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How to Stop Your Clients Obsessing Over Toxic Ex-Lovers

Why some people go back to people that treat them badly

Why do people go back to, choose to be with, or obsess over toxic manipulators?

Why does she go back to him?

What does he see in her?

Why do they act like a lovestruck puppy around someone they know treats them like dirt?

It can seem like a perennial mystery. Why do people go back to, choose to be with, or obsess over toxic manipulators?

The glib idea that someone “just likes to be treated badly” has never seemed that convincing to me. Why?

Because it still begs the question: Why?

Sure, people with low self-esteem tend to be turned off by overly positive feedback about themselves, which is why showering them with positive approval can make them feel disconnected from and misunderstood by the well-intentioned love bomber.

After all, if you praise or positively regard someone who views themselves more terribly than perhaps you can imagine, well, rapport can be quashed quicker than a dissenting voice in 21st century political discourse.

If you praise someone who views themselves more terribly than you can imagine, rapport can be quashed quicker than a dissenting voice in 21st century political discourse. Click to Tweet

But habit may also play its insidious part in all this.

Better the devil you know

Those with low self-esteem may prefer to spend time with people who seem to take as dim a view of them as they do of themselves. We often spend time with those whose perceptions mirror our own.

They may also feel, on one level at least, that they don’t deserve better treatment anyway. And the power of familiarity may also play its part.

If someone has been continually ill treated throughout their life it may be a question of “better the devil you know”. It may seem so alien and unnatural to be treated respectfully that it feels like a turn-off when it happens.

Wanting to be treated better may be an acquired taste for some clients.

Developing a taste for good treatment

A taste for being treated well can’t be forced or rushed through with a suffocating avalanche of positive approval. Not for someone who feels inferior or has gotten used to the acrid taste of terrible treatment from others.

So low self-esteem may be at the root of some people’s seeming willingness to go back to abusive partners. And we may certainly need to help untangle the emotional conditioning from past relationships to help our clients begin to appreciate and enjoy healthier ones.

But there is another aspect to being drawn to those who treat us badly sometimes. And it has to do with the way addiction works.

Some people who feel hugely attracted to an ex-partner who has treated them badly do not suffer from low self-esteem. So what might be going on in those cases?

Intermittent reward, behavioural conditioning, and addictive exes

Not too long ago I was asked on a Q&A call about what might be going on when clients feel addicted to an ex even though they know consciously the person is no good for them.

You can listen to my reply here or read the transcript below.

I suggest that intermittent reward may be much more of a hook than simply being treated badly. It may be the intermittent reward, not the bad treatment, that becomes compelling for some.

I also suggest that downside amnesia may play a crucial role and give a couple of broad strategies to help the client overcome their dangerous moth-to-flame past partner obsessionality.

Anyway, check out the question and my reply and see what you think. I hope you find it useful.

Transcript of the question

I currently have several clients who feel “addicted” to an ex and want to get over the addiction. One client describes it as intrusive thoughts he can’t control about the ex that keep him up at night; another divorced a “narcissist” but returns to him.

In each case the client recognizes consciously it is not a good fit and/or a harmful match, but can’t stop obsessing or returning to the ex. I have been making progress with each but would love to hear your thoughts on helpful approaches.

Transcript of the reply

I think certainly an attachment to a person who damages us can work in a very similar way to any addiction.

True addiction always involves loss of autonomy – the feeling that we can’t control our thoughts or our actions, or what our desires direct us towards. How in control are we? If I feel I have to drink, or smoke, or gamble, and I have no choice about that, then I am addicted. This is why addicted people can feel enslaved by their own impulses and compulsions.

Tip one: Discuss the addictive nature of intermittent reward

One aspect of addiction is intermittent reward, and certainly we see this operating in abusive but addictive relationships. B. F. Skinner, the father of behaviourism, found that when cats and rats always got rewarded with food for doing some task, such as pressing on a lever, they lost interest, but when they were sometimes rewarded with a treat and sometimes not, they became addicted. We see that in casinos – strange as it sounds, the addictive element in gambling is built by the fact that rewards are pretty rare. If we were always rewarded, we would be much less likely to become addicted; it’s the intermittent aspect of it that makes something compelling (“Maybe this time I’ll get lucky! Maybe next time I’ll get lucky!”).

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We may value the niceness and decency and kindness of someone less if they are always nice to us. As wrong as that sounds, people who provide a consistent reward may be less compelling than somebody who is brutal – psychologically or even physically – sometimes, but at other times these rare glimmers of sunshine come through the dark clouds and you’re bathed in their niceness and decency and sweetness. That can seem much more rewarding, and that can be addictive.

Some people may value the tenderness of someone who is far from always tender to them. It’s not so much that someone likes being treated badly, but that they are perhaps more attracted to people who give them inconsistent reward and in a sense become addictive. It’s not being maltreated they get addicted to, it’s the intermittent nature of it, the oscillation of treatment.

