Intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful motivators to exist today. It is the act of a reinforcement being provided on a random schedule. Let’s think of gambling. When you start losing, the fear that you may lose all your money starts to arise. But, the minute you win the jackpot or start to see all 7’s, lights light up, music play, and chips/quarters come your way, you become completely elated and relieved. This causes your brain to light up and release a burst of dopamine which results in you wanting to play more. This chemical reaction often results in addiction.
Now, let’s correlate this to relationships. Intermittent reinforcement relationships are one of the most toxic and manipulating situations an individual can be involved in without even knowing it. Sometimes, people may find themselves in these emotionally draining situations, yet still call it a “love”. Let’s take it back to a past research experiment with the rat and scientist in which the scientist decides to deliver a morsel EVERY time the rat presses a lever, hence, continuous reinforcement. The rat knows every time it presses the lever, it receives the morsel. Following this experiment, the scientist thought “Hm, I wonder how the rat will respond if I deliver the reinforcement on a random schedule.” So the rat presses the lever, and the scientist decides to only deliver the morsel SOMETIMES. He believed the rat would get tired and frustrated with the inconsistency and thus, quit trying. However, the rat actually became utterly and completely anxious, and pressed the lever obsessively until he received the morsel. The rat never quit and became addicted to this inconsistent schedule.
In an intermittent reinforcement relationship, let’s look at person A of the relationship as the scientist and person B as the rat. At the beginning of the relationship, Person A may have provided reinforcing behavior on a consistent level. In other words, he/she met Person B’s emotional needs (e.g., love, commitment, respect) on a consistent level. However, in due time, Person A then starts to feel like they are in a vulnerable state or may feel they are losing control in the relationship, and thus, starts to meet person B’s needs on a very inconsistent level in order to gain control. One month they are committed, the next month they’re not. One day they are honest and loving, the next day they are not. Person B begins to feel confused, anxious, fearful, stressed, and completely manipulated for the entire relationship. Whether it is commitment, love, affection, etc., Person A delivers these needs on such a random and inconsistent schedule resulting in complete manipulation. Therefore, when person B FINALLY receives the love they’ve been asking for (usually after walking away or being in a fearful state of losing their partner), the intensity of the elation and relief is extremely high, to the point where they actually confuse this intense feeling with unconditional love. Then, the cycle starts over and repeats.
One may wonder, why does Person B remain in such a manipulating situation where the love and commitment is delivered on such an inconsistent level? Like stated before, they may confuse this addiction to actual love being that the feeling is so intense. Another may wonder, what are Person A’s motives? Person A, the scientist if you will, is usually the narcissist of the relationship or simply a withdrawn individual. They usually fear closeness and intimacy, which is why they pull away whenever their partner gets too close. Then, when Person A senses their partner giving up or moving on, they deliver the reinforcement (love, commitment, intimacy, etc.) in order to reel them back in. They act like a completely different and amazing person in order to win their partner back, only to switch up in due time. Sometimes this is done intentionally, and sometimes it is done on a highly subconscious level. Most of the time, they have no idea what they are doing and they see nothing wrong with their inconsistency. Person B may then act in irrational ways due to the anxiety and feeling of being hooked, if you will. Person B starts threatening and may also start acting in manipulating manners due to the chemical imbalance and consistent stress. Therefore, person A may often blame Person B’s actions for why they cannot provide consistency. It is almost like a toxic chain reaction/cycle that is performed on either a conscious or subconscious level from both parties.
This cycle is typically a result of psychological wounds or fears that run deep or shallow in both individuals. Nobody is necessarily “toxic”, it is more so a vibrationally misaligned or karmic relationship. In order to turn the relationship around or to progress in a healthy and harmonious relationship with someone else, it is essential to find the root of the cause of these issues in order to promote healing.