By | June 27, 2013 16 Comments

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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Linda, This new article is so very helpful to me for right now. Everyone is fascinated by Skinnerian conditioning and you have done a great job of explaining how it works and how abusers use it against their victims. It is SO hard to break free of it. But, your advice here is perfect.

I have been trying to practice “consequences” in the moment, or what David Axelrod calls “TIT-FOR-TAT” with a spath currently in my life for reasons other than a love relationship.

It worked, but I had to work on MYSELF and my “withdrawal” reactions for a while. I had to choose to be alone most of the time and find things I wanted to do instead of seeking compassion or care from him. I got very lonely. I got very angry. He was right next door and could ignore me all day or night. I cried about it and I read about it. I called a friend. I let myself get engrossed in a good movie. I joined and began to get personal reinforcement from the articles and the members.

After repeated attempts, and a few months of discomfort and pain, I pushed through the loneliness. I learned how to detach from him even when I was around him. I began to give HIM consequences for abusive behaviors or words. I did it differently this time. I didn’t explicitly TELL him. I said very little. It was more about pretending not to notice when he was manipulating me sometimes. Other times, it was saying, “That sounds like a childish manipulation to me.” I also made it clear, in a different way than in the past, that his words and actions would create his own negative consequences and I would not intervene to “save” him anymore.

He was shocked into silence for a very long time. AND I HAD BUILD MY OWN SELF ESTEEM UP AND ENDURE INTENSE FEELINGS OF LOSS. However, now he is seeking to receive my approval for better behavior. He will never be the love he made himself out to be. But, he is around for a reason that works for me. It also works for him….but now within reason.

This article will help everyone who reads it. Thank you!


This is to help a new person here today who asked about how the sociopath works us.

lost everything

Linda, Very thought provoking article. Your word ‘conditioning’ was the one singular word I needed to provoke an epiphany.

I never thought of it terms of conditioning. When I mentioned divorce, he countered with kidnap.

It also brought up thoughts of what makes us targets. I always fought this point. Your article it made me realize that I ‘conditioned’ him as well, all be it unconsciously by just being me.

I grew up very trusting and my parents never asked me for any type of ‘proof’. My parents never made promises that they didn’t keep. It was drilled into me in school, ‘always tell the truth’. I lived my life the same way. I could never conceive of anyone deliberately lying to me, fibbing yes. From my point of view, there is a major difference; where you bought a dress vs. where you work.

From the beginning, I never asked for any proof about anything the latespath said or did. Why would I; I knew him since he was 8, what reason would he have to lie. In describing me in his escorting life he says ‘she is uninquisitive’. That was devastating to me; true, but very hurtful. It made me see that I was a doormat, I can only wonder for how many decades he saw me like that. I am not saying that eventually I did not ask questions. Those occasions were countered with ‘proof’, yes he forged ID cards, sent forged mail, and used an answering service. His other response was to be physically abusive; destroyed left knee, many facial procedures.

Unfortunately for me, it was not until I realized that I saw no future with him that I got the courage up to start asking questions.

As far as the cycle – charm, hurt, charm,… .The latespath never did that with me. He never ‘love bombed’ me, not even in college. I doubt that would have worked, it would have made my skin crawl.

I have no idea how he acted with EscortM. I can only say for sure that the day after she posted her hurt feelings on line, there was a $1257.15 charge to Louis Vuitton. It was a lot easier for him to spend my mother’s money to calm her down, than to have to emulate feelings, after all the ‘gifts’ cost him nothing. Of course 2 days later there was a charge to a boutique hotel in NYC for $838.24; have no idea who that room was for; certainly not him or EscortM.

For a successful spath, they really don’t have to work too hard at conditioning us, rather use our pre-them conditioning to make us vulnerable.


Lost: I want you to know I am thinking of you right now. This post made me cry…for you and for myself.

The ex-boyfriend spath has always thought the same thing about my sexuality. Uniquisitive is another way of saying he had to pay to get people to do what you wouldn’t. So did mine. Except not to the extend or high end yours did. I didn’t have any money for him to steal and he didn’t have enough money to pay for the pretense of class.

It is devastating. I was lucky in that I had a very good sex life with my second husband and neither of us needed to be super inquisitive because we both were capable of deep feelings to a need to please each other through love.

When I found out the spath really had cheated on me, I was devastated and made to feel “not good enough” again. I was immediately repulsed by him and knew I would never have sex with him again. Strangely, though, it affected my self esteem so much, I ended up calling my first husband and telling him. He has sociopath behaviors (or did when we were married) that included outrageous lies that made him seem like a hero, saying he was a Navy Seal during a war when he wasn’t, and he was an abusive alcoholic. But, I don’t think anyone has been as high up on the scale of sociopath as the one I try to deal with now as a renter and sometimes TV watching companion. My first husband assured me and I believed him. We had loved each other also. Spaths don’t even know love. They only know sex. And while love is deep, sex is really shallow, so they can’t get satisfied until they move more and more into deviance. That’s how I see the spath who looks up transvestite porn, likes a certain kind of sex that can damage someone’s health, etc. And the vicious physical abuse you are describing is so high up on the scale of abuse as well. Most physical abusers take great care to hit on the back, the head under the hair…places where the bruises won’t show. To have attacked your face meant he was so far gone mentally, he didn’t care if it showed and the world could see. I am so glad you made it out alive…and he didn’t.

