Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist by Shahida Arabi

This article was originally published on April 2015 on Self-Care Haven and is an excerpt from a copyrighted book, Fifty Shades of Narcissism: Your Brain on Love, Sex and the Narcissist. It has been reprinted on TheMindsJournal with the permission of the author. 

Many survivors of narcissistic abuse are confounded by the addiction they feel to the narcissist, long after the abusive relationship took a toll on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Make no mistake: recovery from an abusive relationship can be very similar to withdrawal from drug addiction due to the biochemical bonds we may develop with our toxic ex-partners.

Discussion of biochemical bonding within the context of narcissistic abuse has been scarce, and during my research of how different chemicals and hormones can affect us during the abuse cycle, I realized that our brain chemistry is not on our side when it comes to detaching from toxic, abusive partners.

Understanding why we are addicted permits us recognize that our addiction is not about the merits of the narcissist, but rather the nature and severity of the trauma we’ve experienced. It enables us to detach and move forward with powerful knowledge that can propel us towards greater agency and healthier relationships than the ones we’ve experienced in the past. In addition, it challenges the victim-blaming discourse in society that prevents many abuse survivors from gaining support and validation for the traumas they’ve experienced – validation that would actually help, not hinder, these survivors in leaving their abusive relationships.

Survivors struggle with No Contact and may suffer many relapses on the road to recovery from the psychological trauma of the relationship. Aside from the reasons I’ve proposed in this blog post on why abuse survivors stay in abusive relationships, I thought I’d explore how our own brain chemistry can lock us into this addiction to the narcissist or sociopathic partner.  Some of these same biochemical bonds also make it difficult for us to detach from non-narcissistic partners as well.

1) Oxytocin. This hormone, known famously as the “cuddle” or “love hormone,” is released during touching, orgasm and sexual intercourse; it promotes attachment and trust. It is the same hormone released by the hypothalamus that enables bonding between mother and child. During “lovebombing” and mirroring in the idealization phases with our abusive partners, it’s likely that our bond to them is quite strong as a result of this hormone. Intermittent reinforcement of positive behaviors dispersed throughout the abuse cycle (e.g. gifts, flowers, compliments, sex) ensures that we still release oxytocin even after experiencing incidents of abuse.

I’ve heard from many survivors who reminisce about the great sexual relationship they had with the narcissist, containing an electrifying sexual chemistry they feel unable to achieve with future partners. This is because charming emotional predators such as narcissists are able to mirror our deepest sexual and emotional desires, which leads to a strong sexual bond, which then, of course, releases oxytocin, and promotes even more trust and attachment. Meanwhile, the narcissist, who is usually devoid of empathy and does not form these types of close attachments, is able to move onto his or her next source of supply without much thought or remorse.

On the dark side, sex with a narcissist can also be devaluing, manipulative, and abusive in itself, especially if the narcissist in question engages in highly risky sexual behaviors or attempts to coerce victims into engaging in sexual acts that they don’t feel comfortable with. This can also bond victim to abuser because it conditions the victim to associate fear with sex and betrayal with love – creating a trauma bond that will be discussed later in this article.

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