental health care is so important after leaving a violent relationship, but it is something so few have the ability to use. You have to remember, this victim is starting over and that means they do not have the money or insurance to seek such help.
Do not say: "Why did they not just leave?"
So the next time you think about saying: “why don’t you just leave?” Stop and remind yourself that we did not get a choice in this. From day one, our abusers took control of us. They took everything from us (money, friends, family). We stayed in a war zone mentality 24/7, because we never knew when the next blow would come. Living in something like that, changes every single chemical in our body. Staying in this hell, is the EASIER OPTION. We have nothing now, we have no way of leaving and starting over, no friends, no money- we have no choice but to stay. Leaving, actually puts us more in danger. Our justice system does nothing to protect us. So we cry in the shower, and lay awake next to the monster and dream about being happy. Just one more moment of happiness before he kills me…
Please God, just one more moment.
What a vicious cycle we are stuck in.