So just like the cat who only sometimes gets rewarded for the same behaviour and therefore starts engaging in that behaviour compulsively, the reward becomes more highly valued because it’s rarer – just as if diamonds grew on trees we’d appreciate them less, and their value would drop. In that sense it can be seen as simple behavioural conditioning.

So this principle of intermittent reward being compelling may be worth discussing with your clients so they can start to (a) not feel so bad for feeling addicted to an awful person, and (b) see the pattern from the outside and therefore get more distance on their own reactions and actions.

The guy or girl who is consistently decent to them feels less appealing, less valuable, but is in fact what they need to build a happy and stable life. And of course excitement and danger is all very well but can lead to damaged self-esteem or health, or the loss of the ability to appreciate more subtle aspects of a relationship, just as a cokehead may feel little when seeing a beautiful sunset or the smile of a baby because they have become attuned to only base forms of stimulation.

Now the person, the moth that flies back to the flame, also – this is another factor – may have had a parent or past lover who blew hot and cold, so it’s how they were conditioned early on that relationships were, and they became conditioned to respond only to that form of relationship.

Do these people have a pattern in their past relationships which may echo or foreshadow this kind of tendency, to get into or become hooked on these kinds of relationships? Because even if it’s bad, if it’s familiar it can seem more secure in some way. Some people even panic when someone starts being nice to them, because they’re just not used to it! So they prefer, through familiarity, the case of good cop/bad cop in one person; that feels more familiar to them in adult life.

So those are issues worth exploring, but also we need to look at the principle of addictive amnesia.

Tip two: Spoil the addictive trance

A group of researchers asked a subsection of alcoholics living rough what they hoped to gain from drinking ‘meths’ (methylated spirits) before they did so. They all said they hoped to feel better. But when the researchers asked them how they felt after drinking it, they all said (not surprisingly!) they felt much worse.

The addictive trance makes us forget the downsides of what we’re about to do in the moment. The addictive trance is very now-centred; it’s living in the moment and forgetting the consequences. When we expect something we feel we must have, we get a surge of dopamine in our brain, which makes our expectations about what we hope is about to happen positive and exciting.

Dopamine is known as the ‘motivating’ chemical, and unless it’s hijacked by addiction it tends to motivate us towards doing what’s good for us. Once we’ve completed what we set out to do (learn that guitar piece, drink that water on a hot day), we then get a sense of satisfaction and completion. This is mediated by the opiate reward systems, which work together with dopamine to help us survive and thrive.

But in the heady throes of desire, the dopamine-laced memories of the last time we felt good in association with our addiction give us amnesia for the bad things associated with the addiction. So we recall the narcissistic ex in all their sexiness or magnetism, and forget the bruises or disappointments or humiliations and bullying.

Dopamine-laced memories block out realistic memories of the consequences of the relationship. We forget that the bingeing will make us feel ill and disgusted with ourselves, that the drinking will make us feel lousy, that the gambling will leave us with an empty feeling in our gut when we inevitably lose. These memories are blocked out when the addictive trance descends because of the distorting effects of dopamine on recall.

Addiction shuts down awareness of wider context. So what we can do is to help our clients access wider contexts so as to ‘spoil’ the addictive trance. We can give them a visceral sense of the consequences as they enter the addictive trance. Then we can help them escape the trap before they enter it.

So we might try the scrambling technique. Have them close their eyes and access the attractive pull of the person – the feelings of excitement and expectation – then have them open their eyes and have them access the lowest points they had in that relationship. Then repeat this until the thought of that person starts to automatically and immediately lead them to a negative sense of that relationship. So the dopamine-laced memories are no longer blocking out the downside of that pattern of experience.

Tip three: Tackle incorrect assumptions

The next consideration is that some clients may be pathologically altruistic or empathetic, and because of that may be more of a target for abusive types.

Is your client currently unable to show their teeth, as it were, in a relationship (set boundaries and so forth)? Do they feel that with enough love and understanding the abusive ex would transform from frog into a prince, and therefore they blame themselves on some level and feel that if only they’d loved the person more or taken more flak from them things could have been different? But throwing veggie burgers at a lion won’t turn it into a vegetarian! So some assumptions need to be explored perhaps.

And of course we also need to look at the client’s wider life, how they meet their needs in balance. If a person is understimulated and bored in their life, they may have gotten into the habit of having dangerous relationships. If they can meet that need for stimulation elsewhere in a healthy way, then the drive to meet it in damaging ways will diminish. A great partner should feel like your rock, but not like a boulder crashing down a mountainside about to bury you!

So there’s the intermittent reward aspect, which you can talk to your clients about; the dopamine-laced memories causing amnesia for the downsides and consequences of those relationships; and looking at any patterns of assumptions your client has about their own role and whether they blame themselves for their own bad treatment. So those are the three things I’d focus on.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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