Tag Archives: intermittent reinforcement

Love-Bombing Is Crack Cocaine: The Addictive Cycle of Narcissistic Abuse

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By Shahida Arabi

IDEALIZATION AND LOVE-BOMBING

Highly skilled manipulators know how to seduce their prey – even without ever touching them. They are skilled wordsmiths and psychological puppeteers, pulling the strings each step of the way. They learn your love language and they know how to appeal to what you want to hear. They open doors, they take you out on extravagant dates, they take their time with foreplay – both verbal and physical. Their initial chivalry masks their cruelty.  Their tenderness is a very convincing façade for their chilly interior.

The idealization phase can only be described as pure, unadulterated ecstasy – both for the victim and the predator. Love-bombing – the excessive praise and flattery the predator showers on the prey – might as well be crack cocaine. It is a common manipulation used by cults to control their members – and in a relationship with a narcissist, you become a one-man cult. Your devotion to them becomes servile, disturbingly teetering on the edge of worship. And it’s usually because you’re following their lead.

The target is groomed to become addicted to the narcissist’s loving words and caring actions – not knowing they are hollow. We begin to invest in the predator as they seem to invest in us. They mirror our deepest needs and desires; they even mirror our interests, hobbies, and viewpoints. They tantalize us with the promise of a brighter future, a relationship where we are deeply validated and taken care of. We get used to the daily praise and laser-focused attention. Sex with the narcissist during the idealization phase is explosive – filled with just the right amount of tenderness and aggression – the narcissist knows exactly how to bring us to greater heights. It’s because they’ve studied what we like and have learned to mimic it. Little do we know, sex will later be used as ammunition.

During idealization and love-bombing, our place on the pedestal is secure and complete. We become the center of the narcissist’s world – or so we think. Really, they become the center of ours as we strive to measure up to the ideal image they have of us. They make us feel like God, only to cater to their own God complex.

Along the way, we deepen our investment because the bond feels so special and unique. We feel we’ve met our soulmate, our other half, our “twin flame.” What we’ve really met is someone who would burn us to ashes without a second glance if it meant getting what they wanted. This connection is heightened in a way that demands our attention on a physical, spiritual and even biochemical level – and before we know it, we begin to rely on this new person for survival. And that is when the danger begins.

Within even the most perfect period of idealization, there are tiny moments of recognition and fleeting red flags. Predators will always ‘test’ the boundaries of their victims early on – with provocative comments designed to make the victim doubt their perceptions. There will always be slippings of the mask where we get a terrifying view of the true self.

Yet these are so scarce during this phase that we are led to doubt whether we’ve seen anything at all. During love-bombing, the luckiest of survivors pick up on the cracks in the narcissist’s mask and see the empty shell beneath – and they do not attempt to rationalize or fix the fractured pieces. They are able to depart with their savings and sanity intact – they are able to leave, still whole. The rest move onto the devaluation phase, to be tattered and broken.

DEVALUATION

An adept emotional predator knows how to exploit a target’s strengths as well as his or her weaknesses. From the very beginning of the relationship, they’re taking an inventory of the qualities you possess that would enable them to exploit you. That means that they’re not only zooming in on your vulnerability, they’re also preying on your resilience and empathy – your ability to bounce back and your capacity to sympathize with their excuses for bad behavior.

When devaluation begins, it’s not always sudden. In fact, it can be like a gunshot in the dark or a quiet murmur in the corner. You just ‘feel’ that something has shifted, but you’re not sure why, how, where, or when. Your lover stops taking your calls. They withdraw without an explanation. You see them interacting with others in a playful, flirtatious way – in the same way they used to act with you. They praise others the way they used to praise you. The once coveted partnership you two used to share seems to have been displaced onto another replacement target (or multiple targets) – someone who is now on the receiving end of the flattery and attention you once cherished.

Meanwhile, you seem to be on the receiving end of their criticism, their harsh insults, their never-ending rage attacks.  The number of disappearances, discrepancies and marked evidence of infidelity start to climb. When they pull away, they pull away with full force – and they enjoy seeing your humiliation when you pine for them. They enjoy actively provoking you to respond, making you out to be the crazy one. And they love bringing in others into the dynamic of the relationship – whether they be friend, foe, ex, or stranger.

