Why do I stay “stuck” in difficult relationships?

Relationship crisis in bed

This article needs context.  I am a strong proponent for long-term, committed relationships.  I firmly believe that it is only through the often-difficult process of being in relationship with others that we are invited to examine the best and worst of ourselves through the lens of another.  How else would we ever identify and confront who we really are rather than continue to rely on our distorted and biased self-perception.  our selfishness, our insecurities, our struggles faults and foibles  of the process of being that I often ask people who are struggling in difficult relationships why they stay with their partner.  First, I genuinely want to know if there are individual belief systems, values, or cultural / religious mores that I need to be respected.  Second, I am probing for the client’s motivations that either need to be challenged (e.g., poor self-esteem) and/or strengthened (e.g., learning to be more vulnerable, intentional, less reactive) as we define therapeutic goals.

It is not uncommon, however, for the client to weakly try to assert that they “love” their partner, even after they have described a very pernicious, or harmful, relationship – devoid of trust, mutual respect, playfulness, joy, or real connection.  At other times the person will squirm with chagrin and lament that they “don’t know” why they stay together, usually followed up with some disparaging remark about feeling “stupid.”  

First, if you feel stuck in a difficult relationship, it is important that you know that you are not stupid.  Ending a committed relationship and disentangling shared lives is often a very complex and difficult process that can affect many aspects of our lives and should therefore be considered with care.

Second, there are myriad contributing factors that explain why we stay in less-than-ideal situations, that range from the personal (e.g., insecurities, ambivalence, honoring the commitment) to the more pragmatic (e.g., finances, children, mutual social groups).  Today, however, I want to focus on an explanation that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and that is Intermittent Variable Reinforcement (IVR).  

Intermittent Variable Reinforcement:

IVR could also be referred to as the “slot machine effect,” which is a well-known example of how this principle works.  The reinforcement (or reward) is intermittent (or random) both in terms of frequency as well as stimulus value: You never know when you will “win,” or how much.  This is the most confusing and difficult learning platform to understand that you are caught up in, which is why it is so hard to exit. 

First, let’s consider how we respond to a more predictable reinforcement schedule.  Imagine that you are a rat in a cage, and you discover that, whenever you push a lever, a food pellet appears.  As a result, you will eventually learn to push the lever to receive food (operant conditioning).  But what happens after a few weeks when someone unplugs the pellet delivery machine and the food pellet no longer appears?  You will keep pushing the level for a time.  Then you will then have a little rat tantrum and bang the lever repeatedly (extinction burst).  Finally, you will then stop returning to the lever – because it is obviously broken!  

But what happens when the feeder operates on an IVR schedule?  You, as a rat, push the lever (once, twice, 14 times – you never know) until a food pellet comes out (or six or 32 pellets – you never know!).  But because of how random it is, you can’t figure the system out.  So, what happens when the pellet delivery machine is unplugged?  You keep pushing!  Sure, you may have a few rat tantrums and rattle the bar in frustration, you may even give up on the lever for a time… but you keep coming back to it.  You wonder, “What if I just need to just push it once more time?”  You’ve been trained to keep trying, even when you are uncertain of the reward.  So, you keep coming back to the lever.

Consequences of IVR:

Taking too much responsibility:

There are several subtle, but deleterious, consequences of trying to resolve, or fix, a relationship that involves IVR.  The first is that we often internalize the outcome.  That is, we unconsciously take responsibility for whether we can make the relationship work – or not.  After all, the brain is a problem-solving machine.  That’s why we can learn from trial and error (operant conditioning); we keep banging on things until we make it work, often without any reward or satisfaction for a good while.  But even more so if we have experienced the positives that can occur in an IVR dynamic.  That is, if I know that my partner can be sensitive and caring, I unconsciously go about trying to figure out what I can do to make them behave like that more often.  

Notice that we seem to have a difficult time accepting that we may not be able to fix the problem, because that would mean that there is no hope for changing the conditions to be more favorable.  But the result of believing that we can figure out the problem implies that it is our fault when we can’t (also see dilemma of acceptance vs control).  Even with an inanimate object (e.g., slot machine) we can develop superstitious behaviors out of a desire to believe that we can effect a change.  And this is in the absence of feedback, or blame, from the slot machine.  You can imagine how much more confusing it is when our partner is telling us what we are doing wrong (also see internalizers vs externalizers)!

Staying Too Long:

Another consequence of an IVR relationship is that we often stay too long trying to figure it out.  We become so invested in wanting to believe that there is something that we can do that will create a more consistently positive dynamic, that we lose perspective.  Or we want to imagine that some event or situational variable will change things for the better.  So we hold out hope that, once our partner gets a less stressful job, or we catch up on bills, or his chronic pain / alcohol use / depression, etc. improves – then things will get better.  Much like playing a slot machine, we become so hopeful that the next pull of the lever will finally bring a payout, that we lose sight of the bigger picture; and then we realize that we have been at the casino for five hours and lost $1000 without realizing it.  

Or, perhaps more tragically, that we have been in this IVR (e.g., chaotic, unpredictable) relationship for 10+ years, and now what do we do?  We become invested.  We now need it to work.  Much like someone with a gambling problem, it becomes increasingly difficult to walk out of the casino when we are down a significant amount of money – and even more so if we have lost way mor than we intended.  We now feel like we must make up for what has been lost.  In a similar fashion, every year “stuck” in a bad relationship can often make it harder to leave, because we would feel “stupid” to admit that we wasted as much time as we have – and often against the advice of family and friends.

Moreover, by this point the blame that we put on ourselves for not being able to “fix” the relationship, often coupled with the blame put on us by our partner, has likely damaged our self-concept, or self-esteem, leaving us even more discouraged about finding a more positive and consistent partner.  So, we persist trying to figure out what we can do to make the relationship better, which circles back to taking too much responsibility, being overly invested, and staying too long.

A few final thoughts: 

In my nearly 20 years of practicing psychology, my anecdotal experience is that, far from being “stupid,” clients who are caught in an IVR dynamic are often very bright, relationally motivated, and competent.  My theory is that people who are normally very good at being able to identify, problem solve, and overcome issues in their lives are perhaps more prone to remaining in inconsistent situations because they are used to being able to find a way to effect change and improve outcomes.  In as much as this theory may have some explanatory validity, I wonder that personal attributes such as cognitive capacity, emotional intelligence, loyalty, etc., may have some correlation (among many other factors, I’m sure) with staying “stuck” in – while trying to understand and “fix” – inconsistent and/or just negative situations.