Intermittent Reinforcement (Why You Can't Leave The Relationship) - Teal Swan Articles - Teal Swan Jump to content

Intermittent Reinforcement (Why You Can't Leave The Relationship)


I want you to imagine that there is a laboratory and in the laboratory, there is a rat in a cage.  The scientists in the lab are studying behavior.  In one corner of the rat cage there is a little lever.  Every time the rat pushes on the lever, a pellet of food comes out.  Needless to say the rat is preoccupied with pushing the lever and getting the pellets that come out every time he pushes the lever.  So, the scientists wonder what will happen if they remove the pellets.  The rat pushes on the lever and eventually realizes it is not going to yield any pellets and so he looses interest with the lever and preoccupies himself with other things.  

What these experiments had in common is that there was a predictable pattern in terms of expectation.  This is called continuous reinforcement.  In the first experiment the pattern was, “I push the lever and I can expect a pellet to come out.”  In the second, the pattern was, “I push the lever and I can expect nothing to come out.”  So the scientists start to wonder what will happen if they make the pattern unpredictable.  What if sometimes (but unpredictably) when the rat pushes the lever, a pellet comes out and sometimes it doesn’t?  They imagined that the rat would become frustrated and eventually lose interest in the lever.  In fact the opposite happened.  In this experiment again and again, each rat became absolutely anxiously obsessed with the lever and neglected all of its other grooming habits and started deteriorating.  The rat was engaged in an intermittent reinforcement experiment.  And the intermittent reinforcement had created an addiction.  

Also, when the scientists first gave the rat intermittent reinforcement and then later gave them the continuous reinforcement of no pellets in response to them pressing the lever, the rat stayed obsessed with the lever, despite receiving nothing. The rat had grown accustomed to periods of time where no reinforcement was given.  The intermittent reinforcement had created persistence in the face of resistance. 

Intermittent reinforcement applies to much more than just rewards and wanted things.  For the sake of this episode, we’re going to assume that intermittent reinforcement applies to things you want that are only granted inconsistently, unpredictably and occasionally.  But conversely, intermittent reinforcement also applies to things like rules and personal boundaries that are only enforced inconsistently, unpredictably and occasionally.  This causes people to become confused and either become terrified about how to interact with the person setting the rule or boundary or conversely to push the limits until they get what they want from the person setting the rule or boundary. 

Intermittent reinforcement creates addiction.  Think about Gambling.  Gambling is an addiction that rests on the laurels of intermittent reinforcement.  If you are sitting at a slot machine, you may try to predict the pattern of reward, but you cannot.  It is randomized but the high that comes as a result of the experience of the random reward, creates obsession.  You become owned by the game. 



What we have to wake up to is that some of us are in relationships that are based on intermittent reinforcement.  In this kind of relationship, the things we need, like love, are only granted inconsistently, unpredictably and occasionally.  But the fact that they are granted occasionally, keeps us hooked.  We are owned by the relationship.  We build up so much despair and starvation that when we get a single scrap, the relief we experience by getting a scrap feels like nirvana and we begin to chase that feeling and do anything we can do to get it.  If you are in this kind of a relationship, you are either the scientist tormenting the rat with the potential of pellets or you are the rat in the cage caught in a cycle of torment.  No matter what, if you are in an intermittent reinforcement relationship, you are in an abusive relationship.  Abuse is usually not the conscious intent, but it is abuse nonetheless.  

Intermittent reinforcement can happen with any need or want we may have.  It is especially prevalent in relationships relative to emotional needs.  Needs like connection, belonging, appreciation, affection and commitment to name a few.  

Some people fear intimacy and struggle with insecure attachments, like avoidant attachment for example.  When this is the case, they subconsciously try to get away from the fear that comes up in the relationship by gaining control in the relationship.  They do this by intermittently reinforcing their partner.  They have no idea that they are in fact doing this.  They partner ends up at their mercy, desperate for the occasional closeness they grant.  An example of this is a man who spends a wonderful night with you and you talk and connect on a deep level one day and the next, he doesn’t return your phone calls and acts like you are strangers and pulls away.  Then, randomly is able to connect again, especially when he senses you pulling away.  The classic hot and cold relationship usually falls into this category.     



