Gray Matter: Neuroscience reveals why abuse victims can’t just walk away

About 90 minutes before he was set to graduate from Boston College, 22-year-old Alexander Urtula jumped from the top of a parking structure and died. His then-girlfriend, Inyoung You, has been charged with involuntary 

manslaughter for his suicide. 

According to Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney who announced the charge last week, You had been physically and emotionally abusive to Urtula over the course of their 18-month relationship, repeatedly telling him that everyone would be better off without him and urging him to “go die.” In cases of domestic abuse, especially one as severe as this one, people may wonder why the victim didn’t just leave. 

While the answer involves a combination of social and emotional factors, there are also powerful neurological factors at play that can make the victim feel like it’s impossible to leave the relationship.

Research has found that domestic abuse alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it difficult for the victim to leave. According to a study conducted by UCLA psychology professor Shelley Taylor, one major neurochemical responsible for this feeling is oxytocin. 

Normally, oxytocin released from the amygdala promotes positive social bonds and has a calming effect, but under distressing conditions such as domestic violence, it’s released from receptors in the lateral septum to trigger a social stress response. This response is associated with physical feelings of pain and withdrawal, along with a desire to return to happier times in the relationship. Neurochemicals like oxytocin are powerful in dictating an individual’s emotions and actions, and they cannot simply be turned off or overridden with logic.

To combat the aversive social stress response, neuropsychologist Rhonda Freeman recommends engaging in positive social contact with friends or family to promote higher levels of calming oxytocin. However, this can be challenging since abusers often use isolation tactics like withholding calls and texts from supportive figures to distance their partners from friends and family, which allows them to wield more power over the victims, who become increasingly dependent on them.

To cope with their toxic situations, victims employ various unconscious tactics to rationalize and defend their partner’s behavior, leading them to overlook the severity of the abuse. Abusive relationships follow the cycle of violence, a pattern in which periods of violence are punctuated by honeymoon phases where the perpetrator apologizes, uses kind words or gestures and shifts the blame away from themselves. 

As they try to reconcile these starkly contrasting sides of their partner, victims experience cognitive dissonance: Modifying one perspective to alleviate the mental discomfort caused by two conflicting views of the same person. For example, they may justify their partner’s aggression by reasoning that it was a defense mechanism or the result of work stress rather than a pattern of toxicity. Cognitive dissonance is so powerful that a survey done by the National Institute of Mental Health found that more than half of domestic abuse victims still consider their partners “highly dependable,” which reveals that victims often fixate on the positive aspects of their partner and cling on to the hope that they are capable of improving.

In the end, domestic abuse inflicts significant psychological damage on the victim no matter the mental justification. Most commonly, victims experience depression or PTSD as a result of the abuse they have endured, both of which can contribute to feelings of helplessness and self-blame that make it more difficult to seek help.

Furthermore, Urtula’s circumstances may have been exacerbated by the stigma that men cannot be victims of abusive relationships. According to Sarah Wallace, a researcher who helped develop a support program for male domestic abuse victims, the men she works with often feel afraid and ashamed because they believe they have failed to fulfill traditional masculine ideals. 

Consequently, male victims are less likely to report domestic abuse and seek help. The exact rate of underreporting is difficult to estimate, but the British Crime Survey found that only 10% of men reported being abused to the police as opposed to 29% of women.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, please consider reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799−7233, or messaging them at Abuse can occur in emotional, verbal or financial forms, and anyone could be a victim, regardless of gender.

Jessica He is a senior writing about neuroscience. Her column, “Gray Matter,” runs every other Wednesday.