Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Compulsive Love: When Hooked on Intermittent Reinforcement

Compulsive love is not unlike compulsive gambling.  A notable highlight of a gambling addiction is what is called intermittent reinforcement.  There are several ways to support the continuation of a certain behavior.  We can positively reinforce a behavior by continuously acknowledging it.  For example, when a child gets a good grade, he gets praise.  We can also reinforce a negative behavior by consistently giving it attention.  Receiving attention only when you do something wrong, actually encourages that behavior.  Or, we can limit a behavior by giving it a negative consequence.  A "friends are off limits on Friday nights if grades go down,” is an example.  If you change the way you stroke behaviors, the behaviors can be changed somewhat readily. 

The most challenging reinforcement of a behavior is intermittent.  You never know when you will be rewarded or punished.  In gambling, for instance, you might play for an hour and not win anything.  Then just as you play the last quarter, you get ten more.  Now you are likely to stay and see if you can win again.  This is true of highly addictive romantic relationships.  You may put in more than you receive and, just as you are about to end the relationship, you are given just enough for you to feel hopeful about the possibility.  Thus you stay.

Trent’s Story
He told me he had a serious love addiction problem.  He had given up on a dull thirteen year marriage to begin a search for love.  He could not imagine his life without achieving it.  He met Cassie, fell deeply in love both romantically and sexually.  The problem seemed that she both wanted to be in and out of the relationship and continued to give him “come close, go away” messages.  He moved in with her and then was asked to move out.  He would be about ready to face the pain of an ending and she would call and want to see him.  He could not refuse in that she had become the center of his universe. On one day he would know she was not able to meet his needs and the next day he was the center of her world.  As this intermittent reward pattern continued he began to feel an internal desperation for her approval and felt more hooked into the possibility that eventually she would want him all of the time. The good times seemed to negate the bad times. 

His emotions and his health were teetering in response to her actions.  It was as though he had only one leg to his table—Cassie— and if it was not there he would collapse.  I encouraged him to build a four legged table and that all of the legs be his.  He needed to establish consistent reward systems in many places, look for love internally, and even more important, heal from a childhood that gave him a clear message that he was unwanted and unlovable.  Until he did so he would be vulnerable to Cassie’s inability to know what she wanted and remain in despair.  He too, had a come close, go away pattern to deal with.  He did not choose her by accident.
We cannot change others no matter how much we love them. We can invite a partner to change through changing our self. That is what Trent had to do. So what are the four legs of the table Trent had to work on to stop empowering Cassie?

1.   Find a healthy support group such as LAA or SLAA 12 step group or form his   own if he couldn’t find one.   He could not do this alone.
2.  Change his thinking.  Look at ways he rationalized or defended staying or not confronting negative patterns or beliefs about himself. Learn about compulsive or addictive love through reading.
3.  Get back into spiritual integrity.  Compulsive or addictive love pulled him out of balance and personal integrity.  He had made Cassie his God. 
4.  Work through the psychodynamic or trauma that kept him replaying the same relationship patterns over and over. 

If the intermittent reinforcement continues to pull at a person then it is time to let go of the relationship and letting go of someone we want to love and love us back is one of the most difficult tasks we encounter. But with the above in place it is possible. 

From Is It Love or Is It Addictions -3rd edition


  1. Dear Brenda,

    Thank you for the wisdom you so generously share with the world . . . and each of us in it. Your caring, compassion and insight are truly inspiring.

    Thanks again,
    Dennis Brose

  2. I'm currently trying to move on from an addictive relationship and the Trent/Cassie story describes pretty exactly my story. It's conforting to know that this kind of thing is much more common than I thought.

    I almost went crazy because of this, and almost no one could really understand what I am going through