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Why Do We Stay In Bad Relationships?

The most powerful relationship manipulation tool plays on fear and is known as intermittent reinforcement.


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A few years ago, it took a punch in the arm to wake me up enough to realize that I was in the middle of a toxic relationship with an emotional abuser. Life was an addictive cycle of highs and lows that ate away at my sense of who I was to the point that I lost my confidence and boundaries in the relationship. I told myself that I stayed because I was in love. As life has it, things became crystal clear only after I moved out and moved on. One of my biggest aha moments came when my therapist introduced me to the concept of intermittent reinforcement.

Scientists discovered the biological power of intermittent reinforcement in observing mice. In an experiment, mice pressed a lever and a morsel of food was delivered. In this consistent practice the mice eventually got full and stopped pressing the lever. Then researchers changed the pattern: sometimes when the lever was pressed food was delivered, sometimes it was not. Intermittent reinforcement. The mice not only pressed the lever obsessively, but they did so until they injured themselves from all the pressing. The fear of not receiving the reward was so strong they literally harmed themselves just for the chance of getting it.  

In relationships, intermittent reinforcement works the same way: periods of love and affection are alternated with periods of abuse, neglect, and creating fear of losing the relationship. After becoming aware of this deep biological pattern, I was better able to understand and forgive myself for staying in that toxic relationship. Fear is one of the biggest human motivators there is. When I was ready to begin dating again, I couldn’t help but wonder: how can I make sure I never again become the victim of this type of damaging manipulation? Over the years, as I have come to trust my intuition again I came up with a few ways to guard against the addictive cycle of toxic relationships. 

  • I look for consistency. The best way to know someone is to observe them over time. Predictability is the opposite of intermittent reinforcement.
  • I look for signs of a healthy relationship like trust, shared values, respect, intimacy and commitment. These are signs of love. Fear, drama, imbalance, and never knowing what's going to happen are not love.
  • I listen to my gut. Fortunately, our bodies are just as equipped to warn us about emotional danger as they are to get addicted to it. Red flags will glare in your mind and body when something isn't right. Tuning in to them helps us trust ourselves to take care of our own needs. 

We don't have to hole up in our singlehood to be safe and healthy in dating. When we take a chance and get into a relationship, we are saying yes to life and to love. This is a good thing. The best way to check in on the health of a relationship is to pay attention: to how we're feeling, to who we are with this person, and to how authentic we are being to ourselves. Part of being mindful is to be aware that there are some shady women out there who may try to manipulate us. Remembering who we are is a virtual bouncer to our hearts. To learn more about intermittent reinforcement, check out this article

To read more about recovering from a breakup, check out the Girls’ Guide to Healthy Dating or read Girls’ Guide to Healthy Dating: Between the Break Up and the Next U-Haul.


Kim Baker, author of the Relationship Red Flags Mini Book and Girls’ Guide to Healthy Dating: Between the Breakup and the Next U-Haul, is a dating columnist and writer whose writing examines healthier dating through the lens of mindfulness and self-care. Find her at www.girlsguidetohealthydating.com

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