Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).
In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.
Abuse and Intermittent Reinforcement
There is almost always intermittent reinforcement at work in a relationship with a malignant narcissist or manipulator because abuse is usually mixed in with periodic affection at unpredictable moments. Intermittent reinforcement works precisely because our “rewards” (which could be anything from the fleeting normalcy of affection to a display of the abuser’s remorse) are given to us sporadically throughout the abuse cycle. This causes us to work harder to sustain the toxic relationship because we desperately want to go back to the “honeymoon phase” of the abuse cycle.
Intermittent reinforcement along with the effects of trauma ensure that we become “addicted” to the hope of reaping our “reward” despite evidence that we’re risking our own safety and well-being.
The instability of the abuser ironically drives their victims to become a source of constant stability to them.
This same phenomenon (albeit much more simplistically) is displayed in the behavior of gamblers at slot machines. Despite the low chance of winning, gamblers become “addicted” to investing their hard-earned money just for the chance of a pay-off.
It bears repeating that while this behavior may seem nonsensical on the surface, it’s because humans feel far less incentive to perform a certain behavior when they know it will always yield a reward. An inconsistent, unpredictable cycle of rewards, however, causes them to invest more in the hope for that ever elusive “win.”
Intermittent Reinforcement Literally Causes An Addiction to the Unpredictability of the Abuse Cycle
This effect even works on a biochemical level; when pleasurable moments are few and far in between, merged with cruelty, the reward circuits associated with a toxic relationship actually become strengthened. When pleasure is predictable, our reward circuits become accustomed to it and our brain actually releases less dopamine over time when with a consistently good partner. It could be argued that in many cases, rejection and chaos by a toxic partner creates an addiction that is far more long-lasting than the predictable quality of “stable” love.
“Most relevant to our story, activity in several of these brain regions has been correlated with the craving of cocaine addicts and other drugs. In short, as our brain scanning data show, these discarded lovers are still madly in love with and deeply attached to their rejecting partner. They are in physical and mental pain. Like a mouse on a treadmill, they are obsessively ruminating on what they’ve lost. And they are craving reunion with their rejecting beloved—addiction.” Dr. Helen Fisher, Love is Like Cocaine
Dopamine is a powerful “messenger” that tells us what feels pleasurable but also alerts us to what is important for survival; it is the same neurotransmitter that causes the brains of those in love (especially in adversity-ridden relationships) to resemble the brains of cocaine addicts (Smithstein 2010, Fisher, 2016). As Dr. Susan Carnell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, writes in her article, “Bad Boys, Bad Brains”:
“What’s more, if the reward always follows the conditioned cue, then the cue can also become less dopamine—inducing—what’s the point of wasting all that precious motivation potion telling you to pursue a reward when, likely as not, it/he will show up anyway? Dopamine actually flows much more readily when the rewards are intermittent, e.g. you don’t get to eat a cookie every time you see one; or when you see Edward he’s nice to you sometimes…but not always… their sheer unreliability sets off your dopamine neurons.”
The Small Kindness Perception and Why We Stay
We literally become “addicted” to the unpredictability of the abuse cycle (or even just a toxic relationship in general), as well as the severe highs and lows. What’s more, the abuser’s sporadic acts of kindness cause us to mistrust our own gut instincts about their true character and compel us to give more weight to their sob stories after abusive incidents or surprise displays of gentleness. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joe Carver calls this phenomenon “the small kindness perception.”
“When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor…Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation…Sympathy may develop toward the abuser and we often hear the victim of Stockholm Syndrome defending their abuser with ‘I know he fractured my jaw and ribs…but he’s troubled. He had a rough childhood!’ Losers and abusers may admit they need psychiatric help or acknowledge they are mentally disturbed, however, it’s almost always after they have already abused or intimidated the victim.” Dr. Joe Carver, Love and Stockholm Syndrome
As Dr. Joe Carver reminds us, abusers are able to use periodic affection or small acts of kindness to their advantage. By employing pity ploys or giving their victims some affection, a gift, or just the absence of their abuse from time to time, their positive behavior becomes amplified in the eyes of their victims.
Their victims hang onto the hope that these small acts of kindness are evidence of the abuser’s ability to change or at the very least, justification for their malicious behavior. However, Carver is clear that these are excuses and diversions, not signs of redemption. These intermittent periods of kindness rarely last. They are embedded in the abuse cycle as a way to further exploit abuse victims and to manipulate them into staying.
Severing the Trauma Bond
Whether the abuse is primarily physical or psychological, the power of intermittent reinforcement lies in the power of uncertainty. The abuse victim is thrown into self-doubt about the abuse because there are usually periodic moments of affection, apologies and faux remorse involved.
Abusers can deliberately harm you just to seemingly come to your rescue. They act as both the predator and the hero because it causes their victims to become dependent on them after horrific incidents of cruelty.
Intermittent reinforcement is used to strengthen the trauma bond – a bond created by the intense emotional experience of the victim fighting for survival and seeking validation from the abuser (Carnes, 2015).
Trauma bonds keep victims attached to their abusers through even the most horrendous acts of psychological or physical violence, because the victim is diminished, isolated and programmed to rely on the abuser for their sense of self-worth.
Victims are then conditioned to seek their abusers for comfort – a form of medicine that is simultaneously the source of the poison.
In order to sever the trauma bond, it is essential that the victim of abuse seek support and get space away from the abuser, whether that come in the form of No Contact or Low Contact in the cases of co-parenting.
The most powerful way to heal from the uncertainty created from intermittent reinforcement is to meet it with the certainty that you’re dealing with a manipulator.
Survivors can benefit from working with a trauma-informed professional to safely get in touch with their authentic anger and outrage at being abused, which will enable them to remain detached from their abuser and grounded in the reality of the abuse they’re experiencing. Learning to identify and “track” the pattern can help to disrupt the vicious cycle before it begins again.
Only when survivors allow themselves the complexity of their emotions towards the abusers can they fully recognize that their investment in their toxic partners has little to no positive return – it is, in fact, a gamble that is far too risky to take in the long run.