Intermittent reinforcement is when rewards are handed out inconsistently and occasionally. If you grew up with a mother who was sometimes totally involved and other times too depressed to talk to you, or your father was loving when sober but abusive when drunk, you might be more vulnerable to falling in love with addicts or schizoid men when you are an adult. You're also likely to have developed a narrative about what you could have done to get Mom to be engaged or Dad to stop hitting you.
Many of us have been on the wrong side of intermittent reinforcement — hungering for the crumbs that we sometimes get and sometimes don't — hoping that this time we will get it. Addiction to intermittent schedules of reinforcement occurs at work as well as in love relationships. Indeed, it's the reason gambling is so problematic. Sometimes you win and that keeps you going back for more, but then you lose and lose and lose. For those who are addicted, there's always the hope that next time you will win.
Barbara’s parents were divorced when she was very young and she lived with her mother in California. Her father moved to Colorado and she visited him during school vacations and summers. When she spent time with her father, he could be intensely engaged with her, or he could be stoned and off with his friends. When she left, they waved goodbye and he made no effort to see her until the next school vacation.
For many years, Barbara avoided having anything but purely sexual relationships with men as a way of protecting herself from disappointment. But in her late thirties, she met Jim on an internet dating site. They texted and Skyped many times each day, and after several weeks, she flew to Vancouver to meet him. They spent an ecstatic few days together and then she returned home.
He didn’t call her; he didn’t text her; he didn’t respond to her phone messages. Barbara was devastated. When he finally called, she was furious at him. He said he was studying for his bar exam. She continued the relationship despite her anger at him. He told her he had children living with his ex-wife right near Barbara’s house, but he hadn’t visited them in years. None of this discouraged her. She was in love with him.
She flew to Vancouver to visit him again and he said he didn’t have time to spend with her. She was furious when she returned home, but she did not end the relationship. Why? Clearly, Jim was like her father. He lived far away and seemed intensely involved with her and then not at all involved with her. The dynamic brought back all her childhood yearning/rage for her father. “He loves me, he loves me not” was addictive.
Women who grow up with intermittent reinforcement from parents are more vulnerable to getting involved with men who inconsistent because they are substance abusers or schizoid personalities. The alternation of intense involvement and cold distance strikes a familiar chord and sets off the fantasy that you can love this person so much that he will give up his addiction or not withdraw or leave when the involvement gets strong. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case. (For more about the schizoid personality, see this post.)