Intermittent reinforcement: conditioning helps explain why we stay with abusive individuals

An overview of conditioning from a behavior specialist’s perspective

I will not get too specific regarding behavior reinforcement schedules, but I will ask you to follow me through a brief overview of some of the basics.  While I cannot do the explanation justice in a few paragraphs, I can present enough background to facilitate an understanding of why this matters to us.

When studying behavior analysis, most programs, at least at some point, look to the work of B.F. Skinner, the 20th century developer of operant conditioning.  Very simply, operant conditioning subscribes to the belief that learning is modified by consequences.  The learner is motivated by reinforcement and punishment alike.

If a behavior is being reinforced, it will occur with increased frequency.  This reinforcement can be either positive or negative.  In other words, there can be either a reward given (positive) or an adverse stimulus presented (negative.)  Either way, the result is the same; the desired behavior increases.

Conversely, if a behavior is being punished, it will occur with lesser frequency.  This, too, can be either positive or negative.  In these instances, the definition of punishment is not conventional.  Rather, punishment has to do with a reaction or consequence, brought about by adding an unpleasant stimulus (positive) or subtracting a pleasant one (negative.)

If we are rewarded for exhibiting a given behavior, we learn that there is a pay-off, or reinforcement for exhibiting such behavior.  If we are reinforced each time we display the specific behavior, this is called continuous reinforcement.  It becomes predictable and can thus be easily extinguished.  All that has to occur is for the pay-off to cease.  In other words, there is no mystery.  The schedule is straightforward.  If we do not get what we want, we have no reason to keep doing it.

However, there are varying ratios of reinforcement which operate intermittently.  With intermittent reinforcement, some, but not all behaviors are reinforced and the timing and frequency of the  reinforcements vary.  Those on the receiving end are not sure what comes next.  We are kept guessing.  Only those doling out the reinforcements know what will be delivered.  We tend to comply, awaiting the pay-off.  It’s part of the reason people play slot machines.  A pay-off will eventually come.  No one can be sure exactly when or how beneficial it will be.

Teachers, for example, use this every day in classrooms around the world.  Conditioning plays a very important role in classroom management, especially among students with behavior concerns.  It is not practical to assume that students should be continually reinforced or punished.  It would be exhausting, send the wrong message, and eventually become ineffective.  Instead, when properly employed, students learn to follow expectations, knowing that various rewards or punishments exist and are utilized from time to time.  Although this theory is much more complex than my explanation illustrates, I will leave you with the very basics for now and move toward how this affects us in abusive relationships.

What makes us stay?

Have you ever asked what it was that kept you in your abusive relationship?  Lately, there has been a lot of discussion regarding the addictive qualities of abusive “love.”  There almost always tends to be a familiar cycle of behavior and treatment towards us on the part of the abusive individual.  It tends to go something like this; horrible, horrible, wonderful, mean, mean, horrible, wonderful, horrible, mean, wonderful, wonderful, horrible.


They hope so.  This is an abuser’s “practical application” of an intermittent reinforcement schedule.  It is the stuff that disordered relationships are made of.  Simply put; you never know what it is you are going to get.  As a result, we tend to continue returning for more.  They make certain that we are unable to predict what’s in store.  Even if our behavior is consistent, theirs will certainly change.  Our brains resist extinction as a direct result of their bizarre reinforcement schedules.  If they were always horrible, we would not stick around.  We hold fast, knowing that eventually, “Dr. Jekyll” will return.  Mistakenly, we hope that our efforts have the potential to maintain his presence.  Inevitably, however, Mr. Hyde reappears.

Why we cannot cut ties

While caught in the abuse cycle, we tend to believe that things could improve.  Sometimes, we feel as though we have been left without viable options and stay in spite of wanting out.  However, very often, we want to work through the relationship, feel invested, and truly love the person we are trying so desperately to understand.

We do not realize that there is a very real force at play, taking control over us.  Intermittent reinforcement.  They may act or respond in ways we tend not to expect.  We may be moody, they act lovingly.  We may show affection, they show disdain.  We are angry, they are angrier.  Frequently, their behaviors seem strange and out of context, which causes further upset.  We are left guessing, never knowing what we are going to get when they walk in the door or call.  When it’s good it’s great.  When it’s bad, it’s ugly.  Unable to make heads or tails of matters, we become addicted to the roller coaster.

Are our reactions strange?

Our reactions are quite normal.  Behaviorists know that more regular reinforcement schedules do not yield results for extended periods of time.  For example, if every third interaction with a disordered individual, we knew we would experience the wrath, we would be more likely to avoid the third interaction or cut ties all together.  Likewise, if every time we acted in one particular way, the same response occurred, we would also tire of their dysfunction.  We would then have expectations based on concrete information.

However, for our purposes, with the intermittent schedule, it appears that there is no rhyme or reason.  (When applied by a behavior specialist, the ratios are quite specific.)  If something “works,” we may repeat it with completely different results.  Mayhem.  Our minds become clouded.  Our thoughts become messy.  We come to believe that if only we had done xyz, everything would have been right in the relationship.  That is simply not the case.

Abusive individuals make excuses, point fingers, and seem to enjoy the discomfort this brings.  It may seem unbelievable, but it is how it works.  We are left guessing, feeling confused, and believing we are responsible for all of the problems related to the situation.  After all, if they were the “bad guys,” they would not ever be nice.  Right?  Wrong.  It’s part of the manipulative puzzle.

What to do?

By the time we understand what is happening, the chances are good that some damage has already been done.  That being said, we can promise ourselves not to let the issues progress further.  We must not engage to the point where we become further wrapped in their dysfunction.  When the odd behaviors and inappropriate reactions strike, we must talk ourselves through the process of not reacting.  We must believe that their oddities are not our faults.   

Breaking free feels horrible

At first, “freedom” brings its share of challenges.  Remember, we have addictions to recover from.  No one would expect a heavy drug user to go cold turkey without withdrawal symptoms.  This is the same thing.  Unlike substance abusers, however, we tend not to have “rehab” available.  To make matters worse, most do not realize just how damaging our experiences are and tend to suggest that we just “move on” or “get over it.”  Support may be very limited.

Try not to attempt to convince the doubters.  Rather, seek solace in those who do understand.  Feel the pain the situation brings and remain contact free, or at least emotionally disconnected from the abuser.

It is so worth it 

Like other addictions, falling off the wagon can bring serious consequences.  That being said, all is never lost.  Keep going, until the “drug” is no longer necessary to your system’s survival.  The end result is health.

Once successful, we do not ever have to deal with that albatross again.  Even if we must interact from time to time, we never have to allow them that type of hold over us again.  We understand and can reward ourselves with pay-offs that are functional.  The first rewards will come in the form of peace, once we are no longer governed by their intermittent reinforcement schedules.  We can continually reinforce ourselves with the positive.  Please know that every day will not always feel positive.  But, every bit of forward movement is a start.


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This is very helpful.

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