The Narcissist’s One Trick That Can Keep Us Hooked Forever

Casinos know it. Animal trainers count on it. Narcissists have perfected it.

It’s the powerful emotional tool known as intermittent reinforcement, and when used correctly, it guarantees to get—and keep—virtually anyone hooked on anything.

Intermittent reinforcement is when one person in a relationship metes out or reinforces rules, rewards or boundaries occasionally or inconsistently. Instead of discouraging the other person, intermittent reinforcement actually does the opposite. It fuels their attempts to extract the reward once again, keeping them hopelessly locked onto the relationship.

Take for example a parent who says “no” to their child 90% of the time. It’s the 10% of the time the parent backtracks, which incites the child to whine, throw tantrums, or harangue to get another yes. Animals will do tricks every time, even after the trainer withholds the reward, like B.F. Skinner’s rat that hits the bar repeatedly for the chance pellet, over and over, whether it gets one or not. Gamblers, too, know that the intermittent reinforcement of the random, small pay out, will keep them at the slot machines until they empty their purses or pockets.

Those of you obsessed with checking your Tinder account, Tumblr blog, or Twitter, for the ambivalent thrill that comes with those hit-or-miss shots of validation, know what I’m talking about.

The narcissist knows what I’m talking about too. He is adroit at delivering a ping of validation when he senses you’re about to pull away, just to keep you tied to a relationship that serves his needs, usually at your expense.

It’ll be bad bad bad bad, but then all of a sudden good, and you are fooled into thinking good is here to stay. So you stay too. And like Skinner’s rat that starved to death in pursuit of the ever-diminishing, random reward, chances are you too will tolerate increasingly abusive conditions in the hope of catching hold again of a (brief) encounter with good.

But with a narcissist, the good is fleeting by design. That’s intermittent reinforcement.

If you’ve ever been stuck in the sticky grip of a narcissist, you know the drill. When the two of you first meet, the narcissist floods you with expressions of love. You are beautiful, witty, enchanting, the woman he’s always wanted but didn’t think existed. His search is over. Your shoulders relax, you let down your walls, throw open the gates. Your heart sings. You let yourself believe you’ve finally found the one.

Then, without warning, the narcissist switches tracks. Out of nowhere, you can’t do anything right. The qualities in you that she first exalted, are now your worst faults. She’s bored with you, disinterested. She starts to mention other guys, her old boyfriend. You think, what happened? You review everything she said, examining past events for clues that she really cared. Let’s see, she went to my hockey games, came with me to visit my mom in the hospital. Stuck love notes in my gym bag. Didn’t all that mean she loved me? What happened? Is it me?

No. It’s not you. You’re just caught in the narcissist cycle. The D&D, devalue and discard phase. The narcissist practice of projecting their internalized self-hate and disdain onto you, by doing and saying things to make you feel invalidated, rejected, and insecure.

Most of us with even a shot glass of self-esteem get hip to this, and decide to say sayonara. That’s when the narcissist will employ the emotional hook: Intermittent reinforcement. To keep you from exiting, the narcissist will do an about face, and signal you’re back in. He’s on time, attentive, he brings your favorite take out, remembers it’s your dog’s birthday. He takes you in his arms, the clouds part, and the light of his love shines down on you once more. You exhale with relief.

It won’t last. Doesn’t matter. Most of us will cleave to those haphazard disbursements as evidence that a loving, reciprocal relationship is still possible. After the investment we’ve made in the narcissist, we’re already set up to seize on reasons to ignore the bad stuff. So we hang in, continue to chase the good. The narcissist delivers her well-timed, little ping. We’re hooked.

The problem is, over time, the episodes of intermittent reinforcement get fewer and fewer, and the incidents of D&D increase. But the pain of D&D will never loosen the hook, as long as the narcissist continues to fall back on intermittent reinforcement. The only way to get free, is to adopt a strict no contact policy. The sooner the narcissist becomes a memory, the better off you’ll be.

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Cynthia Evans
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  1. OH MY GOD, this is my life story with my second husband. Looking back, it was all too quick. At the start, i was his world and he had never loved anyone like he loved me (idolise stage) with intermittant reinforcement for good measure. Always felt i had done something wrong to loose favour with him and make him feel insecure. Was with him for fourteen years and was crushed under his emotions. After my sister passed away in 2014 and his lack of empathy and decency toward me and my feelings i left in Sept 2014 to try and find me again.
    After leaving, the love bombing started, he said he was wrong in how he had treated me and my feelings in the past and that his life was empty without me in it and he couldnt function without me. Long story short, i thought maybe i had overthought his bad behaviour and if i could draw a line in the sand and start again, things could be better than ever. Didnt move back, but left the door open for him and we started seeing a counsellor in Feb 2015. The counsellor thought that most of the issues in the relationship were mine and i was too controlling. After three years of taking 2 steps forward and three steps back in the relationship, i came to the realisation that his whole life was and still is a lie. Even while we wer going thorough counsellling he was in a relationship with at least two other women both sexual and emotional. I was meant to be ok with that because i couldn’t meet his sexual needs. Went no contact 1st May 2017 . It’s probably the hardest thing i have ever had to do. Have good days and bad days and some soul destroying days, usually if i let my demons tell me that maybe i’m the problem and i should be more forgiving. Like i said, my life is still a work in progress and i am looking foward to the day i don’t second guess my choices.

  2. This article really hits home. I relate to every word of this. Great article and so true.
    After over 8 years of that abuse, I am now on my fourth month of the no contact policy… and completely done. It’s the only way, and hopefully time will be kinder to me, as my whole life was broken to bits, and I am still picking up the pieces, one by one.

    If you are in a situation like this… Get out sooner than later… “What you allow will continue”…