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Dating: Choosing Abuse or Loneliness
We all know what positive reinforcement is: Something you give to someone to increase behavior you want. You give it following the behavior and, if done with skill and intelligence, it will lead to more of the same. For example, you tell the woman you’re out with, “You’re so pretty,” just after she accepted another date with you and you can be fairly certain that, barring anything stupid you do, you’ll get still another date out of the deal in the future. That’s positive reinforcement.
Punishment you know only too well. It’s something that follows an undesired behavior and serves to decrease the probability of that behavior happening again. When your date got up and walked out following your picking your teeth at the table, that was punishment (unless of course you wanted her to walk out).
It’s negative reinforcement that confuses people, and that’s bad because it’s dangerous. It’s the decreasing of pain following some behavior of yours. So, for example, on April 15 you file your yuchy taxes and on April 16, you breathe a deep sigh and feel like the world is no longer resting on your shoulders (unless, of course, you had to send a very large check with the return, in which case this example doesn’t apply). That’s negative reinforcement: the relief and joy you feel when you are no longer suffering.
Another example: You broke your back, your shoulders, your rear end, your brain and whatever else studying for some awful exam. It’s over. Whew. Negative reinforcement.
So here’s a little more complex example of it: You’ve been single and lonely for quite some time. At last, you meet up with an attractive person who asks you out. The pain of loneliness is over! That’s negative reinforcement. So, you’re going to ask me, what’s wrong with that? Plenty.
When you go out to chase away loneliness, you will be blind to the attributes of the person who has just rescued you from it. You will enlarge the good and overlook the bad. In fact, you will build up an incredible tolerance for that which is bad because nothing, absolutely nothing, is as bad as loneliness.
That is, until you find yourself in an abusive relationship. Or with a cheater, or a narcissist. Gradually, the pain builds and builds. Eventually, you can’t overlook it. A point comes when you can’t stand the pain and you tell so-and-so to get lost. Aha! Freedom. At least for a while. Gradually, the pain of loneliness comes creeping back into the shadows of your heart and—what do you do?—you pick up the phone and call the person who told you to do something with yourself that was not at all nice.
Researchers did some fascinating experiments with laboratory mice and the concept of negative reinforcement. The mice were trained to press a bar to avoid shocks. Now, they divided up the animals into two groups. In one group, they unexpectedly raised the voltage rather dramatically. One would expect the animals to do some serious bar-pressing, but it didn’t happen that way. They froze and cowered in a corner until the experiment stopped.
The other group was given the opportunity to “get used to” the shock by increasing the voltage very slowly. Guess what? This group became excellent bar-pressers. They tolerated the shock long enough to press, press, press. No protest; no cowering in a corner; no crying, nothing. The mice just tolerated the shocks between presses.
An interesting consideration is: Which group was more mentally healthy? Nice question, huh? I personally would vote for the group cowering in the corner. They knew what was bad and they protested in the only way they could. The other group had adapted.
How much emotional pain are you willing to tolerate to avoid the worse pain of loneliness? Consider this: When you have absorbed unreasonable amounts of pain, are you fully alive?