Are You Stuck Inside a Manipulative Relationship?

January 13, 2024
5 mins read

By Chris Barnardo
Sunday, August 24, 2008.
When I was a kid, summer or winter, no holiday by the seaside would have been complete without a trip to the seafront amusement arcade. Spin forward 30 years and I’m sure you’d forgive me for thinking that for my children, reared in the shadow of the Playstation, such an outing would have no appeal, but that is not the case. I only have to mention that the nearby arcade has 2p pushers, and I get a chorus of voices begging me to take them there.
We arrive, it all looks very familiar. This might be the same place I visited as a kid. In fact looking at the machines, these might even be the same ones that I actually played on in the 70’s. All at once I’m like a child again, worming my way through the other punters, deep into the heart of the arcade, to find a machine I like the look of. I peer through the slanting shiny glass top. The machine’s bar is mesmerising as it relentlessly pushes back and forth, mocking me as it repeatedly kisses the edge of the crazily stacked wedge of coins.
The two pences balance precariously over that magical ledge, hanging impossibly far out over the payout trough, just waiting for my very first coin to push them over their tipping point and into that deeply satisfying winning cascade. With my bag of 50 two pence pieces weighing down my pocket, I feel as rich as a high roller taking on Las Vegas.
However, reality kicks in pretty sharply when my first ten coins make hardly an impression on the mass of tuppences, which despite my skillful efforts, still tantalisingly only promise a big win.
I stop for a second to reconsider my strategies. Is it best to drop the coin into the slot as the bar approaches, or just as it recedes? What will happen if I put more than one coin in at once, or maybe I should blast them in, in quick succession? Is there any way of surreptitiously jogging the machine to dislodge the coins without setting off an alarm or arousing the suspicions of the security staff?
The coins appear so unstable that they look as though I could make them tumble just by thinking hard enough about them overbalancing. I employ a range of tactics (including positive thought). Occasionally I win, mostly I lose, whichever way it goes I play until I have run out of money. It’s great fun but it reminds me of something else that isn’t.
In the 1930s, an American psychologist called Burrhus Skinner conducted pioneering research to explain how animal behaviour is shaped by reward. In a series of now classic experiments, he placed hungry pigeons in a box (later called a Skinner Box) and rewarded specific behaviours with seeds. The experiments are elegant in their simplicity but have clear and obvious lessons for all of us.
To see what I mean, first imagine yourself as a pigeon. You are hungry and you find yourself placed in a box. It’s not uncomfortable and you look around to see if there is any food nearby. To start with there is none, but as you look round to the left, a seed drops out of a hole in the wall and you gratefully peck it up.
You look round some more, wondering if it was anything you did that made the seed come out of the hole. You try doing all the things you did just before the seed appeared, and after trying for at least a minute, another seed appears. Gratefully you peck it up. You’re still hungry and now quite keen to work out how you could get more seeds.
Again you try all the things that you were doing just before the seed appeared. You remember that you turned your head to the left twice just before the seed appeared both times. To try and make more seeds appear you turn your head to the left two times, then four times and then eight times, at last a seed appears again. Gratefully you peck it up, certain now that the head-turning-left action is the thing that brings you the seeds.
Meanwhile, outside the box in the human world, the experimenter randomly drops another seed through the hole. The fact is that the experimenter has been randomly dropping seeds through the hole since the beginning of the experiment, without any regard to what you (that’s the pigeon) has or hasn’t been doing.
This type of behaviour reward scenario is called Randomised Variable Interval Reinforcement (to give it its technical name) and it is a very common, extremely powerful and highly addictive reward system that not only keeps gamblers coming back, but is the self same mechanism that locks people into to manipulative and damaging relationships, where the rewards of love and affection are thin on the ground, doled out only sporadically or just empty promises.
Like a pigeon trapped in a Skinner Box, the subject of manipulation in a manipulative relationship doesn’t understand that whatever they do and however well they do it, they will never work out the golden rules that lead to their rewards. Sadly, in a manipulative relationship the reinforcement might not even be a reward at all; the manipulator might just as easily use negative reinforcement.
In this type of damaging relationship, one party always feels as if they are holding their breath, waiting on tenterhooks for their partner’s next big outburst, cutting comment or hurtful putdown. Whether trying to avoid the bad times or doing everything right to try and make the good times come back, just like a gambler, the “underdog” in these types of relationships can never win in the long run.
Eventually after years of trying, it is likely that they will feel not only very lonely and unloved but because of their apparent inability to do what is required, actually unworthy of being loved.
The good news is that life is not a laboratory experiment, and for everyone there is a way out of the box. Unlike the hapless pigeon, it is possible for us to learn how to see manipulative relationships for what they are, and in doing so take the first steps towards breaking free from their destructive cycles.
There are countless, excellent self-help books on the subject, and with the help of these, friends and or professionals, it is possible for anyone to build up their self-esteem to the point where they can start to get some control back into their life.
Personally, I make it my policy never to get trapped in a manipulative relationship with an amusement arcade; we only brought ten pounds worth of two pence pieces with us, and now we’ve used them all up, it’s time to go. The sunshine dazzles us as we tumble laughing out on to the street after spending a glorious hour on what have become “the famous 2p Pusher machines”. It’s amazing how much fun you can have with a few pounds worth of loose change.
If you feel that you are in a manipulative relationship at home or at work, you might like to read “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” by Harriet B. Braiker, and start to see how you can get some control back into your life and begin to feel lovable and loved once again.
Chris Barnardo is the founder of single dad website
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