Intermittent reinforcement is just one of many manipulative tactics abusers benefit from in relationships and use it as a way to feed their narcissistic nature. It’s important to find ways to recognize the abusive patterns and take the necessary steps to confront them and protect your physical and mental health before it’s too late.

What is Intermittent Reinforcement and is it Dangerous to Your Physical and Mental Health?

Relationships can drastically differ from one another, and what might look a certain way from the outside doesn’t have to portray absolutely anything from the inside. It’s sometimes miraculous how toxic and dysfunctional they can be and yet we stay, keep pushing through, hope for the best, and learn how to live with the worst. Intermittent reinforcement is one of these toxic examples of an abusive relationship, and it’s often excruciatingly hard to break the abuse cycle. 

Trauma, manipulation, low-self esteem, and a constant need for validation are just some of the side effects that come from abusive relationships, and while abuse victims often don’t even acknowledge what’s going on, experts point out very noticeable patterns that can help realize it’s time to bail.    

What is Intermittent Reinforcement?

Described as receiving inconsistent rewards after a certain behavior and opposed to continuous reinforcement or receiving consistent rewards after a certain behavior, intermittent reinforcement is often used in clinical trials and settings to analyze human behavior and habits. 

The concept was created by B.F. Skinner, a psychologist in the 1950s who observed rats in an experiment that tested their readiness and willpower in waiting for food. Those rats who didn’t know when exactly they’ll be receiving their next portion pressed the food lever more steadily than those who always knew they would be getting it after they pressed it. 

The rationale behind it is that if you always expect a reward after a certain behavior, you’ll work less for it. On the other hand, if you don’t know whether or not you’ll get a reward, you’ll always give your best in hopes that you will. This often feels like a hard-earned reward as you managed to get what you wanted even though you didn’t the other four previous attempts. 

Now, although this does make sense and can impact studies and clinical trials in a very significant way, it’s unfortunately also used as a powerful means of manipulation in relationships that strengthens the trauma bond between the abuser and victim, often without even realizing it. 

Intermittent Reinforcement in Relationships

Intermittent reinforcement is a form of an abusive relationship where the abuser acts in a cruel and vicious way with intermittent bursts of affection, usually in the form of gifts, extravagant acts of affection, and compliments. These bursts are completely random and intermittent, making the victim unable to predict when they will happen next. This toxic pattern can show up in literally any kind of relationship and look completely different. Examples include receiving a necklace from your husband after he pulled your hair in an argument, kind and loving words from your mother after being called awful names, and incredible happy behavior from a friend after a harsh silent treatment. 

These are all forms of verbal or physical abuse that is often paired with both, continuous and intermittent reinforcement. The main difference is that in the first case, a woman who gets hit by her husband can always expect an expensive gift after it happens and in the second hopes for it but anxiously waits to see what’s going to happen next. This creates a very toxic and dangerous abuse cycle that can seriously impact one’s physical and mental health. 

Over time, intermittent reinforcement only makes the abuser more powerful while the victim begins to lose confidence, self-respect, and any insight into their own beliefs. The side effects begin to completely make them lose their own sense of self and they begin seeking for approval and hoping their abuser will change. They begin to see the bursts of affection and kindness as an anchor to hold on to when the cruelty regimen occurs, knowing that “deep down he is a good person and if only I didn’t do this then he wouldn’t…”

And this is where the blaming starts. Blaming yourself for acting a certain way that triggered your abuser instead of staying quiet and complying so that you can stay in your “honeymoon phase.” And this can take a serious toll on your health, both physical and mental. 

The thing is, you’re not the problem. These kind of abusers who use intermittent reinforcement as a manipulation tactic know very well what they’re doing and they feed off of it. This means they will always find a way to exploit the traumatic bonding and instigate a fight which will justify their cruel and abusive reaction. In laymen’s terms, there’s nothing you could be doing differently for the abuser to turn a toxic relationship into a healthy one with positive reinforcement, respect, and actual kindness. 

So, What Are You to Do?

If all of this sounds familiar to you, the real question isn’t “are you experiencing intermittent reinforcement?” It’s “how do you get out of an abusive and toxic relationship that’s wreaking havoc on your physical and mental health?”

The biggest hurdle is the actual ironical stability you begin to feel towards your abuser’s actions. Just like a gambler who gets addicted to feeding the slot machine and not knowing whether or not he will receive the reward, you feel addicted to your abuser and his sudden and intermittent acts of kindness, love, and affection. 

In order to break that cycle and the toxic intermittent reinforcement schedule, you as a victim need to physically get away from your abuser and seek help and support from another source. Whether you turn to family, friends, a support group, or a professional mental health therapist, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get away and start talking about it. You need to start building back your self-worth, self-confidence, and your own system of beliefs as more often than not, losing the sense of who you are will cause depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health problems. 

When your self-esteem goes down, you often become a “shell of who you were” and this can have a severe impact on your physical health, causing an impairment of your immune system and its inability to fight off infection and disease. The amount of stress and anxiety can lead to serious health conditions like cancer, autoimmune diseases, and mental illness.  

Once you acknowledge the true nature of your relationship and start talking about it, you might experience a variety of strong and confusing emotions. From sadness and denial to anger and revenge, there’s so many potential feelings that might come up and become overwhelming to deal with. That’s why having a support system and someone to guide you through it is crucial in order to properly heal and move on. 

Survivors of intermittent reinforcement patterns in abusive relationships often feel the need to help others who are just taking their first step as they know firsthand how difficult it can be to simply create space between yourself and your abuser, let alone leave and act against them. 

Final Thoughts

Intermittent reinforcement is just one of many manipulative tactics abusers benefit from in relationships and use it as a way to feed their narcissistic nature. It’s important to find ways to recognize the abusive patterns and take the necessary steps to confront them and protect your physical and mental health before it’s too late.


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I'm Karen!

I have found my cancer journey to be a positive and profound transformational experience. I’m inspired to share my healing journey here, and trust you’ll find hope, encouragement and purpose as you discover the healing power that lies within you.