Everything was fine at first, but then the relationship turned into a real emotional swing: hot and cold, and I can’t leave. Does this sound familiar to you? Many of our readers complain about emotional addiction. We asked an expert to tell us in detail how it is formed.
One of the most powerful mechanisms for the formation of emotional dependence is irregular and gradually fading reinforcement. This pattern applies not only to actions, but also to emotional reactions.
For example, smiling sweetly in response to angry whining and grumbling can quietly reinforce that anger and grow it to impressive ugliness in form and size.
In experiments that have now become classic, animals and humans easily abandoned persistent behaviour if previously rewarded regularly and then abruptly stopped rewarding it. In such cases, the individual tried to regain the lost reinforcement very vigorously, vigorously, emotionally, but not for long. So, suddenly and without fail, if we stop smiling at a grouch, we are likely to get an explosion of irritation and whining, but not for long.
If behaviour is rewarded with some high frequency, but not all the time, subjects repeated the learned reactions for much longer without meaningful consequences.
Even more persistent are reactions that are reinforced unpredictably and at first quite frequently, and then less frequently with progressively fading probability. This is a normal mechanism for forming sustained behaviour – no one praises us for dressing ourselves now, although they probably did in the beginning.
The problem, however, is that emotional dependencies are formed in the same way
So imperceptibly people become accustomed to catering to emotionally unstable partners whose positive responses are unpredictable and gradually become more and more rare and inarticulate. So imperceptibly many partners of addicted individuals become accustomed to hoping and waiting for a brief enlightenment in a drug or alcohol binge.
The same mechanism is widely used in cults. At first for every “right” thought or guru service you receive a lot of approval and even admiration, and then it becomes incidental and increasingly rare.
If this is done discreetly and smoothly, after a while one may find that one is toiling for the good of the organisation and the guru without any support or reward. One of the most powerful mechanisms for forming emotional dependency is irregular and gradually fading reinforcement.