The Ins and Outs of Addictive Relationships

Did you ever wonder why some of the most unpredictable and stressful relationships — are those that are hardest to let go of? Or how experiencing a relationship that goes from hot, to lukewarm, and finally arrives at cold can still make you want to stick around?

These relationships often feel like a baffling and shameful phenomenon. Something that doesn’t help the sense of isolation you experience if you are stuck in one.

What I came to notice, due to being a psychologist and an expert in the treatment of gambling addiction, was the uncanny resemblance between these ‘relationships’ and my gamblers who cannot quit their addiction.

I decided to call these dynamics ‘Roulette relationships’.

Whilst this is not a clinical term, it is one that I feel describes the defining features pretty well.

Roulette relationship checklist

Let’s take a look at some of the telltale signs…

1. Increased and lopsided emotional investment.

In these dysfunctional (yet highly addictive) relationships, your excessive emotional investment leads to significant emotional losses. It won’t be long until you are facing a sense of desperation and despair.

Rather than being put off by their ‘breadcrumbing’ behaviors, the inconsistency and unpredictability act as an addictive potion that maintains and strengthens the feelings of ‘love’.

Just like gamblers, many people suffering in this predicament can’t seem to exit the cycle until they are on the brink of emotional ‘bankruptcy’. The more you throw in, the more stuck you feel.

2. You are so busy micromanaging the dynamic that you fail to see the forest for the trees.

Instead of recognizing that the relationship lacks vital ingredients such as love, mutual interest, and respect, you’re busy ‘searching’ for evidence of affection and signs of impending emotional ‘wins’.

In the midst of anticipation, dopamine surge hits an all-time high. Even a tiny ‘reward’ when in a state of deprivation will feel like hitting the jackpot.

Therefore, even minimal efforts of the counterpart are often enough to subdue your craving for a bit. From the outside looking in; their modest gestures are usually nothing to write home about.

3. Loss of control leads to increasing ‘bets’ on the potential of a partner.

Rather than recognizing their evident inability to be who you want them to be, you up the ante. You hope that by pouring enough love into it- your empty bucket will start filling.

Their occasional hot blows fuel your persistence to keep going. The ‘wins’ mask well the magnitude of losses you have already incurred.

You start thinking that going in harder is going to solve the problem that has its roots in your inability to await reciprocation, and your refusal see reality for what it is!

4. Euphoric recall and nostalgia tripping create powerful cues to return to the relationship, even at times when you tried to call it quits.

The memory of that good feeling plays hard on your mind. In moments of emotionality, all logic goes right out the window.

You think to yourself: ‘They weren’t that bad after all were they….who said I can’t try just a little bit more to get them to come around?’ Distortions are now running the show.

5. An inability to cut the losses and let go. Increased chasing after what feels owed.

Often, the more emotional ‘debt’, the harder the chasing!

6. Mental preoccupation and obsessional thinking.

Attempts to control the outcome of situations by overthinking previous interactions. Parallel to this, the mind also runs wild trying to come up with clever formulas for how to win them over.

You find yourself strategizing for how to make the relationship the ‘fix’ for your emotional discomfort — despite it being the very source of it.

Just like a gambler spends only a fraction of the time actually gambling, but plenty of time obsessing and strategizing for their next bet, you might notice that a disproportionate amount of your time starts getting consumed by incessant daydreaming.

7. Experiences of so-called ‘near misses’ strengthen the belief that the relationship will eventually come to fruition.

This can be in the form of them blowing hot for a bit and then ‘vanishing’, or that you feel connected but simultaneously your experience is ‘denied’ as they refuse to commit.

This all messes with your mind which will try to go into overdrive trying to yield the desired results.

8. Denial and projection.

Like a blank canvas, you draw up a fantasy figure of who you feel they are. The less they give of themselves, the easier it is for you to create.

You genuinely start believing that they are those things you dreamt up. The more you invest in this fantasy, the harder it is to let go of it. 

Rather than getting motivated to cut them loose, you feel the opposite. It feels like continuing to exist with your delusion is your choice of preference.

The alternative, which would be to crashland in a reality, feels ever more distant. Whilst you’ve been busy splashing paint on the canvas, all they have done is help push the paintbrush along here and there.

What makes these relationships so addictive?

In a previous post, I talked about learning theory. More precisely, the article explored behavior modification and reinforcement in relationships. Many of you might also have heard of something called ‘schedules of reinforcement’.

These are part of Skinner’s Operant conditioning principles and pertain to the patterns and frequency with which behaviors get reinforced.

To understand ‘Roulette relationships’ we need to hone in on the concept of intermittent reinforcement schedules. A straightforward way to understand this concept is to use the analogy of gambling.

Intermittent reinforcement can also be used to explain human behavior in a range of other contexts. It offers a powerful understanding of human nature and what motivates us. It also explains how having a behavior rewarded only intermittently, makes us more (rather than less) likely to maintain high motivation to perform, than if that same behavior was rewarded continuously on a predictable interval.

In gambling, you will by definition not get rewarded every time you place a bet. Neither are you entirely deprived of one should you choose to keep gambling. The intermittent reinforcement schedule, that for instance, a slot machine has in operation) features randomized pay-outs that will appear on a variable ratio.

