Intermittent reinforcement: Addiction to the Bread Crumbs of Love

Flowers after the silent treatment. Extravagant gifts after weeks of brutal insults. Crocodile tears after a rage attack. Sudden affection and intimacy after hours of fighting and critical remarks. All these examples highlight an abuse tactic known as intermittent reinforcement that is used as a manipulation tactic by a narcissist to keep their victims bonded to them.

When we fall in love, we don’t want to lose it. We search most of your life looking for “our person” and when we feel we have found them we will do almost anything to keep that love going. This desire to make it work and to not lose love is what covert narcissist will use to keep you tied to them. They lure you in with intense promises of true love and when they have you convinced that ‘this is it’ they start to pull it away piece by piece. However by then you are already deeply attached and there is an intense fear of losing them and the deep connection that you thought you had. This is known as a psychopath trauma bond – when the happiness of finding love turns into fear of losing it, also known as a  “manipulation shift”.

We are wired to become attached to the ones we love, and it is incredibly painful to lose this. The fear coupled with intense love bombing keeps us hooked and is at the heart of why people stay in toxic relationships. Psychopaths and narcissists will use the abuse tactic known as intermittent reinforcement from a seemingly deep bond forged in the early days of the relationship alongside the natural fear of losing the ‘perfect partner’.

Intermittent reinforcement is a psychological concept that was coined by Psychologist B.F Skinner (1956). He discovered that behaviour is motivated by either reward or punishment. He found that there is a specific way that rewards can be doled out that cause a behaviour to persist over a longer period of time and are less vulnerable to extinction. In his research, he used rats who were rewarded with food every time they pushed a lever (continuous reinforcement). After a while, they changed the experiment and the rats would be given the reward in an unpredictable pattern. Sometimes they would be given food by pushing the lever but other times they were not, it was completely random and there was no way to predict if there would be a reward or not.

As a result, the rats became obsessed with pushing the lever. They again changed the experiment and gave no rewards and yet the rats continued to push the lever while beginning to neglect their own needs. In other words, when we expect to always be rewarded after taking certain actions, we work less hard for it.

Yet when the reward is not consistent and is instead unpredictable, we will work harder for the reward in hopes of receiving it, especially when we use to get rewarded but now don’t. This theory goes some way to explaining why people stay in unhealthy, toxic and abusive relationships

When intermittent reinforcement is used in an abusive relationship the reward is the abuser’s moments of affection, expressions of remorse, feelings of closeness and intimacy which are only given sporadically, and less and less throughout the abuse cycle. This causes victims to work harder at the relationship trying to once again get back to the comfort of the “honeymoon phase” of the cycle. This cycle in some ways mimics an addiction, one gets addicted to the breadcrumbs of rewards in the relationship and will do almost anything for them even at the risk of losing one’s safety,  health and well-being.

You can also see intermitted reinforcement at play in casinos. Despite the low chances of winning at a slot machine one continues to invest their money just for the small chance of winning big. This system is also at play in drug addiction as one continues to chase the dragon, the feeling of euphoria that one rarely gets in the face of negative consequences.

Why can’t I leave? The Link Between Intermittent Reinforcement and Addiction

Many victims feel stuck and unable to leave toxic relationships. Intermittent reinforcement is linked to the rewards circuits of the brain that are associated with addiction. The unpredictability of the abuse cycle is what causes one to become addicted to their partner. When pleasure is predicable in a relationship through “stable love” our brains get used to it and produces less dopamine over time with a consistently kind and non toxic partner. When there is chaos, manipulation and rejection from our partner, we produce more dopamine when we receive a ‘bread crumb’ causing us to become addicted to minor morsels of kindness or affection. Brain scans show that the abuse cycle in a toxic relationship is similar to that of someone who has a cocaine addiction.

Dopamine is a powerful motivator and tells us to continue to seek out the reward. It is central to the feeling of love and connection. Dopamine is more present when there are intermittent rewards which is why the abuse cycle is so hard to escape from. Our biology and brain have become addicted and will do anything to keep chasing the rewards, moments of attention, sex and affection in the face of deep pain and rejection.

The abuse cycle is very difficult to step away from as it can be hard to identify when one is living it. This is due to the fact that victims begin to ignore or second guess their gut instinct. It is often so subtle that they can sleepwalk into the seduction of abuser’s sporadic acts of kindness “Well he did buy me flowers last month” The victim will see these small acts as positive traits and sympathise with them and come up with excuses for their neglect such as attributing it to a troubled past or stress at work.

Victims often see the small act of kindness as evidence that their loved one can change, and they hold onto hope that one day the relationship will get better, as sometimes their partner ‘can be kind’. Many times victims have already invested years of love, time and energy into the relationship. The “honeymoon” moments only last for short periods before one is rushed once again into a cycle of pain, rejection, and self-doubt.

Kate is a trauma and embodiment specialist. She is a TRE & EFT Supervising Mentor and is on the Executive Board of EFT International (formerly AAMET) and is a Comprehensive Energy Psychology Practitioner, DipPsych, Master Hypnotist, Master Practitioner of NLP and Time Line Therapy (accredited by the ABNLP) and has been an intuitive body & energy worker for 30 years. While she works with any problem state she specialises in the sensitive areas of Post Traumatic Stress, emotional abuse, chronic pain and anxiety.

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