There are better and worse ways to end a relationship.
There is no great way. But there are some genuinely awful ways.
I want to talk about one of them today. It is called intermittent reinforcement.
Some basics from the psychology of behavior change
You reinforce someone when you reward them. Reinforcement was first studied early in the 20th century by behavioral psychologists—mostly in rats and pigeons.
One of the early leaders in the field was a psychologist named John Watson, at Johns Hopkins University, who believed that, through reinforcement, he could make anyone into anything he wanted them to be.
Watson took reinforcement really seriously. He even said:
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
Sure, Watson was exaggerating! But you get the idea.
By creating a schedule of rewards, you can modify behavior in ways that you might never have thought possible.
If you have ever attended an animal show at Sea World or even in a regular circus, you have seen how animals can be trained to do amazing things solely through schedules of reinforcement.
Many of the principles of reinforcement were discovered by the famous Harvard psychologist, B. F. Skinner.
Different ways to influence a person's behavior
Reinforcement can happen in different ways. For example, in continuous reinforcement, an individual receives a reward every time they show a desired behavior.
You might think that continuous reinforcement would be the most powerful kind of reinforcement—the kind that results in the greatest behavioral change. It’s not.
The most powerful kind of reinforcement is intermittent reinforcement. This occurs when you sometimes reward a person for a certain behavior but sometimes do not.
If you really want to influence someone’s behavior, you reinforce them intermittently, sometimes rewarding them, sometimes not, for a given behavior.
Gambling casinos know this principle well. Sometimes you win when you gamble; sometimes you lose. But you win just enough to keep you going and perhaps even to bring you to the point where you lose all your money!
So, if you need to end it, how do you do it?
If you want to break things off with someone, the best thing you can do is to act in ways to create extinction—that is, you never reward them (anymore) for any behaviors that are linked to your having an intimate relationship with them.
You just cut it off. If you want to talk to them, go ahead. But end the romantic part—finish it completely!
The worst thing you can do is to intermittently reinforce your now ex-partner. Sometimes you act as though it’s over; sometimes you act as though, well, it’s not quite over. There’s still some romantic relationship there, you suggest.
You may think you are letting them down gently. You may think you are being kind. You may think you are helping to create a smooth transition path out of the relationship.
But what you really are doing is making things all so much harder for them. You are giving them hope of getting you back.
And if you keep intermittently reinforcing them, they may have great difficulty getting over you. Worse, they may never quite get over you and then may have trouble moving on to a next relationship.
You are doing them no favor at all, therefore. Rather, you are making their life ever so much worse.
If you need to end a relationship, by all means end it. But really end it.
Say you are sorry, or say you had no choice, or say it is for the best. If you have to, say they deserve it. Say whatever is appropriate.
But when it’s over, it has to be over. If you decide to end it, end it.
Maybe someday you will get back together. Maybe in a day, a week, a month, a year, or whatever.
But if you want to be kind, do not intermittently reinforce your now ex-partner.
Do not give them false hope. Let them move on in their life, as you move on in yours.