My Friend is Trying to Leave an Abusive Boyfriend

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.

15 thoughts on “My Friend is Trying to Leave an Abusive Boyfriend

  1. Addiction is about right. It’s the best explanation as to why smart women get themselves caught in stupid situations.

    My mother spent nearly a decade in an abusive relationship. She finally left for good not for herself, but because the bastard started beating her dog. From what I’ve seen, most abused women won’t leave for themselves – they do it to protect their kids, or something else of overriding concern.

    I hope your friend finds that motivating factor. She doesn’t deserve this. That abusive bastard isn’t her friend. He may be her first love, but she’s obviously not his. It’s never going to get better. Abusers don’t change. And if she doesn’t stop the cycle, she could end up leaving that relationship in a body bag.

    I hope, for her sake and for her kids, she doesn’t stay in a situation that’s going to turn her into another statistic.

  2. I understand this is one of the major frustrations that cops face. Normally, when person a assaults person b, there’s no problem getting person b to file charges. But with significant relationships, person b walks right back into the cage with person a. It must be especially painful to see person b end up dead or seriously injured. Rather like being a train engineer and seeing someone who just won’t get off the tracks.

  3. I’m sorry to hear about your friend, but I don’t agree that oxytocin is wholly or primarily responsible for her situation. Most of the women I know will not tolerate an abusive situation. Is this because they are not generating oxytocin at the same rate as women who do? It seems unlikely to me. It’s far more likely that your friend was taught to associate emotional abuse with love and security from an early age, via the time-honoured tradition of shitty parenting. She won’t be able to liberate herself by just “kicking the habit”, like an addict going cold turkey and sticking to their guns. Without a bit of self-examination and psychoanalysis, it’s likely that her mental association between abuse and love will remain fixed, so that even if she does liberate herself from this particular bastard, she will only find herself another.

    Just guessing, of course, but I’ve never met a woman who tolerates this type of abuse who was not abused in a similar fashion as a child. And I have met a LOT of women who have a LOT of oxytocin-producing sex who don’t lose their capacity to determine whether or not the relationship is healthy simply because of the hormones released by physical contact.

  4. “I don’t agree that oxytocin is wholly or primarily responsible for her situation. Most of the women I know will not tolerate an abusive situation. Is this because they are not generating oxytocin at the same rate as women who do? It seems unlikely to me.”

    No, there’s something to what Paul is saying here. Different people have different sensitivities to any given drug, and oxytocin is no exception. I know, because I’m (the rare example of?) a guy with the same problem. But in my case, it plays out somewhat differently. I can be friends with a woman, or I can have pretty much nothing else in common with her, but if we end up having sex, I start behaving very much like a classic addict. And when she dumps me (which almost inevitably happens, sooner or later), I go through something quite similar to withdrawal. A few years ago I figured out what was happening and what was the appropriate course of action – just as it is for other people with alcoholism, call me a “recovering oxytocin addict.”

  5. @DOF: I’ve seen the same thing time and again. Someone gets beaten up and refuses to press charges.

    @Apophaticattic: Good comments! So far as I know, you are quite right that people who wind up in abusive relationships were most often abused as children. I recall I’ve discussed that elsewhere, but in this post I chose to focus on the role oxytocin might play in someone staying in an abusive relationship. Of course, I didn’t mean to come across as offering a comprehensive picture of all that goes on with people staying in abusive relationships.

    @Meowlin: Good points! It’s my understanding that both the number of oxytocin receptors and their locations can vary from one person to the next. I suppose as well that there are other factors which make people having varying degrees of susceptibility to the hormone.

  6. There is a very famous arabic proverb, and it says something like, a shadow of a man is much far better than being under the shadow of a wall, and it means that having a man is much more better than being lonely. I guess that your friend’s boyfriend is giving your friend something which no ordinary friend would give her. Maybe he is not perfect, but he still can offer her something which will make her satisfied “not only sex of course”.

    Believe me, there are so many women out there who love to take care of someone, than them being taking care of.

    I was of that kind but it’s not necessarily that your friend was like me or anything. I remember when i was younger, although many people would have said about me just like the many positive things you said about her, but there was something inside me that no one knows except me, and that was, being obsessed to be good to some people i love, in order to be “loved” by them even more, and that was almost the most important thing to me even though i didn’t realize it back then.

    After a while, i got the chance to read a book but i forgot who was the writer, then i really got shocked when the writer in that book exposed me and my personality, and after that i decided to change, and do something good for people just for the sake of that thing or for the sake of my friends, but not for me, and not to grant myself more affection. Maybe sex might be a very important factor here, but other roles definitely have some other effect too.

    The tricky part here is that oxytocin might have a major role, but it will only be effective if it walked side by side with other factors like what was the case with me for instance which is the tendency to take care of others in order to gain love, satisfaction, etc. That’s because all of us would have Oxytocin but you already know by now that not everybody would fall because of that alone.

  7. My recent ex had an abusive ex she kept going back to and the only thing that really pushed her from returning to him was when I finally said enough is enough and denied her contact with me- because of that withdrawal she seems to have finally found the will to get out from him. As part of that process she finally saw the worst things he can do and that finally hit home that despite her addiction to him (oxytocin or not). She needed the worst to happen before she could realize what he really was and feel it in her bones.

