I’m going to take a moment to talk about psychological lab experiments because sometimes we human beings are no different from rats. In the 1950s a psychologist named Albert Skinner ran experiments on rats in a controlled environment. There was a lever in the environment that, if pushed, delivered some kind of reward to the rats, such as food. The rats soon learned that if they pushed the lever, they received food. If the lever delivered a consistent food supply, the rats would push it when they wanted food and then the rats would go on to do other things. The rats with the consistent food supply maintained a normal body weight and seemed to live a normal rat existence. If the lever stopped producing food altogether, the rats would soon stop pressing it, having learned that the lever would not meet their need for food. However, if the lever sometimes produced food and sometimes did not produce food at random intervals, the rats became obsessed with pushing the lever. These rats became obese and exhausted from lack of sleep because they spent all of their time pushing the lever. Even when the food was cut off completely, the rats spent a very long time pushing the lever before finally giving up. Skinner realized that this INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT created behavior that was very difficult to extinguish.
What does this have to do with human relationships? There are relationships that are consistent. You have a friend who is always happy to hear from you when you call. Your boyfriend is always loving and responsive. Your wife is always willing to spend time with you and talk. Your mother always acts with your best interest at heart. Consistency is a beautiful gift in relationship because it means that when we push the lever in our relationship, we consistently receive love. These relationships don’t create obsessive behaviors because we don’t have to over-think them. Consistency is king in healthy relationships. If I had a magic consistency pill to dole out, the world would be a better place.
Then why is it that CONSISTENT REINFORCEMENT is not as compelling as INTERMITTENT REINFORCEMENT? Why would anyone choose to be in a relationship where their needs are only met some of the time? Remember the rats. When they received a consistent food supply, they only pressed the lever for food when they were hungry. But when the lever only intermittently delivered food, they became obsessed with pressing the lever. When we’re obsessed with something, we often forget that we have a choice.
When we start a new relationship with someone, we often put our best foot forward. A new friend is often fun and understanding. A new lover is often exciting and connected. Only time will tell if the relationship can stay that way. I always say that one doesn’t know the strength of a relationship until it is tested by time. Over time we get to see whether the person we are in relationship with can continue to be all of the beautiful things that we saw at the beginning (and whether we can, too). In a consistently-loving relationship, the beauty remains present. When negative issues arise we work through them together in a loving way. We communicate. We have love, trust, honest, and respect as the foundation in our relationship. In an intermittently-loving relationship, however, we never know what we’re going to get. We hope for the beauty and sometimes we get it. But when the lever stops producing food we’re left alone with no explanation as to why. We don’t know why the other person has become distant, but we feel the distance. The lever no longer works. The texts that used to be returned immediately have a long delay or are not returned at all. The plans to see one another than once flowed easily become problematic and difficult to come by. Excuses as to why the other is not present become the norm. But we keep hitting the lever with hopes that it will produce food/love. We become obsessed with pressing the lever. Trust and honesty and respect seem like distant memories. And just before we give up hope and stop pushing, out pops the food! Our beloved lover or friend calls and says they have missed us! They are loving, connected, kind, responsive, beautiful….all of the things we remembered! We are so relieved and happy! We’re so glad we didn’t give up! For a while we have all of the food and love we could wish for until….the pattern repeats and we’re alone and hungry again. This is agonizing. We repeat. Hot/cold. Push/pull. On-again/off-again. We hope for the good in the face of the bad. Intermittent relationships survive on hope.
Intermittent relationships are not healthy and what to do about them is complex. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to solving the problem and getting out of the pattern. I believe that it’s important to carry the wisdom with you that consistent relationships are the healthiest choice. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to figure out what to do in an already-established intermittent relationship. If you find yourself obsessively clinging to the source of your pleasure and pain, then it’s time to take a good look at the relationship. Allow your internal alarm bells to sound loud and clear. It’s time for change. You may be able to talk to the person you’re in the relationship with about the pattern you’re experiencing, and the relationship may shift and change. But if you find you need help in navigating your intermittent relationship with consciousness, please consider working with me. I have many years of experience helping people find the right answers for their unique relationships and life situations.
DEFINITION: Intermittent Reinforcement is when rules, rewards or personal boundaries are handed out or enforced inconsistently and occasionally.