For some people however, intermittent reinforcement is much more intentional.  This is especially true for people who fall into what psychologists would label as a personality disorder such as borderline, narcissism or sociopathy for example.  They begin a relationship going for control deliberately from the get go.  They are often consciously aware that they are controlling someone in this way. On top of other emotional abuse tactics, like gas lighting, they give or withhold certain needs from their partner, granting them either randomly enough to develop an addiction in their partner or giving them in response to the exact behavior they want to see in their partner.  An example of this could be a woman who refuses to make love to her husband unless he cuts off the relationship with his family.  Or a man who beats his wife or emotionally abuses her, but whom occasionally says, “I’m sorry” and takes her on a wonderful date and buys her what she’s been wanting for months.  Keep in mind that intermittent reinforcement can be much more insidious and hard to recognize than these blatant examples.  

In these kinds of relationships, the person in control often intermittently reinforces their partner only to withdraw reinforcement completely.  For example, they occasionally give their partner closeness in the beginning, only to later deny them closeness completely.  Despite this complete withdrawal of reinforcement, the partner stays and persistently tries to get closeness because they have already grown accustomed to periods of starvation and have been trained that occasionally they do in fact get the closeness they want.  So they are hooked on the hope that they will.  They push harder than ever for the closeness that they occasionally got in the past that they may in fact never get again.   

Intermittent reinforcement creates a starvation within the being, which puts the person who is in charge of the reinforcing in a position of complete and absolute control.  You will always see intermittent reinforcement present in an abusive relationship.  And these relationships are the hardest to walk away from because by nature, it is not a relationship.  It is an addiction.  The relationship is an addictive relationship and by walking away, the body is actually forced to go into withdrawal.    The person who is on the opposite end of the reinforcement will stay in the relationship, deteriorating, desperately trying to figure out the pattern of the reinforcement so that they can control the conditions of the relationship so they can get the thing they need or want from the partner to come out consistently.  Mixing the analogies for example, “If I notice that I don’t get any pellets when this certain friend is around, then I will get rid of the friend so I can get the pellets from my partner.”  The person on the receiving end of intermittent reinforcement may change everything about themselves and lose themselves completely so as to do this.  

You’ve all known this person in your life.  They get into a relationship and they start to deteriorate and you rarely see them anymore and they adhere completely to the wishes of the partner in their life to the degree that they sometimes completely alter their personality, likes, dislikes and interests to mirror their partner.       

Here is another example of intermittent reinforcement.  Take a man with a wife who flies into a rage and makes him sleep in another room for days when he does not do exactly what she wanted him to do.  The man has to try anything to gain back her closeness.  Eventually, either randomly or if he finds the right thing to do, she may grant him the closeness that he wanted.  By doing this, she has trained him to behave in the way that she wants him to behave.  He is so relieved by her closeness because his starvation is satiated, he experiences the love for her as much more intense.  He thinks he must really, really love her simply because of the intensity of the relief of being close to her again.  Subsequently he will alter himself completely to avoid the potential punishment again and maintain the closeness he needs from her.  He will try to make the relationship as predictable as possible for himself for the sake of his own safety and for the sake of ensuring his own needs will be met.

What is on the other side of any addiction?  Something you are desperate to avoid.  You stay addicted and you can’t let go because letting go means falling back into what you are desperate to avoid… such as a feeling of being unsafe, isolation, lack of belonging, loneliness, emptiness.



If we put up with intermittent reinforcement as an adult in a relationship, it is because we experienced this pattern in our earliest relationships with the people we loved.  People like mom and dad for example.  And I will tip you off that you will always perpetually want and love the parent or person who did this with you.  

Let’s pretend the law of attraction doesn’t exist and that you could actually have consistent relationships in childhood and vibrationally line up with inconsistent relationships as an adult.  If you experienced complete consistency in your childhood relationships, especially relative to your emotional needs and you were to meet a person who practiced intermittent reinforcement, you would immediately grow irritated and walk away from the relationship.  If we grew up with intermittent reinforcement, we learn that this is what love should feel like.  We spend our lives lining up with inconsistently loving partners and trying to make them consistently loving, like we always wanted our parents to be.  Take a look at the people in your early life.  Did any of them meet your needs (especially emotional needs) only inconsistently, unpredictably and occasionally?


If you are in an intermittent reinforcement relationship, there is no middle ground.  Consistency is the only answer.  Either consistency needs to be developed or you need to cut loose from this relationship.  Consistency is critical for relationships.  You cannot create a secure relationship without it.  So, either you are with a partner who is willing to be conscious of this pattern and consciously change it with you OR you are with an abusive partner who has no intention to change this pattern.  They have no intention of changing this pattern because it serves them to stay in control and keep you as the rat in the cage with its paw obsessively on the lever so that they can ensure that their needs are met.  

