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Don’t Be Fooled: Intermittent Reinforcement and Protecting Ourselves From Emotional Abuse

Recently, my friend’s teenage daughter, Angie, began dating a psychopath, and everyone thought he was the greatest guy in the world.

Their relationship didn’t follow the usual patterns. In the beginning, there were no red flags. Instead of pushing for something serious right away, he was very slow in asking her out. They talked after class for months before he even tried.

Because he appeared so respectful of her boundaries, she finally agreed to get together, and he seemed really excited, being open to what she wanted to do, rather than controlling the plans.

He seemed amazing and appeared highly creative, artsy, and funny. He could even carry on a conversation without ever checking his phone!

He was different from other boys his age – sensitive, and such a good listener, paying careful attention to the quirky details of Angie’s personality. She couldn’t believe her good luck!

And, their first date couldn’t have been more perfect. He and Angie had gone to a thrift shop together, taken a walk around the neighborhood, and then gone out for Thai food. The whole time had been spent in animated conversation, and they’d discovered they had even more in common than she’d originally thought.

Angie was over the moon. He had suggested all kinds of creative project ideas for their future time together, and how he couldn’t wait to see her again.

And then, she didn’t hear from him.

After a couple of days had passed, Angie got in touch and asked about getting together for the exercise routine he’d been so enthused about. They made plans for the next day, and he then failed to follow through, canceling at the last moment, and promising to try again the day after.

She didn’t hear from him until much later that day, when he delayed once again, then canceled, saying that his parents suddenly wouldn’t allow him out.

Angie started doubting herself. Had she imagined that this guy actually liked her? Being a teenager, she hadn’t had much experience with boys, but it seemed like he’d been really into her. So why then wasn’t he calling?

A few days later, he walked a significant distance to her house in the rain, and they again had a wonderful time. It felt like a do-over, and Angie was right back into feeling elated and hopeful.

But the hot and cold routine repeated over the next week. Angie began to feel unbalanced: she was either excited or crying because she had no idea if the guy would ever call again.

According to Elinor Greenberg, an internationally renowned therapist and author who posts extensively on Quora, there are usually specific patterns which emerge at the beginning of a relationship which she calls “speed bumps,” signals that a person getting involved should slow down and pay attention to the other person’s personality style, because something about his or her way of interacting might be harmful.

These can include the following:

  • If something the person says seems very strange to you, yet you feel yourself wanting to ignore it
  • If you are normally not sensitive, but a joke the other person makes offends you
  • If you feel like there’s something you want to say, but find yourself hesitating because you’re worried that the other person might get upset or angry
  • If the other person keeps repeating lots of stories about themselves, without really showing interest in you
  • If the conversations usually feel one-sided and you feel ignored
  • If you find yourself giving in to whatever the other person wants because you don’t want to fight

Unfortunately, Angie’s new beau did not exhibit ANY of these behaviors. He instead asked lots of questions about her and seemed genuinely interested. He made a great deal of effort in paying attention to what she wanted and liked – sometimes. So why were his actions doing such damage to her self-esteem?

Is this topic front and center for you right now? BTGO has an interactive workshop that goes far beyond what we cover in this post. Learn more.

“Intermittent reinforcement” is a term used to describe the type of hot and cold behavior he was displaying toward Angie and is what author Adelyn Birch says in her article’s title is, “The Most Powerful Motivator on the Planet.”

“Creating fear of losing the relationship – and then relieving it periodically with episodes of love and attention – is the perfect manipulation.”

Birch says that intermittent reinforcement is one of the most dangerous types of emotional control over another person, and can be quite common in abusive relationships. The brain’s pleasure hormones respond to positive reinforcement, like the warmth and attention occasionally paid to Angie.

The problem is that an abusive person will escalate the level of control, and the combination of good-bad treatment and a power imbalance could lead to a very unhealthy emotional attachment.

Luckily, Angie’s relationship came to an abrupt end before things grew more serious. The guy mysteriously announced he was moving far away without explanation, and she did not hear from him again.

Angie’s mother was relieved, though deeply concerned. We all want to protect our children – as well as ourselves – from any kind of threat. What can we do then to avoid being victimized by such an insidious type of abuse in the future?

Birch outlines that trust is key, and based on the following three things:

  • Predictability – the consistency of a partner’s behavior, which is in stark contrast to intermittent good-bad treatment
  • Dependability – the degree to which you trust your partner to be honest and reliable
  • Faith – your conviction that your partner will be responsive to your needs, can be relied upon, and be counted on to behave in a kind and caring manner.

She asserts that it is essential not to judge these things by how they were at one time, in the past – but instead to “consider how they are at the present time.” Many toxic people are master manipulators and excel at the ability to gain our trust quickly. Keeping it is a much more difficult task.

Birch says it is necessary to “stay very conscious of the dynamic of the relationship, and of the part you play in it. Be aware that when you feel chronically insecure, heartsick, anxious, or hurt, you can get caught up in the drama caused by manipulation and become blind to the larger dynamics at play.”

