Are you in a relationship with unpredictable rewards

In 2008, I had a client who explained to me there was once an experiment that was done with pigeons (I have since found out it the experiment was actually done with rats and that this process is called “Intermittent Reinforcement” see here >>). She explained that In this experiment, the pigeons were divided into 3 groups. While each group was fed through having to peck a metal plate, not every group would experience the same result. The experiment is below:

Group 1: The pigeons were trained that whenever they pecked a metal plate birdseed would come out.  Then, the result was changed so that when the pigeons pecked on the metal plate, nothing would come out. At first, the birds would peck at the metal plate all the time to see if the food would come out. However, the pigeons learned to expect, after a while, that if they kept tapping the plate nothing would happen. So, this group of pigeons eventually gave up.

Group 2: The pigeons were trained that whenever they tapped a metal plate birdseed would come out. As the pigeons learned to trust that they could have birdseed whenever they pecked the plate, they learned to only peck at it whenever they felt hungry.

Group 3: With this group of pigeons, it was inconsistent whether birdseed would be released if the metal plate was pecked.  So, they learned that sometimes, when pecked, the metal plate would release birdseed. Other times, nothing would happen. This made the pigeons more compulsive when it came to pecking the plate. The pigeons pecked and pecked, knowing that at times they would be rewarded for it.  However, such a reward was never predictable.

Relationships, and the attachments and obsessions that form around them, can operate in the same way that this experiment does. The relationships where a person feels the least needy and likely to obsess are going to be the relationships where a person knows that their needs are being met and that love is always available and consistent (like group 2 of the pigeons).

On the other hand, when love is never available, usually the unrequited lover will give up and eventually aim to have their needs met elsewhere (much like the pigeons in group 1).

However, sometimes love can be unpredictable. Sometimes lovers may be rewarded unpredictably by partners who are only half interested, non-committal, or playing games (or the field). In such a case, the half-requited love interest can potentially begin to mirror the symptoms of the pigeons in group 3. This is natural that it would happen. The rewards of being loved “sometimes” are enough to keep a person “trying” within a relationship. This can be true even in situations where a person is being show affection one moment and stood up the next (or not called, withheld love and affection etc.).

What can make a romantic situation even more difficult is if deception is involved; i.e. a person is told by their love interest what they want to hear. Such love interests are usually motivated by a desire to use, abuse or manipulate a partner to satisfy their own self-serving agenda. For example, Casanovas often are very romantic and know how to manipulate emotions and passions through using endearing words such as “I love you.” Another example is the partner who fiercely denies disloyalty when infidelities are occurring or even accuses their love interest of being “crazy” or “paranoid” for suspecting anything. It gives a sense of false security in which the love interest can begin to doubt their intuition or perceptions.

As a result of being in such relationships, some individuals can naturally become obsessive, needy and insecure. They find themselves testing or questioning their partner at times hoping to receive validation or positive pecks (or alternatively some closure). They never know when they will be rewarded with nurturing and love.  They only know that their love is reciprocated sometimes; though reciprocation never seems that predictable.

Another danger can happen when a person who is actually in group 1 (their love interest is not returning any affection) starts receiving false positive “pecks” from other places. For example, they may be seeking the advice of friends, psychics or others who continue to insist that the love object is thinking of them, misses them, is loyal to them etc. (when there is no evidence that this is the case). Sometimes, individuals are told that their obsessive thoughts are evidence that they are “picking up on” the feelings of their distant love interest. When not the case, this can prevent those who have been rejected from healing their own sadness or acknowledging their own pain, and suggests the emotions they feel are not their own but belong to a love interest who feels some block to reaching out or connecting in a whole-hearted way.

Another danger can happen when someone is told that their love interest is a twin flame or soul mate.  This, again, may end up setting up the dynamic of the pigeon group 3. A person might end up living out their relationship in their head, through waiting for “signs” (such as seeing their name somewhere, dreams, 11:11, etc.) or searching for reason why their phone never rings (imagining their love interest is blocked, reserved, hiding their love or coming up with all sorts of excuses). Such a person ends up looking for little ways to receive some “positive pecks” that their love interest loves them or that something is destined or meant to be.  So, care needs to be taken not to invest too much in seeking outside counsel in a way that it prevents one from moving on when this would be the best action to take.

So, how can one help them self if one finds oneself mirroring the third group of pigeons?

If you find yourself excessively needing to proverbially “peck at that metal plate” for nurturing to come out (mentally through obsession or with a partner), maybe it is time to either sit down and talk about the relationship with your love interest and any games being played. If there is no way to have such a talk, or if the partner isn’t open to acknowledging anything, then it may be time to focus on how to get rewarded—nurturing and love—in a more rewarding place. We all deserve to be loved whole-heartedly, after all, and not through unpredictable rewards!

If you feel you need extra support to deal with such a situation, counseling and coaching is always recommended. There is a lot of information and resources available on the net on this topic, as well. A great site on this topic is The founder, Susan Peabody, has written a lot on this type of subject and has a book based on this subject: Addiction to Love: Overcoming Obsession and Dependency within a Relationship. Sometimes healing modalities such as EFT can help with some of the emotions, pain and confusion that come up. It may also help to break any addictive patterns.