If you are with this kind if partner, you have reason to be afraid.  You cannot trust them because they in fact intend either consciously or subconsciously to betray your best interests for their own aim; to control you completely.  This desire to control you also has its roots in trauma.  But before you fall into the codependent pattern of thinking you can heal them, it must be known that it is highly unlikely that anyone, least of all you, will be able to do this.  You will be unable to do this because controlling you benefits them.  Controlling you is how they avoid their own shadows.  And the only person who can decide to face their own shadows is them.  And one step further, most of these people will tell you they are going to face their own shadows because telling you that is more intermittent reinforcement.  They have no actual intention of facing their own shadows, it’s just that promising they will and making it seem like they are, is like a rat pellet.  It serves to keep you hooked.  If you are in this kind of relationship, the time has come to realize that you have been investing in your belief in something you hope will happen and not in your observation of what has actually happened.  Nourishing the hope preserves the status quo and you are in a relationship with a fantasy.  This is not conscious creation.  This is in fact a form of denial.  

Remember how I said earlier that intermittent reinforcement also involves boundaries being kept consistently?  This is the role the person who is on the receiving end of intermittent reward reinforcement has to play.  You betray your own boundaries and inconsistently keep them so as to guarantee that you can consistently get the reward you want from the other person.  Your own boundaries have become like bargaining chips or coins at a casino.  You’re willing to give them up to get what you want.  This relationship is transactional.  And if you look deeper, it is a relationship based on control.  If you are on this side of the intermittent reinforcement relationship, they try to gain control by giving you what you need either randomly or in response to behaviors they want to see.  You try to control and get what you want them to give you by giving up your own boundaries.  It’s a control dynamic on both sides.  So, you have to get clear about your boundaries and then be VERY consistent about them.  To understand more about boundaries, watch my video titled: How To Develop Healthy Boundaries.  



To reiterate, if you are with a partner who is genuinely willing to create consistency with you so as to create a secure relationship (and who isn’t just saying that in a way where saying that is the intermittent reinforcement), you need to do the following…

  1. They need to be consistent in their granting of your needs, such as closeness and affection and communication.  They need to decide to respond in certain ways even when they don’t FEEL like it (such as come close when they feel like pulling away).  And they need to consciously work directly on the emotions that are opposing the response (such as why do I feel like pulling way when I know that for the sake of the relationship I need to come close).
  2. You need to be consistent with your boundaries.  Do not give up your sense of self.  Don’t give up your interests, likes and dislikes and values no matter what pressure your partner puts on you.  When you say no, it means no, so do not give in.  Never make threats in the relationship unless you are 100% willing to follow through.  Never make promises unless you are 100% willing to keep them.  Stop nagging or begging your partner.  If they are not giving you what you need even after you have told them what you need, go get it elsewhere.  Decide exactly how much you are willing to put into the relationship before walking away.  Be as consistent with your true self as you possibly can so there is no room for manipulation from the other person.  



If you are able to be honest with yourself that you are with a partner who has no genuine intention of stopping the intermittent reinforcement pattern, you get to decide whether you want a life with them that will be the way it is right now for as long as you are together.  Or whether that is too painful and has cost you too much and so you are going to get up and walk away from the relationship.  Beware that when you do this with an intermittent reinforcement partner, they will magically transform into the person you always wanted them to be…  But it is an illusion.  The illusion of their change itself is the intermittent reinforcement.  It’s the rat pellet.  It will last for exactly as long as it takes for you to become committed to the relationship again.  

It will be extremely difficult to move past this relationship because it is not a relationship.  It is an addiction.  You will go through withdrawals from the chemicals that your own body produces and fall into the very thing you are trying to avoid by engaging in the relationship, just like a street drug addict when they choose to quit using.  So don’t be hard on yourself if it feels like you’ve lost yourself in the relationship and like your life falls apart by leaving them.  Surround yourself with supportive people who are open to understanding the difficult dynamic of addictive relationships and whom don’t unfairly expect you to ‘just get over them’ as if you can flip a switch. 

When you manage to break free from this kind of relationship, you will feel like you have come out of a parallel reality, just like an addict feels when they finally become sober.  You will be able to think clearly.  You will begin to feel yourself coming back from being lost, like you’ve found yourself gain.  It is my promise that eventually it will be worth it.  If you need help with a break up, you can watch my video on YouTube titled: How To Survive a Break Up and/or Heartbreak.  

Intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful motivator and manipulation tactic on the planet.  It keeps you hooked in bad relationships.  So often, it is why we can’t create stability and emotional security in a relationship or why we can’t leave a relationship that we genuinely need to end.  The perpetual tension involved in this kind of relationship is a direct threat to your wellbeing.  So if you are in this kind of relationship, the time has come to recognize the dynamic that is occurring and to change it.


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