Many of us have been there. Seemingly stuck in an unhealthy relationship, carried along on a roller coaster of emotions, and finding ourselves having great difficulty walking away. Some of you may not have been in a relationship like this one, but likely you’ve seen someone you care about, a friend or a family member, go through this process.  You’ve wondered why they kept returning to someone who treated them badly.


We often think persons in these relationships have some sort of deficiency—low self-confidence, or an inability to realize things won’t get better, or not recognizing they deserve more.  And while these may be factors, we should not underestimate the power of brain to pull us towards these situations over and over again. The fact is, when it comes to these high drama, unstable relationships, our brains are often working against us.


Intermittent reward is not the sexiest of terms.  But it actually does apply to sex, or, at least, sexual relationships.  And it gets us into deep, deep trouble. Essentially, intermittent reward is the concept that when we encounter something pleasurable, that is also unpredictable, our brains actively try to keep bringing us back to that pleasurable feeling.  The brain tries repeatedly, and sometimes obsessively, to figure out what sequence of events or behaviors will lead to it getting the pleasurable reward.


The classic example for this is a slot machine.  Much of the time you’re not going to win much of anything, but the fact that rewards do happen, the fact that you could win money, keeps your brain focused on pulling the lever over and over again. If you never won, and never saw anyone else at a slot machine win, your brain would eventually get bored and signal for you to move on.  Or even if you won all the time, you might keep going in order to line your pockets, but your brain would not signal the same level of excitement, because the reward is predictable. Instead, what happens with slot machines is that sometimes you win and often you don’t, and so your brain becomes wholly focused on determining the pattern; your excitement level remains high, and it can be more difficult to get up and walk away.


This concept is one of the many reasons that it can be difficult to leave an unhealthy or outright abusive relationship.  The fact is, even the worst relationships typically aren’t bad all the time, and those intermittent good times are what our brains are trying to get back to. Much like a dog circling for the right spot, the brain goes around and around, searching for a non-existent pattern that would unlock the enjoyment we sometimes feel in the relationship.


I’d like to tell you that there is some easy way to break this cycle, that you just [insert behavior here], and your brain stops telling you to pursue this relationship.  Unfortunately, there isn’t.  But I think there is power in recognizing what’s happening in the mind, and understanding that this mechanism can drive behaviors that you didn’t even think you were capable of. I also think there’s power in acknowledging what you feel, and beginning to accept the loss of what you wish you had with this person.  To say, “I love them, and I’m not ready to leave, but this is not enough.  This is not good enough for me.”  You may not be able to walk away immediately after recognizing this, but I do think it can help put you on the path to move forward.


Acknowledging this also offers us a model for how we can show empathy for people who find it difficult to leave an unhealthy relationship. How often have we heard that if that person would just love themselves or have better self-esteem, they would simply walk away? But beyond the fact that there is often real love for the partner, the brain is literally working against the person in this instance, making it much more difficult to just move on or end the relationship.


The comedian Chris Rock has a bit about how unhealthy relationships are exciting, you never know what’s going to happen; while healthy relationships are predictable, a constant, and therefore boring.  While I’d push back on the notion that healthy relationships are dull, it’s certainly true that they’re not tapping into the same powerful, obsessive, and addictive neural pathways that unstable relationships are. We’re best served when we can recognize the pattern of these relationships early on, and hopefully get out before our brains have become too hooked.