My first fiancee kidnapped me. I had broken up with him and had another date. I was young and dumb and told him when he called me. He had no heater in his car, it was the dead of winter, and he brought a blanket! He drove for two hours to some well known club which I guess he thought would be a date. I had to convince him to let me call my parents to let them (and the date I was standing up) that I was safe. CRAZY! He was abusive and for some reason, I was able to do better with getting out faster than I did after him. Probably because he was my first real relationship and my father told me that since I had had sex with him, no other man would want me. My mom told him to shut up, but the damage was done to someone whose self esteem had been plummeting for 8 years living amongst evil people.

I think your suggestion that WE are pre-conditioned before they condition us to suit themselves is a very possible reality. I know that my own father saying such a cruel, ugly, and untrue thing about me made it much easier for the next one to step in a lower my self esteem even more.

I had a very rough day today as the spath is weaning off of post surgery pain pills. I am doing everything I can to keep my self esteem up and stay away from him, but he has been verbally abusive. I just left him a message reminding him that things are different around here. He is expecting me to go get his groceries and more importantly (to him), his cigarettes and coffee, on Monday. I told him I am expecting an apology on my voice mail when I wake up Sunday. It’s going to be tough to keep sticking up for myself. I just want my rent money and to be treated with respect when I am dumb enough to be in his presence. Since he has his foot fetish and trannies online, I have hoped he would just stop being mean to me. Maybe after the drugs are out of his system. If not, I will have to drop him off at his next doctor’s appt and leave him there. He doesn’t have a key to his own place. I have prepared to dump him somewhere at any moment if I have to. It’s a sad life just to keep my house. I let him charm his way in and now I feel that people are lucky when theirs dies! That is also sad. I guess I’m just very sad tonight.

I hope as you continue to share here, we will all continue to be informed about what the cockroaches do when the lights are out, and that our recovery can continue. I’m sorry so many bad things happened to you, lost.

lost everything

Lovefraud has shown me a lot. At times too much for me to get my head around. So many very different stories are my single story. Very smart person; very evil, cunning, perniciously behaving spath. There was a story in the NY papers about a guy killing his girlfriend last year and yesterday a new story surfaced about the murder. ( The headlines all stories emphasize ‘Ivy League lawyer’, I don’t understand why people believe that highly educated people can’t be bad. A gal died that’s the story, not how intelligent her murderer is.

I wish that I was more computer/internet literate way back. I didn’t really learn until 2009, when I was forced into the lawsuit against the brokerage. My son was the one who found the ‘strange word’ written on a piece of paper and typed it into the computer, only to discover it was the latespath’s screen name. I would never had thought about doing that.

Actually it was my therapist that suggested I find a Spath/Ppath forum when I showed him the responses I was getting on the divorce board.

The inconspicuous hitting was how it began; the back of my left knee was the target. As I always wore slacks/jeans or midi length skirts the bruises never wouldn’t show nor did I have to dress any different. If I walked a bit ‘funny’, no questions would be asked. Like everything else, the latespath just capitalized on something that already existed. My left knee was banged up for years as I had taken a bad trip on the ice and landed full weight on that knee. The knee would swelled up, water on the knee, drain, but it never completely healed. It had gotten worse with with the lifting and moving I did with my mother. To the latespath, it was an ‘pre-conditioned’ attackable spot.

When my mom lost her vision, then my face was no longer off limits. I was in a car accident, way back, and had dental problem from then on. Again an already damaged area. He also knew that I had mastered the art of make up cover up from that. My mother couldn’t see to ask questions so the face was as safe as any place else. Long story short, I ended up having to have all my teeth pulled, even the implants that were put in after the car accident. Dentures were fine, until he broke and flushed them. He threw a computer part at me and it hit the face, needed realignment procedure.

Then one day the physical stuff just stopped.

Again he went for pre-injured, weak spots. Just as he exploited what parts of my character he knew he would have the most success at with minimal effort. The latespath had fantastic powers of observation; the most damage with the least amount of work.

I assume that your spath eats what he asks you to shop for. If so be thankful, at least he is not wasting food. This is really, really sick. The latespath ‘asked’ me to make him lunch, so he wouldn’t have to spend money to buy it. Small price to pay for peace. Well, a few months after he died, and I was still on my hunt for papers, I started taking the garage apart. My father was a saver, so there was plenty of stuff to move, as well as plenty of places to hide things. Lo and behold, in a corner were 3 black plastic lawn and leaf bags. They were filled with the sandwiches he asked me to make him, still wrapped in plastic wrap. To prevent smell, he had poured bottles of scented liquid cleaner over the sandwiches and then doubled bagged and sealed the whole mess. I wasn’t completely shocked, as my son already had found a relatively empty bag in the same condition in a corner of the basement. What did shock me was the amount of wasted food. I have no idea why he didn’t throw the sandwiches away on a daily basis; why save them.