Then there is the stone-cold silence after stonewalling you during arguments. The narcissist’s silent treatment is deafening – and it hurts, literally. You feel an invisible, solid wall placed between you two – it’s an inexplicable feeling of being trapped yet tethered. You ache for the person you had constructed in your mind – a person he or she was all too happy to portray for a short period of time.

But the man or woman you love does not exist. And this is a painful reality for anyone – let alone someone who has a high level of investment in the relationship – to swallow.

Targets who are devalued are torn to shreds by the verbal and emotional battery inflicted by their narcissistic partners. Their psyche is infiltrated with disempowering belief systems and messages about their worthiness. They live day-to-day in a perpetual battle – a power struggle that never seems to end. They try not to internalize the criticism and blame, but they feel ashamed about being treated so viciously. This is not a shame that is theirs to carry – it belongs to their perpetrators. Yet they feel it deep down to their bones. It burdens them on sleepless nights and through countless weary days. Throughout the vicious cycle, pain is periodically mixed with pleasure. Victims are overjoyed at receiving crumbs of attention from their abusers – only to be devastated by blow after blow.

Those who are able to survive the devaluation phase unfortunately move onto the final phase (although, to be fair, there is no such thing as a ‘final’ phase to a narcissist, who never seems to let his or her victims go).

THE DISCARD

Those who are able to escape and ‘discard’ the perpetrator first do not really escape, as they tend to be stalked and harassed even years later by the vindictive narcissist.

Those who are discarded suffer a horrific trauma as well – they are pummeled by the narcissist’s cruel and callous indifference as they are seemingly rejected and disposed of by someone who they thought loved them. After having their body, mind and soul violated, used, destroyed, they are then subjected to the ultimate betrayal. They are left in a way that leaves no closure. The discard is staged in a way that is excessively painful and humiliating for the victim. Perhaps it occurs in public, or happens shortly after the narcissist has galivanted off with their new victim. Maybe it is accompanied by a sickening twist of events, an unraveling of shocking truths about the extent of the narcissist’s betrayals or an especially violent rage attack. However it happens, it is merciless and calculated to destroy.

Victims of narcissistic abuse are often brought to their knees and left blindsided by the narcissist’s departure. They are depleted, drained, belittled, diminished. They are left with more questions than answers, more doubt than certainty. Many fall into depression, spells of anxiety, and suffer the symptoms of trauma. In extreme cases, some even commit suicide or get close to the precipice of death. If they are not familiar with or well-versed about the cycle of abuse, they have a tendency to blame themselves for being abused, not realizing that this malignant predator has just sucked them dry.

If the victim survives the discard, the only path left is the long road to healing. That is, unless they become entangled in the narcissist’s games once more and sucked back into the traumatic vortex of the relationship. If so, the cycle just begins again.

Get my #1 Amazon Bestselling Book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare.how-to-devalue-and-discard-the-narcissist-r2-ebook-cover-3

About Shahida Arabi, Bestselling Author

Shahida Arabi is a summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University graduate school, where she studied the effects of bullying across the life-course trajectory. She is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of three books, including Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself, featured as a #1 Amazon Bestseller in three categories and as a #1 Amazon bestseller in personality disorders for twelve consecutive months after its release. Her most recent bookPOWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, was also featured as a #1 Amazon best seller in Applied Psychology.

She is the founder of the popular blog for abuse survivors, Self-Care Haven, which has millions of views from all over the world. Her work has been shared and endorsed by numerous clinicians, mental health advocates, mental health professionals and bestselling authors.

For her undergraduate education, Shahida graduated summa cum laude from NYU where she studied English Literature and Psychology. She is passionate about using her knowledge base in psychology, sociology, gender studies and mental health to help survivors empower themselves after emotional abuse and trauma. Her writing has been featured on The National Domestic Violence Hotline,  Salon, The Huffington Post, MOGUL, The Meadows, Thought Catalog and Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Monica O’Neal’s website.

The Power of Intermittent Reinforcement: Why Trauma Bonding Makes It Difficult To Leave A Toxic Relationship

This story is brought to you by Thought Catalog and Quote Catalog.

