Intermittent reinforcement: A relationship red flag

Intermittent reinforcement in relationships, what is it and why does it take you prisoner?


Let me first explain what l mean by this. Essentially you are kept on board because every now and again, intermittently, you are treated well, complimented, understood, noticed, made love to, praised to ramp up your belief in the toxic or narcissistic person, alongside your being ignored, criticised, and badly treated by them.

It is a contradiction which becomes a paradox. In that, it is one thing, but it is also another. So your abuser can at the same time also be your saviour.

Who is he/she then, one or the other?

The answer is that they are in essence the same. Their capacity for duality is bewildering, but to them necessary, because one gets, and one feeds them, so that they might prevail at another’s cost.

I do believe personally though since l have experienced this bewilderment that it is this “duality” that can often be the main reason you stay. It ignites hope, and often investment has been great in terms of your time, your hopes and dreams with this person, and not to mention if it is a romantic relationship when you are also in love with them. Also where there is a child or children you have together, you will re-invest again and again in this Trojan horse.

It also depends on how long this has been going on. If you, your autonomy, your values, and your sovereignty have been subjected to this undulation for a long time, there is less of you left, because you will exist  “through” them in a never-ending brutal symbiosis. Your self-worth will rise and fall dependent on their perception of not only how you are but who you are.

If this is a newer experience, it has less hold. However, l have treated people who have had this happen to them for the first time also, who are literally emptied like a well! So each situation is, as indeed each person is, unique, and needs to be addressed as so.

Even if this has happened to someone for the first time, if l take a detailed personal history of their family, their lineage and their childhood experiences, there will be more often than not a clue in their background as to why this dynamic within this particular relationship might have been of such mimicked significance and related to something longed for that was historically out of reach or seemed unobtainable.

So how can you “silence the voice” that both sustains and destroys you when there is the whisper of, “maybe this time it will be different”?

This is where cognitive dissonance exists, your own conflict between what is felt and experienced, and what is longed for.

First, you must separate from them physically. Then you must separate from them mentally. This is called individuation. You will need to re-address what is your personal development. Also, have the right to fathom once again your own true beliefs and authenticity.

This is done in a therapeutic environment with a therapist or coach who is completely familiar with what lies beneath the framework of the deceit and faux charm and intentions of these predators. Mostly because the causation is complex and different to the dynamics of other relationships that go “wrong”.

Extracting yourself means also re-establishing healthy boundaries and true reality. Which means something you lost is the abuser, yes, but in the same package also the lover you thought they were. For this, some grieving will need to take place and be given room.

Your authentic self and voice which has felt ephemeral will need to be earthed once more. It is a re-construct and also a new dawn that is needed. All will feel unfamiliar. But it is your raft, and it will take you to the shore.

There are also other pillars on the path back to safety and autonomy. Self-care to eliminate your need for dependency and acceptance of flaws through self-awareness. Be your own saviour, do not rely on an outside source where you are dependent and potentially helpless.

There is recovery, l know, l live within it and have watched my changes take place naturally. Danger and predators are more visible to me. I have the tools of navigation of language and vocabulary where no man’s land once was.

It is a delightful freedom, that l now teach others and am privileged to do so.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London, N8
Written by Gail Berry, Emotional and Relationship Coach
London, N8

Written by Gail Berry Emotional Coach - both a therapist and an alternative medical practitioner who works with healing people’s core wounds and uses Bach Flower Remedies alongside talking and behavioural therapy to make real change and transformation possible.
07771 715072
First enquiry consultation free

Show comments

Find a coach dealing with Relationships

All coaches are verified professionals

All coaches are verified professionals