Spiritual teacher Teal Swan explains the secret tactic some people use to keep us trapped in toxic relationships, and how to break free
We’ve all had that friend who’s sworn a million times – “I’m really going to leave him (or her) this time” – but never does. Or maybe it’s you whose been saying you’re finally going to call it quits with your abusive, controlling partner for 15 years.
In the video below Teal Swan explains the insidious – though often unconscious – tactic our partners are using to keep us coming back for more:
It’s called intermittent reinforcement.
A long time ago, scientists studied rats in three scenarios:
1. Continuous positive reinforcement – They put a rat in a cage with a lever that released a pellet of food every time the rat pushed on it. The rat developed a healthy attachment to the lever. Knowing it could rely on the lever as a constant source of nourishment, it ran around its treadmill and led a seemingly happy and carefree life.
2. Continuous negative reinforcement – They put a rat in a cage with a lever that dispensed no pellets. The rat quickly lost interest in the lever, learning it was not a source of food. It occupied itself with other things and found nourishment elsewhere. The lever had no meaning to the rat.
3. Intermittent Reinforcement – They put a rat in a cage with a lever that only occasionally – randomly and unpredictably – dispensed a pellet. They assumed eventually the rat would become so frustrated it would lose interest, but the opposite happened. The rat became anxiously obsessed with the lever.
After a period of time, the scientists made it so the lever stopped producing pellets altogether. The rats became so obsessed with and addicted to the lever, they neglected their grooming habits and let their health completely deteriorate – some to the point of starvation and death – rather than going to find food in another part of the cage.
Intermittent reinforcement creates addiction and obsession. This is why gambling is so addictive, Swan said. “You become owned by the game.”
The same thing happens in human relationships. When a person’s emotional needs – for love, closeness, affection, attention, approval, appreciation, physical touch or sex – are only occasionally and unpredictably met, he or she becomes addicted to and “owned by” their partner.
“You build up so much despair and starvation that when you get a single scrap, the relief you experience feels like nirvana,” Swan says. “You begin to chase that feeling and do anything you can to get it.”
Intermittent reinforcement is abuse, Swan says. That’s not typically the conscious intent, but it’s abuse nonetheless. The abuser in these scenarios is often someone who fears intimacy and suffers from insecure attachments, especially people with an avoidant attachment style. Their response to this fear of intimacy – which is ultimately a fear of abandonment – is to try to gain control over the relationship.
“So on a conscious level you are not trying to be abusive, but on a subconscious level you are occasionally giving out what your partner wants so you can guarantee they’ll behave the way you want them to,” Swan says. “Your partner ends up at your mercy desperate for the occasional closeness you grant.”
For example, Swan says, “a man spends a wonderful night with a woman – talks to her and connects on a deep level one day. The next he doesn’t return her phone calls, acts like they are strangers and pulls away. Then he’s randomly able to connect again, especially when he senses her pulling away.”
For a few people – such as those with borderline personality disorder, narcissists or sociopaths – the use of intermittent reinforcement to gain control is much more deliberate. For example, Swan says, “a woman who refuses to make love to her husband unless he cuts off a relationship with his family or a man who beats his wife but who occasionally says I’m sorry, takes her on a wonderful date and buys her what she’s been wanting for months.”
The intentional abuser often begins the relationship giving the other person what they need – the pellets – then granting them inconsistently, and eventually not at all. The lover “remains hooked on the hope that the reward will come again eventually, starving themselves in the process,” Swan says.
You can’t have a healthy relationship without consistency, because consistency is essential for creating emotional security, Swan says.
Determine whether they are willing to work toward creating consistency in the relationship or whether they are intentionally trying to control you.
Intentional abusers are extremely unlikely to change. It serves them to stay in control so they can ensure their needs are met, Swan says. “This behavior has its roots in trauma, but before you fall into the codependent desire to heal them, know that it is highly unlikely that anyone, least of all you, will be able to do this, because controlling you is how they avoid their own shadows.”
“The only person who can decide to face their own shadows is the person himself.”
Warning – The practitioner of intentional intermittent reinforcement will tell you they are interested in facing their shadows, but this is just more intermittent reinforcement, Swan says.
Unintentional intermittent lovers
If you’re in a relationship with someone who IS willing to create consistency, here’s what needs to happen:
1. They have to be willing to consistently grant your needs. They have to respond even when they don’t feel like responding. For example – “I don’t feel like getting close to you, even though I know its what you need me to do and what the health of the relationship requires. I have to do it anyway. On top of that, I have to look at the aspect of me that is causing me to want to not respond in that way.”
2. You have to be very clear about your boundaries. “Keep them 100 percent,” Swan says. “Know who you are. Stick to your likes, values and interests. When you say no, mean it. Never make threats unless you are 100-percent willing to follow through with them.
Don’t nag or beg your partner. If they are not giving you what you need, go get it elsewhere. Decide exactly how much you are willing to put into the relationship before walking away. Leave no room for manipulation.”
Intermittent reinforcement goes both ways. It’s not only about intermittent rewards, but also about people who don’t enforce their boundaries consistently.
If you are a victim of intermittent rewards, Swan says it is guaranteed that “you don’t keep your boundaries consistently. You treat them like gambling chips. You’re willing to give them away in return for something you want.” It’s your attempt to regain control of the relationship. “Get clear about your boundaries and be very consistent about them.”
Cut your losses
If your partner is not willing to work with you, decide how much time you want to waste being miserable.
Relationships that involve intermittent reinforcement the most difficult to walk away from, “because they’re not relationships, they’re addictions,” Swan says. Walking away means going through withdrawals just like withdrawals from drugs.
In the beginning it will feel absolutely horrible, Swan warns. But in the long run, you’ll look back and realize it was one of the best things you’ve ever done for yourself. You’ll be opening the door to an opportunity to finally get your needs met consistently, in a real relationship.
If you do decide separation is best, you’ll probably want to watch Teal Swan’s video titled “How to Survive a Breakup.”