By Shahida Arabi

Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards  for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).

In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.

Abuse and Intermittent Reinforcement

There is almost always intermittent reinforcement at work in a relationship with a malignant narcissist or manipulator because abuse is usually mixed in with periodic affection at unpredictable moments. Intermittent reinforcement works precisely because our “rewards” (which could be anything from the fleeting normalcy of affection to a display of the abuser’s remorse) are given to us sporadically throughout the abuse cycle. This causes us to work harder to sustain the toxic relationship because we desperately want to go back to the “honeymoon phase” of the abuse cycle.

Intermittent reinforcement along with the effects of trauma ensure that we become “addicted” to the hope of reaping our “reward” despite evidence that we’re risking our own safety and well-being.

The instability of the abuser ironically drives their victims to become a source of constant stability to them.

This same phenomenon (albeit much more simplistically) is displayed in the behavior of gamblers at slot machines. Despite the low chance of winning, gamblers become “addicted” to investing their hard-earned money just for the chance of a pay-off.

It bears repeating that while this behavior may seem nonsensical on the surface, it’s because humans feel far less incentive to perform a certain behavior when they know it will always yield a reward. An inconsistent, unpredictable cycle of rewards, however, causes them to invest more in the hope for that ever elusive “win.”

Intermittent Reinforcement Literally Causes An Addiction to the Unpredictability of the Abuse Cycle

This effect even works on a biochemical level; when pleasurable moments are few and far in between, merged with cruelty, the reward circuits associated with a toxic relationship actually become strengthened. When pleasure is predictable, our reward circuits become accustomed to it and our brain actually releases lessdopamine over time when with a consistently good partner. It could be argued that in many cases, rejection and chaos by a toxic partner creates an addiction that is far more long-lasting than the predictable quality of “stable” love.

“Most relevant to our story, activity in several of these brain regions has been correlated with the craving of cocaine addicts and other drugs. In short, as our brain scanning data show, these discarded lovers are still madly in love with and deeply attached to their rejecting partner. They are in physical and mental pain. Like a mouse on a treadmill, they are obsessively ruminating on what they’ve lost. And they are craving reunion with their rejecting beloved—addiction.” – Dr. Helen Fisher, Love is Like Cocaine

Dopamine is a powerful “messenger” that tells us what feels pleasurable but also alerts us to what is important for survival; it is the same neurotransmitter that causes the brains of those in love (especially in adversity-ridden relationships) to resemble the brains of cocaine addicts (Smithstein 2010, Fisher, 2016). As Dr. Susan Carnell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, writes in her article, “Bad Boys, Bad Brains”:

“What’s more, if the reward always follows the conditioned cue, then the cue can also become less dopamine—inducing—what’s the point of wasting all that precious motivation potion telling you to pursue a reward when, likely as not, it/he will show up anyway? Dopamine actually flows much more readily when the rewards are intermittent, e.g. you don’t get to eat a cookie every time you see one; or when you see Edward he’s nice to you sometimes…but not always… their sheer unreliability sets off your dopamine neurons.”

The Small Kindness Perception and Why We Stay

We literally become “addicted” to the unpredictability of the abuse cycle (or even just a toxic relationship in general), as well as the severe highs and lows. What’s more, the abuser’s sporadic acts of kindness cause us to mistrust our own gut instincts about their true character and compel us to give more weight to their sob stories after abusive incidents or surprise displays of gentleness. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joe Carver calls this phenomenon “the small kindness perception.”

“When an abuser/controller shows the victim some small kindness, even though it is to the abusers benefit as well, the victim interprets that small kindness as a positive trait of the captor…Abusers and controllers are often given positive credit for not abusing their partner, when the partner would have normally been subjected to verbal or physical abuse in a certain situation…Sympathy may develop toward the abuser and we often hear the victim of Stockholm Syndrome defending their abuser with ‘I know he fractured my jaw and ribs…but he’s troubled. He had a rough childhood!’ Losers and abusers may admit they need psychiatric help or acknowledge they are mentally disturbed, however, it’s almost always after they have already abused or intimidated the victim.” – Dr. Joe Carver, Love and Stockholm Syndrome

As Dr. Joe Carver reminds us, abusers are able to use periodic affection or small acts of kindness to their advantage. By employing pity ploys or giving their victims some affection, a gift, or just the absence of their abuse from time to time, their positive behavior becomes amplified in the eyes of their victims.