The latespath got me to marry him over a ‘secret’ picture he took. When I described the photo (no blouse, bra only), my son burst out laughing, saying that girls in high school text worse. The 70s were a different time. My parents would have been appalled; I am sure he would have put a very believable spin on how the picture came to be, not the truth. Again pre-existing conditioning.

I do understand what you and everyone else are going through ‘living’ with the spath; be it because of children, safety, finances, love. At least everyone here knows that something is wrong. It was my life on and off, for 22 years, no marriage, but he would not let go.

I love the comic pages, there is so much to ponder. Tom Wilson creator of “Ziggy” , June 5, 2013 was very profound “In the highway of life, I keep getting stuck in cul-de-sacs!”.

Thank you for your thoughts.


Lovefraud can be very educational and helpful, especially when people can connect here and feel cared for and understood in an unconditional way or with the highest positive regard.

That sandwich thing is so weird. I have to say that your stories about your spath are the most devastating of all I have seen here. I am glad you are alive and here as yours truly had about every evil and deviant practice there is.

Mine is a food addict, so he will eat all of his food and spend the rest of his money and run out of food. That is when he turns to cans of vegetable that he doesn’t want to eat unless he has to. He is on the attack today and threatening a very upsetting emotional blackmail if I don’t us MY money and go buy him cigarettes and coffee now. He doesn’t have money on his debit card until 5:00 am and this is the first time I have refused to supplement. He is out of two of his addictions and I have been the mommy B%#%# savior for a long, long time. If he follows through, he will cause me an almost unbearable anguish, but I can’t keep letting him do this to me. It will be a long night for me.

So, thank you for sharing your emotional blackmail story with me. It will help give me some strength because if I give in to this blackmail, it will never end. And, if he follows through, my whole life will be in upheaval.

Linda – thank you so much for this article. You raise very important points about how people get hooked by sociopaths.


Thank you Linda.. excellent article!! Explains many things… very enlightening..


My son asked me why I stayed so long if he was so terrible. This explains it much better than I did. Thank you.


Hi Delores:

I think this article can help a lot of victims work towards removing any self blame (as well as the confusion of witnesses) and personal confusion about the love/hate/love/survival game in a situations with a sociopath. It helped me a great deal.


I am so glad I am not in a relationship cause I know it would be with the same abusive type. Tomorrow, July 4, is the 3-year anniversary since I broke up with him. I know I would end up with the same abuser-type because the damage he did still lives with me.

He would be so mean to me and then toss me some crumbs to make it all nice. He never did love bomb me. He was after his creature comforts from the beginning. He got my computer after the first date. and on it went!

I would rather be alone than live for a few crumbs.
The money I pay to hire help to fix my house is a bargain compared to the money he got out of me, paying him money while my house was falling apart. I now pay for hired help, and not pay for a boyfriend to fix it. And when the job is done they go their way and I go my way. I don’t owe anything, and don’t have to answer to him.

Why did I end up in that situation? It is really lame really. I was fine on my own. I was learning how to do-it-yourself with house stuff. I was getting tired though. My hyper active son was a constant drain on energy. My girlfriend began to pressure me to join dating site. I think it was one of those religious dating sites that cost money. I wasn’t interested. I was still in love with my ex-boyfriend Chuck. My girlfriend was relentless with pressure to get me out and dating on the dating site. So what I did was sign up with a free dating site. Once I got on it .. it became a mission! Addicting. Like trying to get a job in a bad economy. Gotta consider every possible job!/or in this case a man. I was not about to give up! And who did I get out of it? but Him

I never would have given Him the time of day months before, but after my work of searching on dating site I caught one, and was determined to make it work. Isn’t this crazy?

It cost me loads of money (that he conned out of me) ,and years of grief. I managed to hook-up with a guy who wanted a woman to be committed to him, while he acts like a bachelor with temper tantrums, and takes her money.



What a cool and strong post to read in the middle of the night! Thank you for sharing. If you can’t pick ’em, don’t join ’em! LOL. I have lived most of my life alone and like you. I will be there again another time. I like your attitude! My sister joined the dating sites. That’s how she found her second ex-husband. A lot of these guys just make the rounds on these sites…counting notches and breaking hearts and banks. I can imagine getting on one for a joke, or if a friend dared me, or whatever. And I can imagine getting addicted to looking and feeling “special” when one of the con men sent me a note. Thanks for the warning. Probably 90% of the people on there aren’t who they say they are.


Very good article.


I started to wonder if there was some form of “addiction” going on. Every now and then he would throw me a few love crumbs and that would give me hope (false hope of course).

When I finally broke free of the liar/cheater/pervert/narc….I felt like a heroin addict going through withdrawal. I was vomiting, shaking, sweating, couldn’t sleep….and I had chronic diarrhea for several weeks. I couldn’t eat….I lost 40 lbs. in less than 2 months. After it was over…..the roller coaster of emotions started. That went on for the better part of the year. Finally, like a fever that broke……I started feeling “normal” again. It was a terrible experience- physically and emotionally. But it was worth the suffering to get rid of the monster I thought I loved.


Breaking free is worth it.


This is very helpful.

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