Partial Reinforcement: Like Glue for a Love Addict

This is how slot machines work. You put in one dollar: nothing. You put in another: still nothing. But on the fifth time, you win $20, so you put in more. You put in more and more, looking for that good feeling of winning again, and here and there, without reason or logic, you get more back. Add it all up in the end, of course, and you’ve lost way more than you received. That’s partial reinforcement. It is the most binding of all reinforcements, and it is glue for a love addict. I should know.

My boyfriend was a man who didn’t really want to be with me. Or rather, he did sometimes, but not all the time. And I chose to stay.

Want to make me never leave? Bring me all the way in and then walk away. Then come back, and with no warning, decide you have to pull away again. Do this just a few times, and I am all yours. All love addicts will be all yours. They will be miserable. They will lose their minds. They will do things like snoop through your phone and spend days immobile and crying in bed, but they will be yours.

The first time I snooped was unintentional. He was out of the house, at a party. One of his children, living with us as well, asked to use his father’s computer, and when I opened it, my boyfriend’s Facebook page was up. Without giving myself time to think about it, I opened the Messenger tab, and sure enough, there were messages he’d been exchanging with yet another woman he told me he had feelings for, making plans for lunch. This wasn’t the first woman he’d developed feelings for. The first was his ex-wife. Then there was a random friend of mine. Then someone he went to school with. Some days he’d be unreachable, and then he’d tell me he thought we needed to break up. In between, he wanted me. He said he couldn’t leave because of how much he loved me. In between, we had fun. He was kind.

When he wasn’t home, I opened his email. I figured out the passcode on his phone and went into his texts. If a text arrived, and it was from a woman for whom he’d told me he had desire—which, incidentally, was almost all the women he knew—I had to resist looking, because to do so would remove the new text from the face of his phone, and he would know I’d been there.

At this time in my life, I still believed the thing I’d believed my entire life: I was unlovable. I would never be chosen over others. I believed, deep down, that I was garbage. This wasn’t my boyfriend’s fault, but when he considered leaving me, and then he suddenly decided to choose me, that core pain, that ugly, terrible lie I believed about myself, flew into flames, and then was doused, and then soothed as though with the softest salve. After just a few times of this, I was a goner. This is how addiction works: Dopamine receptors respond to a pleasurable stimulus; take away the pleasurable stimulus and the receptors need more. If they get it, if the pleasurable stimulus comes back, each time you go without, your dopamine receptors will deplete. The craving strengthens, and the feeling of withdrawal is like a small death.

The pain I felt with my boyfriend was a necessary part of this addiction. Without the pain, there would be no relief, and that relief when he chose me again became my salvation. Snooping, then, was a way to try to control the pain. If partial reinforcement happens on no set schedule, snooping was my effort to find out what was coming, so I could prepare for the pain rather than feel blindsided.

Other women, I knew, would have left long ago. My friends questioned me regularly: “Why do you stay? Why do you let him treat you like this? How much longer will this go on?” But my friends didn’t have my particular addiction. When you don’t have the addiction I do, you don’t understand. You want to shake your friend. You want to scream at her: “You are worth so much more!”

Once, I wrote the word STUPID on my knee with a ballpoint pen.

I fantasized about writing the words CONSOLATION PRIZE across my naked body.

I grew sicker.

I drank too much. I took up smoking.

I went on anti-depressants, upped the dosage, and then added another one.

I wish I got better after all of those things, but I didn’t. Like most addictions, I had to go all the way down, and then I had to go even further. Sometimes, we need to be snapped into something. We can look at the same broken piece of furniture again and again, learn to work around it, say, “I really need to get that fixed.” We can make it work in our lives, shape-shift around it so that it basically does its job, until one day it falls apart completely, and everything resting on top breaks, too. This is what happened to me. My addiction had infiltrated every part of my life, and I knew I had to get better. I began to believe I was worth something more. I began to believe I was more lovable than this.

I wish I had made these changes gracefully. I told my boyfriend I wanted to end things. I had an affair. I abandoned him when he needed me, and then I slept with my now ex-boyfriend again and again even though I knew I needed to be done with him.

I wish being human weren’t so messy. I wish there were good people and bad people, so we could tell them apart.

Those people who sit at slot machines for hours, putting in more change. They aren’t bad people. They aren’t good. They are simply responding to this very basic behavioral truth, which is that we have a hard time walking away if this next time, just one more pull of the lever, we might get flooded with happiness, with the things we’ve always wanted.

For me, with each lever pull, I hoped to be chosen. Yet, with each lever pull, I lost more and more, until finally, bereft and tired, I had to step away.

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About the Author | Kerry Cohen

Kerry Cohen is the author of 10 books, including the memoirs Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, Seeing Ezra, and Girl Trouble. She is faculty with the Red Earth Low-Residency MFA and works as a psychotherapist specializing in relationships, sex, and love and sex addictions. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.

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