There’s nothing like the bliss and elation of new love — and when you believed you had found “the one,” that took it to a whole new level. It was as if the world went from black-and-white to color, and you felt more alive than ever. It seemed that magic was at work in your life, and you didn’t question it; you only felt grateful for your good fortune.
And then one day something unexpected happened. You got the distinct and troubling feeling that the love of your life was pulling away. Your heart tightened and your stomach clenched with dread.
In the process of the psychopathic bond, the moment when the joy at finding love turns into the fear of losing it is called the “manipulative shift.” When that happens, the psychopath takes control.
The dread we feel can be allayed by only one person, who is of course the one who caused the fear in the first place. We feel an incredible sense of relief — a high, even — when the manipulator acts like our attentive and loving partner again. Bliss returns, but doesn’t last long. Fear of loss grips us once more.
If fear is something we want to avoid, how does a psychopath use it to keep us hooked? By alternating it with another extremely powerful emotion: Love.
Creating fear of losing the relationship — and then relieving it with episodes of love and attention — is a powerfully effective manipulation known as intermittent reinforcement. Its power comes from euphoria-inducing dopamine released by our brains when our fear is relieved and replaced by love. We’re back on top of the world.
Have you ever gone to a casino and played a slot machine? You feed in your quarters and pull the handle, over and over, and watch the little colorful images of fruit and numbers and bells whiz by. If you don’t win anything you start to fear that you might lose all the money you already put in, let alone not win the jackpot.
Even though you risk losing more money, you are compelled to keep trying to win. What if you walk away from this machine now, after investing all this time and money, and the next person to sit down and pull the handle wins? You feed in a few more quarters, pull the handle and — amazingly — images of a red number 7 line up and bells ring while colorful lights flash. Handfuls of quarters pour loudly from the machine into your waiting hands. These rewards cause your brain to light up, too, by releasing a burst of pleasure-inducing dopamine, and you want more. Your fear vanishes, and you think that since you now have all these quarters you should keep playing. Who knows, maybe you’ll win the big jackpot next time! You start feeding the machine again. You’re hooked.
Psychology researchers have long considered intermittent reinforcement the most powerful motivator on the planet. It is also the most manipulative. Intermittent reinforcement is simply unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior, but there is no more powerful formula to get someone to feel or act in a desired way. It can be elevated gradually (and subtly) to increasingly extreme levels, creating compliance that is obsessive and even self-destructive. I think this comes as no surprise to many of us. When we look back, we clearly see that intermittent reinforcement was hard at work.
The more infrequently the crumbs of love are offered, the more hooked you get. You become conditioned, like a rat in a laboratory cage. When rats are taught to press a lever that randomly dispenses a delicious morsel, they press the lever obsessively. After a while, they will keep pressing the lever even if no more morsels come out… until they starve to death (I think this is an unconscionable experiment, by the way, one probably carried out by psychopathic researchers).
Similarly, we may have held on even when there was no more “love” to be had.
Lab rats are taught to press the lever by starting them out with continuous positive reinforcement. In the beginning, every time they press the lever they get a morsel (just like the idealization phase, or ‘love-bombing’). Then the researchers change the game — the rat presses the lever, but a morsel isn’t delivered each time anymore, only once in a while. He is fearful that he won’t get fed but he knows pressing the lever brought food in the past, so he keeps pressing it until he gets some. As long as he gets a morsel once in a while, he keeps pressing it. When the morsels stop coming, he’s sure he’ll get one next time he presses it, or the next time, or the time after that… so he never stops trying.
Intermittent reinforcement plays a big role in traumatic bonding. A trauma bond is a very strong attachment to an abuser that develops not in spite of, but because of the abuse.
“Dutton and Painter have elaborated a theory of ‘traumatic bonding,’ whereby powerful emotional attachments are seen to develop from two specific features of abusive relationships: Power imbalances and intermittent good-bad treatment.”~Emotional Attachments in Abusive Realtionships
Intermittent reinforcement begins insidiously, and escalates gradually. A phone call or text message doesn’t come when expected. A hand that always held ours as we walked down the street is kept in a pocket instead. They seem to be flirting with someone else, but deny it. For a week, they aren’t in the mood to make love. Little by little, it only gets worse. Much worse. They give us the silent treatment. They subtly or overtly criticize or demean us for all types of things — our weight, our age, our dancing, our ideas and opinions, the quirks they formerly claimed to love; or they compare us unfavorably to someone else. They provoke us into emotional meltdowns, and then tell us we’re crazy and it’s got to stop. But there are always the times he or she reverts back to being the loving and attentive partner we knew, loved and trusted. See? All hope is not lost! Those tidbits keep us hanging on through the bad times. Maybe they were right. We were acting insecure or jealous or crazy, and that’s the real problem… or so it seems.
What can we do to prevent from being victimized by intermittent reinforcement in the future?
It was hard to recognize because it emerged later in the relationship, and it was hard to walk away because we were already attached. Also, we may not have been knowledgeable about this powerful manipulation technique. Now we have that knowledge along with experience to go with it, and we can put it to work for us.
Here are some things to keep in mind for future relationships:
- Trust is based on three things: Predictability, dependability and faith. Predictability is based on the consistency of a partner’s behavior, which is in stark contrast to intermittent good-bad treatment. Dependability is the degree to which you trust your partner to be honest and reliable. Faith represents 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. Don’t judge these things by how they were at one time, in the past — consider how they are at the present time. Psychopaths are good at gaining our trust, but not good at keeping it.
- Look for the hallmarks of a healthy relationship: Empathy, emotional intimacy, commitment, consistency, balance, progression, shared values, love, care, trust, and respect.
- Listen to any alarm bells that go off in your head, and listen to friends and family members whom you know to have your best interest at heart. Don’t ignore them, no matter how much you would like to.
- Become and 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.
- Keep in mind the signs in yourself that you’re being manipulated — it is easier than trying to figure out your partner, who will be lying and making excuses. You can review them in the post, ‘How to Tell if You’re Being Manipulated.” You will not feel like this in a healthy, normal relationship.
- Work on developing good, clear boundaries now, before you get involved with someone. This is probably the most important thing you can do.
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