A few years ago I needed a strong shake to understand I was in a toxic relationship with a manipulator. My life was an addictive cycle of ups and downs, which robbed me of who I was. It made me lose faith in my own borders. I was telling myself I was staying because of love. As it often happens in life, everything became crystal clear to me only when I moved out and moved on. One of my biggest moments of realization came when my therapist introduced me to the concept of intermittent reinforcement
The power of this concept was discovered in an experiment with mice. They had to push a lever, after which they were getting food. At some point, mice were full so they stop pushing the lever. After a while, the scientists changed the game – when pushing the lever, the mice sometimes received food and other times not. Intermittent reinforcement. Mice then started pushing the lever like crazy, but did not stop when they were full but when they were hurt from pushing. The fear of not receiving the reward was so strong, it literally made them hurt themselves to get it.
Intermittent reinforcement works the same way in relationships – periods of love and attachment switch for periods of emotional abuse and fear of losing the relationship. After I got acquainted with this biological model, I could better understand myself and forgive myself for staying in this toxic relationship. Fear is one of the biggest motivators known. When I started dating again, I couldn’t stop asking myself – how could I be sure I wouldn’t become a victim of the same manipulation again?
As years passed, I started trusting my instincts again and figured out a few ways to protect myself from the addictive cycle of toxic relationships.
- I look for consistency. The best way to get to know somebody is to observe them with time. Consistency is the exact opposite of intermittent reinforcement.
- I look for the signs of a healthy relationship like trust, shared values, respect, and engagement. These are all signs of love. Fear, drama, self-consciousness and never knowing what comes next are not love.
- I listen to my inner voice. Luckily, our bodies are as well designed to warn us about emotional dangers, as they are for becoming addicted to it. When something is wrong, you will feel it by the warning signs your body and mind are giving you. If we learn how to recognise them, it will help us take better care of ourselves.
We don’t have to be alone in order to be safe and have healthy relationships. When we risk it are create a relationship, we are saying ‘’yes’’ to life and love. The most important thing for the health of any relationship is to pay attention – to how we feel, to who we are when we are with that person and to how true we stay to ourselves.