Their victims hang onto the hope that these small acts of kindness are evidence of the abuser’s ability to change or at the very least, justification for their malicious behavior. However, Carver is clear that these are excuses and diversions, not signs of redemption. These intermittent periods of kindness rarely last. They are embedded in the abuse cycle as a way to further exploit abuse victims and to manipulate them into staying.

Severing the Trauma Bond

Whether the abuse is primarily physical or psychological, the power of intermittent reinforcement lies in the power of uncertainty. The abuse victim is thrown into self-doubt about the abuse because there are usually periodic moments of affection, apologies and faux remorse involved.

Abusers can deliberately harm you just to seemingly come to your rescue. They act as both the predator and the hero because it causes their victims to become dependent on them after horrific incidents of cruelty. Intermittent reinforcement is used to strengthen the trauma bond – a bond created by the intense emotional experience of the victim fighting for survival and seeking validation from the abuser (Carnes, 2015).

Trauma bonds keep victims attached to their abusers through even the most horrendous acts of psychological or physical violence, because the victim is diminished, isolated and programmed to rely on the abuser for their sense of self-worth.

Victims are then conditioned to seek their abusers for comfort – a form of medicine that is simultaneously the source of the poison.

In order to sever the trauma bond, it is essential that the victim of abuse seek support and get space away from the abuser, whether that come in the form of No Contact or Low Contact in the cases of co-parenting.

The most powerful way to heal from the uncertainty created from intermittent reinforcement is to meet it with the certainty that you’re dealing with a manipulator.

Survivors can benefit from working with a trauma-informed professional to safely get in touch with their authentic anger and outrage at being abused, which will enable them to remain detached from their abuser and grounded in the reality of the abuse they’re experiencing. Learning to identify and “track” the pattern can help to disrupt the vicious cycle before it begins again.

Only when survivors allow themselves the complexity of their emotions towards the abusers can they fully recognize that their investment in their toxic partners has little to no positive return – it is, in fact, a gamble that is far too risky to take in the long run.

Works Cited

 

Carnes, P. (2015). Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships. Health Communications, Incorporated.

 

Carnell, S. (2012, May 14). Bad Boys, Bad Brains. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 16, 2017.

 

Carver, J. (2006, March 6). Love and Stockholm Syndrome. Retrieved November 16, 2017.

 

Fisher, H. (2016, February 04). Love Is Like Cocaine – Issue 33: Attraction. Retrieved November 16, 2017.

 

Skinner, B. F. (1956). A case history in scientific method. American Psychologist, 11(5), 221-233. Retrieved here.

 

Smithstein, S. (2010, August 20). Dopamine: Why It’s So Hard to “Just Say No”. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 16, 2017.

Get my #1 Amazon Bestselling Book, Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare.how-to-devalue-and-discard-the-narcissist-r2-ebook-cover-3

About Shahida Arabi, Bestselling Author

Shahida Arabi is a summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University graduate school, where she studied the effects of bullying across the life-course trajectory. She is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of three books, including Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself, featured as a #1 Amazon Bestseller in three categories and as a #1 Amazon bestseller in personality disorders for twelve consecutive months after its release. Her most recent bookPOWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, was also featured as a #1 Amazon best seller in Applied Psychology.

She is the founder of the popular blog for abuse survivors, Self-Care Haven, which has millions of views from all over the world. Her work has been shared and endorsed by numerous clinicians, mental health advocates, mental health professionals and bestselling authors. For her undergraduate education, Shahida graduated summa cum laude from NYU where she studied English Literature and Psychology. She is passionate about using her knowledge base in psychology, sociology, gender studies and mental health to help survivors empower themselves after emotional abuse and trauma. Her writing has been featured on The National Domestic Violence Hotline,  Salon, The Huffington Post, MOGUL, The Meadows, Thought Catalog and Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Monica O’Neal’s website.