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What Keeps People Stuck in Abusive Relationships?

What keeps people stuck in abusive relationships? One answer is that we’re all rats at heart. No, not bad people as in calling someone “you dirty rat.” I mean that, like the rats in psychologist B.F. Skinner’s conditioning experiments, we form behavioral patterns through experiencing reinforcement of pain and pleasure. On the positive side, rats fed food pellets will continue to seek them out, and humans who are loved will come back for more. On the negative side, rats who receive electric shocks will turn tail and run away, and humans who are mistreated (well, most of us, anyway) will say game over.

But what happens when rats receive intermittent reinforcement, if sometimes they get food pellets while other times they get shocked? What do you think they do then? The drive for food is so strong that they remain hopeful and continue to head for what they hope is the pellets just as strongly as if the pellets had been there every time, as if the shocks had never occurred. And the drive to be loved is so fierce in humans that hope propels them to continue seeking it in spite of sometimes receiving pain in its stead. This is the extraordinary power of intermittent reinforcement.

I’ve seen this dynamic with scores of clients and this pattern holds true in every abusive relationship in which the abuser is sometimes nice and sometimes not. The effusive apologies, obsequious kindnesses, calm periods of loving, and tearful promises to change are a great part of what keep those who are emotionally, sexually or physically abused tied to their abusers. Like Skinner’s rats, abusees want the love of someone so desperately that during the “good” times they suppress (consciously ignore) or repress (unconsciously “forget”) the bad times. They think, “Wow, he’s finally changed” or “Maybe she really does love me.”

Out the window are memories of the beatings and brutality, cruel words and cold shoulders, betrayals and humiliation. Rather than leave, abusees live on the fumes of a love that once was or one that exists only in their fantasies. Intermittent reinforcement produces a death-like grip on those who are abused because it fans the tiniest flicker of hope that all will be well. It generates a kind of selective emotional amnesia, like a sieve that lets the bad memories drain out and saves only the good ones.

Fortunately, we are not rats and can think ourselves out of this dangerous pain-pleasure box. We can will ourselves to recall the bad times, talk about them with others who can remind us when we “forget,” and write them down to read during our happier times to jog our memories. We can step back and take in the wide panorama of our relationship, the whole picture, rather than myopically cherry pick only pleasurable experiences and memories. We can understand what’s going on within us and our abuser by reading more about this process and seeing and accepting the truth. Thus becoming unstuck