  8. Hello everyone, this is my first time posting on the lovely Paul’s blog, but I figured since this particular post concerns me, what better place to start than here?

    I’ve got a few things to say, so let me gather my thoughts. First, thanks Paul, my love, for caring enough to write about my situation. You know I love you with all my heart.

    Second, I feel I have to make clear (and I’m not making excuses, merely setting the record straight), that while my boyfriend is VERY emotionally abusive, he’s never been, nor would he ever be physically abusive. As we’ve been together for nearly 11 years and I’ve known him for almost 20, and he’s never raised a hand to me in anger, no matter how many pounds of raw hamburger I throw at him, I’m pretty secure in this assurance, so please, don’t pity me in that way, or consider this that kind of abuse. (Please, don’t pity me in any way).

    @Apophaticattic: While I do agree that your statements of abuse as children do pertain to women, more often than not, finding themselves in abusive relationships as adults, this, however, is not the case with me. I have a very strong relationship with both my parents and always have. They’ve been nothing but blessings in my life, even when I was nothing but a terror to theirs.

    @Faisal: It’s not about being loved, either. I’ve gone many, many years being single and being completely happy with it. Single by choice, as a matter of fact. I’ve never been one of those chicks that MUST have a boyfriend, or craved a relationship, I’ve always been happy alone. Part of it, though, does stem from wanting to take care of him, I will wholly admit to that.

    Paul also hit the nail on the head when he talks of addiction as he knows well that I’ve admitted openly my addiction to this boy. The most recent thing I said to Paul on this subject, while discussing another guy I had just recently met and who was a lot nicer than my boyfriend was this “I can’t do it. I just can’t bring myself to leave (insert boyfriend’s name here). I know (new guy) is better for me and would treat me like a princess, like I deserve, but I just can’t leave (boyfriend).”

    As a recovering addict, I know addiction when I feel it.

    Aside from all of this though, what everyone must understand is that I DO love him. Perhaps I’m a moron, perhaps I’m a masochist, perhaps misery really does love company, but, may the Goddess help me, I do love him. And no matter how hard I try, that love isn’t going to go away and I’m not going to be able to leave him.

    Like I’ve told everyone who knows this situation, I can’t just leave because someone else points out the bad things of our relationship., because, in my mind, the good points outweigh the bad. I’ll leave when I’m ready. If that’s ever.

    Call it addiction, or love, or Oxytocin dependencies. Call it what you will, but I’ve been in this for 10 years and it’s just not that easy to step out of.

    Thank you all for caring though, and for your kind words. I know Paul has my best interests at heart, he always has and he knows I love him for it.

  9. @ Circle One, sorry about my amateur psychoanalysis! As I get to peek into the horrors that are going on in a lot of houses as part of my job, I’m seeing a world that is teeming with child abusers. (Also, most of the parents where I’m living swat and shout at their children in public.)

    My dad used to be a bit of a jerk and my mom (a saint) has stayed with him for almost 40 years despite quite a few tense times, especially when my brother and I were teens. Although I sometimes wondered why my beautiful, smart, self-assured, patient mother stayed with him, in the end I have come to admire them for everything they have overcome. He also got much nicer after switching his meds, and he dotes on her now. They’ve got excellent boundaries that make this possible. He moved out for about a decade, during which time my mother trained him to be respectful by leaving his apartment whenever she felt disrespected or hurt. Now he’s moved back in and lives to make her happy.

    So, yeah, I guess my point is that in the end, only you can be the judge of your situation. If the experience of my parents is any indication, there are a lot of options available apart from the standard fare of “stay or go” – and men can be trained if you have a few decades to spare.

  10. @ Apophaticattic, no worries. We all psychoanalyse. Everyone does, we can’t help it.

    As for the having decades to spare, I’m 27 and I’ve already wasted 1 decade on this guy, I figure I’m in for the long haul.

    At work, otherwise I’d write more, I’ll be back though. 🙂

  11. Very interesting – seems to provide an explanation for so many people passively walking back to their abusive partners that I see around me.

  12. >And no matter how hard I try, that love isn’t going to go away and I’m not going to be able to leave him.

    One of the things that has helped me most over the last year is coming to understand that loving someone and being able to be in a relationship with them are completely different things. (Thanks to Paul for starting me down this train of thought with an age-old post on cinematic love!)

    I love (or loved, as it’s fading slowly now!) somebody that it would be completely unhealthy for me to be with. I don’t know if I’d have been able to walk out on my own if he hadn’t ended it, though I suspect I would in the end. But realising that love and compatibility are completely different things was a very important part of starting to decide for myself what I wanted to do about the love I felt.

    Wishing you all the best, circle-one, whatever comes of this relationship.

  13. Interesting theory. Leaving an abusive relationship, however, is more than that. Psychological aspects play in the picture, particularly denial, “i can change him,” “things are better, he won’t do it again,” etc. I suggest keeping a journal each time an abusive event happens. Write everything down in the moment, with all emotions. Read it when you are telling yourself it’s ok, you don’t have to leave. I’m doing my best to leave a very long term abusive relationship and this is helping me, getting real with the fact that he is who he is – abusive – and I need to take care of myself and leave. Best wishes.

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