Are you in an Abusive Relationship? Check for Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent Reinforcement abusive relationships

We have often heard of horror stories of people being in abusive relationships. More often than not, it’s voluntary. To someone observing the relationship from outside, the person being abused in the relationship can seem crazy. Yet, quite often the person being abused decides on their own accord to stay in the relationship. You might be wondering why? If you also are a victim of an abusive relationship, you need to be aware of this psychological concept.

Intermittent Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement is a term used to describe reinforcing certain behaviours by giving a reward a irregular intervals. Typically people tend to assign rewards to certain behaviors they exhibit. They can be as simple as getting an ice-cream when you do well in your exams to more complicated rewards such as getting promoted when you exhibit hardwork and deliver certain outcomes for an organization. In relationship, caring your partner, giving love and receiving it are complex but consistent rewards that we get. intermittent reinforcement is a slightly different concept. Here the rewards are irregular. But you might be wondering what has a reward to do with being in an sbusive relationship. Let’s know more

Intermittent Reinforcement after abuse

Let’s say your partner after weeks of ignoring you or giving you silent treatment, bring you flowers, and treats you like a princess. Or if a person hugs you after being extremely critical of you. These are signs of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation approach being used by the person abusing you. Now you might be wondering, does it really work?

Why does Intermittent Reinforcement work?

Intermittent Reinforcement will deliver a reward to the abused person (but at intervals, which are irregular). The abused person will get the desired reward, which could be compassion, love, warmth, empathy, but at seemingly irregular intervals i.e. not every time. This encourages the abused person to continue. Many online gaming apps, social networking websites use this. You might one fine day, see your post going viral, which you might someday consider an act of serendipity. This consequently will encourage you enough to stay active on the social network. The same thing happens in relationships.

Abusive Relationships and Intermittent Reinforcement

Let me share another example. Think of yourself loosing the relationship one day (while being abused) and then being subject to lots of love, attention, which brings you a lot of joy but fundamentally enhancing the dopamine levels of your brain. Researchers have found intermittent reinforcement as one of the most behavior driving techniques on the plant. This is one of the reasons people stay in abusive relationships where to the outside work, staying in it might look completely illogical (almost suicidal).

Trauma Bonds

A trauma bond develops between the abused person and the abuser not despite the abuse and because of the abuse. It generally begins slowly and escalates as things progress. This generally happens due to this – The first time in the relationship when you experience attention, love, there’s a release of dopamine in your brain. Once this starts happening everytime, dopamine release stops. You’ll generally need something more to trigger dopamine. In an abusive relationship, your mind is tricked. The person after abusing you shows care, love, affection, which triggers the release of dopamine every time this happens (especially since this is happening irregularly). This is what creates the addiction. If this happens a couple of times, the abused person in a relationship gets addicted.

How can you avoid this?

In a relationship look for consistencies. Relationships are based on faith and trust. A lot of time the abuser in a relationship is not abusing deliberately. It’s a part of their nature. It could be due to a traumatic childhood or challenging experiences while growing up. Ensuring that you protect yourself is your responsibility. This also means setting clear boundaries in a relationship and having a sense of emotional independence. A lot of times, the abuse becomes very consistent and difficult to call-out or get away from when you are cut out from the outside world. It’s important to build healthy strong friendships outside your relationship.

Preventing abuse is the responsibility of the person abusing and being abused. Preventing yourself from abuse is your responsibility as well. This should happen when you notice even the slightest form of it, since it escalates quite rapidly. Being mindful of patterns that signify intermittent reinforcement can help you from being a victim of abuse. Also, make sure that you have a life outside the relationship. The life outside can give you dopamine that your brain needs. These could challenges that you overcome at your work, or in your hobby, or anything that you like.

Remember, intermittent reinforcement is one of the most powerful behavioral drivers on the planet. It is a super harmful manipulation tactic that can get you addicted and cause a lot of hurt. The most addictive online games, casinos, social networks use this principle and hence people end up spending a lot of time and money. What you might call as serendipity is essentially an intermittent reward being used to reinforce a certain behavior in you.

Do share your experience in the comments below.

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