We all need to remember that anyone can miss the warning signs at the beginning of a relationship and that, because people are so different, not every red flag will be obvious.

The one failsafe method to know for sure if something is wrong is to pay attention to what’s going on inside of us.

Slow down and check in with how another person is making you feel. If you find yourself on an emotional roller coaster, especially at the beginning of a relationship, it’s often a sign that there may be something seriously wrong.

Editor’s note: If intermittent reinforcement and manipulation are issues in your relationship, and you’d like to know more – especially what you can do about it – consider viewing our interactive workshop, Common Manipulation Tactics & How to Deal with Them, which is available in BTGO’s Sanity School now.

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8 Responses

  1. Hello, my name is Lynda, just reading about the intermittent reinforcement, which matches my experience perfectly. My boyfriend left me a few times and I left him and he begged me to come back then told me he would never marry me,and wanted me to leave everybody and runaway with him,I didn’t but I wanted to, he said he would kill himself if I left him,so I was stuck for more time,waiting for him an not moving on.I had other nice men that were interested in me ,but he made sure to ruin those chances I had at a normal life.I am happily married now, but have only just fully realised the long winding road that I have been on to escape. Realise what is really happening and the scales will fall from your eyes,don’t waste 8 years like I did and then hold a small candle in theback of your marriage for this person and let them take the joy out of your life!

    1. Lynda,

      Yes, it is really amazing in hindsight – I feel the exact same way, except I never held a candle for the ex. 🙂


  2. These articles are empowering, detailed and thorough – thank you! honestly I am feeling confused in my relationship of over 3 years at the moment. My partner seems to lie about small stuff but to me that is huge as trust is everything. It seems he needs to prove Himself to others And impress others and it’s exhausting when I feel I know him so well I see right through things. He lied about doing a home workout and then almost immediately (after probably realising I knew) then said he was joking and tried to make me doubt myself and silly for doubting him. He had no Smile on his face and it clearly wasn’t a joke. We are engaged and he is having therapy for on off depression anxiety and childhood traumas related to family pressure, bullying etc. I feel he is manipulative and easily angry and sometimes just cannot be there for me emotionally. Many of the points in these descriptions resonate with me although I also love and can see our lives together forever. I see all the fantastic sides to him and know nobody is perfect. I have recently trained to be a Music Therapist And I am a highly empathetic person. I won’t tolerate unnecessary pain and confusion in a relationship and feel hurt to be honest yet hopeful.

    1. Dear Sarah,

      Thank you, and so glad you responded here. I think based on what you say, you know that although you see how fantastic and wonderful your partner is, and despite trying therapy, you have lost faith, and trust has been destroyed. And like you said in the very beginning – trust is everything.

      Now, if your partner were trying very hard to show how sorry he was, stopped lying, become transparent, and done everything he can to make you feel safe – all of which should be consequences of a loss of trust – you might still be questioning the relationship, but would certainly be feeling hopeful, and on more sturdy ground. And it sounds like you’re not there yet.

      You might know that we are putting the final touches on a Been There Got Out membership plan, as well as a short “Lifeboat” course which would give you access to an emotionally supportive community of people who are going through the same experiences you are, as well as those of us who have already made it to the other side, and reclaimed both our sanity and our lives. We just need to get our tech stuff finally fixed, and hope to roll it out sometime later this week (fingers crossed!). It might be something to consider, as it would probably be helpful in getting more clarity about this tricky situation.

      Be on the lookout for stuff from us in your inbox in the next few days, and regardless, stay in touch!

  3. Sarah – I rarely post anything.

    But, RUN. And, DO NOT look back. Keep running.

    On your run – learn all about gaslighting and manipulation tactics and self love if you don’t yet.

    Similar signs were there for me – I ignored them for the “wonderful fun connected” side. That “wonderful” side – was manipulation. I got married anyway. You have no idea yet what this can do to a person – especially if the person has NPD or ASPD with a desire to punish.

    “He lied about doing a home workout and then almost immediately (after probably realizing I knew) then said he was joking and tried to make me doubt myself and silly for doubting him. He had no Smile on his face and it clearly wasn’t a joke.” This is gaslighting. This is not that “nobody is perfect” and he forgot the milk at the store, leaves his shoes around and says a cuss word here or there. This is serious. He lies to you with no problem, no remorse, and then tries to make it look like your issue. This is serious. It can get much worse over time – especially after hooked with marriage or kids. He does not respect you. I would bet he doesn’t love you either. Ouch – but it’s better to know now than 13 years in with 5 kids.

    Keep your innocence.

    May God bless you. RUN.

    1. Dear Miranda,

      Yes, and IT DOES get worse over time…

      Thanks for posting!

  4. The checking in with your feelings thing, 100 percent… and don’t let them make you doubt the validity of your own feelings. They will try to tell you that you are too sensitive, or taking things the wrong way… but your feelings don’t lie.

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