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How Intermittent Reinforcement Keeps Partners Addicted to Abusive Relationships

crying woman

We know that intermittent reinforcement is an effective tool in ABA therapy to increase and maintain behaviors we want to see. But, did you know there is a dark side to intermittent reinforcement? This is a tactic used by narcissists and other emotionally abusive individuals to keep their partner in an unhealthy relationship. It is the foundation of creating a "trauma bond".

People who have never experienced an abusive relationship often think "Why not just leave the relationship?", but the science of reinforcement has the victim stuck in a loop. Intermittent reinforcement is a schedule of reinforcement that provides the reinforcement on a variable schedule. It is highly effective at changing and maintaining behaviors and resistant to extinction. With this schedule, the individual knows that reinforcement is coming but they don't know when, so they keep trying and trying until it finally comes again. Slot machines use an intermittent schedule of reinforcement and people can sink hundreds or thousands of dollars into them hoping for that next payout. Compare this to a fixed schedule, if the slot machine predictably gave you $5 after every $4 you put into the machine, you would come out ahead with more money, but it would get boring fast.

The same is true with unhealthy relationships. If it was bad all the time, of course, it would be easy to leave. But the variable schedule of reinforcement shows the partner periods of good times and sometimes even excessive love and apologies, pulling the victim back into the relationship hoping that the good parts will continue. There is a predictable cycle that often occurs in these relationships:

cycle of abuse

In the tension phase, things are starting to escalate and the partner may feel like they're walking around on eggshells. These issues could come from external stressors like work, finances, or health, but the partner is the one who receives the mistreatment through behaviors such as emotional outbursts, short temper, and impatience.

The incident phase can occur as one abusive incident or a series of incidents. Abuse may look different with different people and in different situations. It can include:

  • physical violence or threats of violence

  • breaking things

  • insults

  • manipulation tactics like the silent treatment or gaslighting

  • emotional abandonment

The reconciliation period occurs after the incident when the tension begins to dissipate. It may include apologies, promises, and excessive love and gifts. This phase is also appropriately called "love bombing". The abuser genuinely seems to feel bad about their behavior and is committed to making a change, but it often doesn't last.

During the calm phase, life gets back to a normal balance as the love bombing subsides but the tension has not yet resumed. Abusive behaviors will often be minimized and justification and gaslighting continue. After some time, the tension starts to build and the cycle starts all over again.

These cycles can last weeks, months, or years, varying in intensity and duration each time. But the constant up and down of reinforcement and punishment keeps the victim stuck thinking that if they just tried harder or did this or that, the reinforcement and good parts of the relationship would come back. This creates a trauma bond which is a psychological response to abuse that occurs when someone forms a connection with the person who abuses them. We often think about these cycles of abuse as happening with a romantic partner, but they can occur in any relationship, such as with a boss, parent, or friend.

The use of intermittent reinforcement makes it hard for the victim to process the abusive behavior and leaves them confused, blaming themselves, and finding excuses for their partners' behavior. In the end, they can lose their sense of self and end up with a range of avoidance behaviors, like walking on eggshells, to avoid conflict and escalation.

This is an extremely unhealthy relationship dynamic, but thankfully there is a way out. Through education about what is happening, understanding the pattern of behaviors by taking notes or data, and with the support of friends, family, and mental health professionals, people can find their way out of these damaging relationships. Through the science of human behavior, we can have a greater understanding of how these relationships may keep the abused partner feeling stuck.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men in the US have experienced severe violence by an intimate partner, and 48% of adults in the US have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner. If you are someone you know is in an abusive relationship please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.


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