Why We Stay

Oct 20, 2022

What do dog trainers, psychologists, casino owners, and parents of toddlers have in common?

They are all familiar with the concept of intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement occurs when rewards, rules or personal boundaries are given out, or enforced, sporadically.  This encourages the animal, the child or the other adult to keep pushing until they get what they want from you without changing their own behavior.

For example, you’re more apt to successfully train Fido to bring that tennis ball back to you and drop it at your feet if you don’t give him a treat every time.  Just some of the time.

In a different example, if I give my daughter two Oreos, and she asks for a third, it’s likely she will keep asking until she’s sure that “no” actually means “no.” If her begging and pleading wear me down and I relent, then she learns that “no” occasionally means “yes” and that nagging me long enough could make my “no” turn to a “yes”.  My daughter is not spoiled.  Instead, I have intermittently reinforced her behavior.

Intermittent reinforcement is also what keeps people bellied up to slot machines.  Gamblers put in their money because they usually receive occasional, small payouts, and infrequent medium-sized payouts.  Of course, they’re all dreaming of that rare, large payout, and the smaller payouts infrequent payouts keep them hoping, even if they’re putting more money into the machine then they’re receiving back from it!

Great.  How does this apply to my relationship or my marriage, you may wonder?  Well, here’s the thing.  Many of us remain in relationships that may be dysfunctional or unhappy.  Why?  Intermittent reinforcement.  Maybe the relationship is difficult or painful a lot of the time, but then we have a jolt of the good stuff – a vacation.  A great roll in the hay.  Or a promise that he’ll never drink again, coupled with a few weeks of sobriety.  We release some of the bonding hormone known as oxytocin, and we nest.  We “forget” about the drudgery.  The pain.  The disconnection – if only for a little while.  Maybe this isn’t so bad after all?  And then the turmoil returns.  Sound familiar?

Intermittent reinforcement is based on the hope that things have really changed.  For good.  We invest in a dream that this was the turning point – an indication of better things to come.  We had a fun time on vacation, so maybe the fun is back in our marriage.  But it’s just a little vignette, not the whole story, which is that the relationship is difficult and painful most of the time.

We need to look for consistency.  And we need to look at the whole situation from a detached perspective, which substitutes out our emotions in favor of reality and good judgment.  In other words, we need to do what makes sense, as opposed to what feels good.  So, if our spouse has had a drinking problem for years, and then cobbles together two weeks of sobriety, followed by a weekend bender, then no amount of wishing (“he stopped once, so he can do it again – this was just a little slip up”) is going to change the fact that he’s now actively drinking again, which is his pattern historically.


Where in our relationships are we inserting our hopes for what could be versus what is and has been?  What do we wish would change?  What do the facts say about our mates, ourselves and our marriages?  What have we been tolerating for way too long, waiting on promises that fall short?  When you start to ask these questions, the chances are that intermittent reinforcement is probably at work, nurturing your hopes when the facts say otherwise.