Often wins will vary both in terms of frequency and amounts (sometimes you will have a large win, other times a small one). As you keep gambling, there is often a sense of having some control over the outcome of the game. This is (for the most part) only an illusion.

Like an addicted gambler blaming the machine for their losses (even if the machine does of course play a part in the problem), it is important to keep the focus on the right thing; the person who interacts with the machine.

More precisely, the focal point should be on their inability to operate with boundaries and logic while gambling. The same principle applies to you.

Even if it pains you, (and it will!) remain open-minded and take the view that you do are in part responsible for the problem in your relationship. This is an absolute criterion for you to start your recovery and start letting go.

The addictiveness of intermittent reinforcement

When humans as well as animals, are exposed to a variable reinforcement schedule, we stay keen to perform the behavior that has shown us that it can generate a reward.

B.F Skinner, in his early experiments on animals, was able to demonstrate how pigeons were served a treat only now and then (instead of every time) they pecked at a lever, were more persistent, and stayed motivated for longer than in the conditions where treats were being supplied for every effort.

This means that the behaviors that have been conditioned through randomly occurring reinforcement will be more difficult to break away from than those that have been reinforced with consistently occurring rewards.

Gamblers usually present with an onslaught of obsessional and distorted thinking both prior to, during, and after a gambling episode. 

The brain, in its quest to generate a sense of control, finds random associations that provide an illusion of control over the outcome of the game. Gamblers might start using particular ‘techniques’ to create wins, and at times even develop superstitions.

In the context of relationships, the illusion of control usually translates to believing that something you said or did must have ‘caused’ specific outcomes or that something you didn’t provide is responsible for their sudden drop in affection.

Some people spend extraordinary amounts of time dissecting interactions and text messages in an attempt to ‘understand’ what has happened. It is as though solving the mystery becomes more relevant than the very clear lack of love and attention.

The intermittent hot blows in relationships (which constitute reinforcement) make it difficult to stop a sense of hope from developing. It might feel like you could risk missing out on potential rewards if you were to stop trying.

Like you are only one ‘transaction’ away from getting the commitment that you want. The fact that you occasionally get a glimmer of what you hope for short-term (i.e, a sweet word, an introduction to a close friend) makes you think if only try hard enough they will eventually come around…’.

Much like a kid throwing a tantrum in a sweet store and eventually walking out with a lollipop- you learn that persistence pays off. Even when your input is way out of line with the potential rewards.

You are hooked on a feeling — high on believing

The feeling, quite likely, has little to do with the potential gains from your efforts. Remember, people sometimes get hooked on spending pounds to win back pennies….

The feeling of angst that you have when chasing someone’s love and affection should not be confused with the level of love that exists in the relationship. What happens in the ‘Roulette relationships’ is mere chemistry and addiction, and little to do with anything stable and enduring.

That’s not to say that the target of your affection can’t in some ways be a great person, or that you could have a genuine liking for them. The key point remains: If your relationship matches the hallmarks described above, the only way that you will end up feeling here is out of control.

Like a roulette player, you will feel glued to the table — hungry for a win! The more you lose, the hungrier you get. This behavior can be so incessant, that it can persist despite the fact that you are going into debt.

Do not forget the bottom line in gambling: The house always wins!

4 steps that you must take asap

1. Accept that you will lose it all if you do not stop.

Your emotional investments are not being rewarded. If you are unsure, do check your track record and ensure that you are honest with yourself.

Have the efforts you made and the emotions you invested come with returns? Did they even ask for any of what you gave them? It is important to realize that it is in part your investments that keep you stuck If you stop investing, there will be no pay-outs at all.

This sounds rough, I know, but rather face the music now instead of continuing to empty yourself out.

2. Remember that you have no control — it is all on their terms.

The intermittent hot blows are actually not within reach as much as you might believe they are. They are delivered only when they are in the mood- and their mood is not something you have any control over.

3. Take your share of responsibility for this dynamic.

This one won’t go down well and I am aware of it. The people I see in the clinic who are stuck in this rut are invariably blaming the other person over the mixed signaling.

This is understandable.

A critical step in your recovery is to be accountable and accept that you are as much to blame as them. Sometimes, dare I say even more to blame. You see part of the delusion on your part might be the idea that they possess qualities they don’t actually have. The ability to commit, attentiveness, consistency, etc. You saw those qualities more solidly in the beginning. Later on, they started to just flash past.

Therefore you end up believing they are there simmering under the surface and that they are ‘just hiding them’. It’s just a matter of how you can bring them out again. This I can assure you is an illusion. If these attributes are up for grabs only in bitesize here and there- it is the lack of control over how and when (and if!) they bring these on that you need to remain in tune with.

4. Cut your losses, go no contact and create your own closure.

Moving on from what feels like an ‘unfair ending’, or at its worst; a relationship that felt like a Ponzi scheme is far from easy!

You will feel conned and bereft. Sad and angry. You will feel compelled to search for answers and desperate to squeeze those answers out of them. Often through trying to appeal to their greater good.

Please trust that none of this will help you one bit. Nor will it be possible.

Think back to the roulette player again and picture yourself ambushing the croupier for an explanation of why you are now broke.

It is on you to stop playing.

The key is to disregard your ‘cravings’ for closure and more wins and get on board with the idea that having some capital left at the end of this venture is going to serve you better.

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