A partner spends the weekend criticising you, then brings home flowers after work on Monday. Or they ignore you all week, only to compliment your actions on Friday. These are some of the confusing and exhausting techniques used by narcissists to control and manipulate partners. Over time this can keep the victim bonded to the perpetrator and addicted to a painful and toxic narcissistic relationships.
This ‘hot and cold relationship style’ is the powerful technique called intermittent reinforcement. The term goes back to a concept coined by psychologist B.F Skinner (1956).
Skinner conducted research using rats who were rewarded with food pellets when they pushed a lever. At first, the experiment was designed so the rats would receive a food pellet each time they pushed the lever. The rats would, as expected, push the lever frequently to get the food.
When the pellets were removed, the rats would eventually recognise that no food was coming and would stop pushing the lever. However, in the final experiment, the rewards were sporadic and unpredictable. Sometimes there would be food, sometimes there would be nothing.
When this happened, the rats became even more focused on pressing the lever, even to the point of neglecting their other wellbeing needs. They knew they’d have to press the lever many times without getting anything if they wanted the reward. So, they pushed it even more often – far more than when they were rewarded each time.
The conclusion of the study was that when rewards come easily, we work less hard for them. When you work for a reward (such as pressing a lever repeatedly), this feels more gratifying and you’re willing to struggle to get it as the relief is immense.
This same pattern of desperate reward often happens in toxic relationships. If you occasionally get rewarded with kindness, you’ll be more willing to put up with negative acts for longer and you’ll be so relived that the pain is over that you appreciate the ‘rewards’ even more.
If you are in such a relationship, you’ll want to go back to the “good times” (often love bombing at the beginning) so badly that you stay. Despite the abuse, neglect, and pain that occurs the most of the time.
How Intermittent Reinforcement Makes the Abuse Cycle Difficult to Leave
When your partner is cruel to you, you naturally want things to return to how things were when they were “good.” If they were always mean to you, you wouldn’t ever be happy. You would likely want to end the relationship. However, when the bouts of anger and insults are interrupted by flowers, jewellery, and positive comments, they feel like such a relief. You’ll do almost anything to bring those happy moments back. That means you’ll stay in the relationship despite the fact that it’s emotionally abusive and causing immense emotional pain.
You might not even realise that you’re in a toxic relationship.
You might just think of these moments as “fights” and long to go back to the “honeymoon phase” where everything was good. This is because your brain wants the “reward” that might be coming.
Our brains actually become addicted to chasing the rewards. It’s a similar feeling to being at a casino. Your chances of winning are quite low, but you feel so good when you actually win big that you keep playing – and losing – in search of this feeling.
In fact, brain scans show that those who are in an abuse cycle in a toxic relationship are similar to those who have cocaine addictions.
Intermittent Reinforcement and Addiction Are Linked
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a role in the brain’s reward system, helping us feel pleasure. It is more present when we receive intermittent rewards. This leaves us in a spot where we become addicted to these rewards and the feelings we get when we receive them. We keep chasing this “high” even when we face pain and rejection the rest of the time.
People tend to try and excuse bad behavior when there are sporadic acts of kindness as well. If your partner buys you flowers or takes you out to a nice dinner, you might tell yourself that they were mean or cruel last week because of they were stressed out from work, or tired, or they had a rough childhood, or any number of other excuses. This allows the behavior to continue.
Many people might even see the positive acts as evidence that the partner can be kind and caring. They use this as hope that one day things will get better or the person will change. Unfortunately, these positive moments tend to only last a short time before they’re once again replaced by cruelty and pain.
Often the first step forward is acknowledgement that this is happening. It can be difficult to see the cycle when you are ‘in it’. If you feel that this might be happening to you, it is possible to step out of the cycle with help and support at the Narcissistic Abuse Recovery Centre.
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