By O.N. Ward
Every week, a chapter of my book, “Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned” (available via Amazon.com, just click on the title or book cover) will be published here on Lovefraud. To read prior chapters, please see the links at the bottom of the post.
Chapter 19: Of Social Isolation, Pigeons And Food Pellets, Slot Machines, And Intermittent Reinforcement
Isolating a woman is a classic strategy that physically and emotionally abusive men use to make her easier to control. It is a red flag that should never be ignored. My move to Minneapolis to be with Paul, distancing me from family and friends back East, was an ideal place to start. Paul built on that. He refused to visit my family on Thanksgiving, explaining that he did not like my overly intellectual brother who always returned to our parents’ home for the holidays. Paul insisted that he was working so hard (note the pity play) that if he was going to take time off from the demands of his grueling career, it only made sense for him to be with people he liked so he could relax. (What about my needs to be with my family?) In the almost twenty years I was married to Paul, I never spent a Thanksgiving at my parents’ house.
Due to Paul working so much on weekends, we had virtually no social life as a couple, even prior to Jessica’s birth. Interestingly, before we started a family, if I went out with friends alone, Paul was often home early that night waiting for me. Here is a typical exchange.
“Hi, Paul, it’s great you’re home. I thought you wouldn’t be home ‘til after midnight.”
“We got done early,” Paul said, his face devoid of any “nice to see you” smile. “I was really hoping you’d be here … the one night I’m back before midnight …”
Note that I had made perfectly reasonable decisions and had nothing for which I needed to apologize, yet Paul encouraged me to feel that I had been insensitive because he had been home alone for a short period of time.
“I’m really sorry,” I said, genuinely regretting losing a rare chance to spend time with my husband. I joined him on the couch and gave him a kiss. He returned it halfheartedly. The fun of a rare evening out with colleagues evaporated.
“You just abandoned me, again,” Paul said. Then he shut off the TV and walked out, leaving me alone in the dark. That deflated “What just happened?” feeling enveloped me. I would talk to him tomorrow. Isn’t that what married people did—talk about their problems and misunderstandings? I had already started making excuses for him in my mind. Maybe he was just exhausted and disappointed because he had hoped to see me when he walked through the door. Maybe he’d had a bad day at work. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. It did not occur to me that this was a deliberate setup on his part to control me by making me feel guilty about having a life of my own and not being at his beck and call.
When I talked to Paul the next day, he said, with an appropriately caring but incredulous tone, that of course he had just been kidding about feeling abandoned and that he couldn’t believe I took his comment seriously. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. Of course it’s great you went out with friends.”
Yet, when you consider that most communication is nonverbal, what had Paul actually expressed? Something like, “Don’t you dare have a life outside of me or I will withhold my love and affection from you.” Would he ever admit to that? Of course not! After all, what he said was “ … It’s great you went out with friends.” Yet, Paul’s unmistakable nonverbal message in this case, and in countless others, exerted subtle influence below my level of conscious awareness. Just like the subjects in the rigged card experiment, I started to feel tense whenever friends suggested I do something with them or when I considered calling them to make plans.
As a result, I started isolating myself by going out less, especially when it might interfere with my time with Paul. If I did go out, I would leave unusually early, just in case Paul beat me home. It did not take long before invitations to join colleagues after work began to wane. Too often my answer was “No,” or a guarded, “Okay, but I have to leave early.” Anything that weakened me and isolated me made me more malleable, more dependent on Paul.
Looking back, another ploy Paul used to isolate me and to keep the world from responding to me positively was to imply that my friendships with male colleagues were inappropriate. Ironic, don’t you think, seeing as he had a virtual harem at work, disproportionally picking young, attractive women as the junior associates for his assignments? I worked in financial investments, so many of my colleagues were male. I was an outgoing, attractive woman in her thirties in great shape with a killer figure, but Paul encouraged me to dress conservatively in dark, drab colors (he loved brown) and in professional but not flattering clothes. He implied often that, by wearing makeup, I was trying to attract other men. I started to feel bad when I even considered putting on mascara, and at some point, without making a deliberate decision, I stopped.
While helping me craft my love-starved, negative environment, Paul did not completely withdraw his love. Were it clear that Paul did not love me anymore, never would, and perhaps never had, I am sure I would have sought a divorce. Instead, he expressed his love sparingly, and, as a result, inconsistently—a small act of kindness here when least expected, a nice dinner together there. Psychologists call this type of reward system “intermittent reinforcement.” Intermittent reinforcement is inconsistent and unpredictable, and it has a dark side. It is strongly linked to highly addictive behavior. It is our response to intermittent reinforcement that keeps us playing a game that is stacked against us, because the occasional win keeps our hope alive.
Decades ago, the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner observed in his experiments with rats and pigeons that intermittent reinforcement of something of value (e.g., food) creates highly addictive behavior. I knew about this from the psychology 101 class I had taken during my freshman year at college. What I did not know, however, was that it was being used successfully on me, and that it is a cornerstone of emotional abuse.
A slot machine is one of the best and most intuitive examples of how intermittent reinforcement works. These machines have varying financial payouts at unpredictable times. When a player wins at a slot machine, he or she feels good and gets money—two things the player values. The only way to achieve this success is to play the game again and again and again, enduring failure after failure along the way. Like all gambling games, the odds are in favor of the house and against the player. Still, it is hard for the player to stop, because a big, exciting reward might be just one lever pull away. Because there is no exact correlation between the gambler’s actions and the payout of the next pull of the handle, the slot machine could even be broken and unable to issue any positive payout, but the player would have no way of knowing this. Once the addictive behavior has been established, the player will likely persist at the game for a long time.
Now, think of Paul as the slot machine and think of the payout not as money but as love—something fundamental to human existence and happiness, and something I value as a normal, healthy human being. I particularly valued Paul’s loving attention, because his maneuverings and my decisions had put me in a love-starved environment, isolated from family and friends. Just like the person pulling the slot machine lever and hoping for the next big payout, without even deciding consciously to do this, I continually tried to please Paul and connect personally with him, hoping to stumble onto something that would trigger him to act in a loving way toward me again. I knew he was capable of showing me love and affection, because he had directed those feelings toward me in the past and I saw him acting in a caring way toward other people. Believing I would receive a positive response eventually, I persisted. The payoff I got, albeit infrequently and unpredictably, only served to keep me in the game, hoping for the next payoff—maybe it would be the next time, or the time after that, or the time after that …
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Identifying names, places, events, characteristics, etc. that I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect the identity of everyone involved.