I once heard about an experiment that was done with mice. They were taught to run a maze and press a lever at the end for reward.
One group of mice, let’s call them Group A, received cheese every time they pressed the lever. These mice eventually ended up sometimes pressing the lever, sometimes not.
Group B mice received cheese the first time, or the first few times, then no more. After a while they gave up pressing the lever.
Group C mice were randomly given or not given cheese when they pressed the lever. They didn't know whether they would get it. Those mice pressed the lever every. damn. time.
This is called “inconsistent reward."
A healthy relationship should be like being in Group A; getting cheese whenever you need or want it. If someone tried to treat you like a Group B mouse from the word go, you wouldn’t bother with them, because they haven’t given you any reason to stay.
But being in a relationship with an emotional abuser is like being a Group C mouse. You never know whether you're going to get the cheese or not, & when you do get it, it feels so good because you can’t ever be certain you will. When you’re that third mouse, what you should have access to all the damn time starts to feel like the sweetest reward in the world: "Oh! I was worried he was going to lecture/shun me/withhold cheese over this but he just shrugged & smiled, I'm so happy!"
To really drill down into the cheese metaphor, when you’re first in a relationship the other person is usually plying you with tons of cheese, all different kinds until they figure out which one you like best.
In a healthy relationship, maybe you start out getting a wheel of camembert every day and then it eases off over time to a good bit of mid-range cheddar most days with some camembert on the weekends -- maybe just a Kraft single during stressful times -- but mostly pretty good cheese that fills you up and makes you happy.
An emotional abuser showers you with delicious cheese at the beginning. So much cheese. More than anyone has ever given you, possibly. Maybe some of it doesn’t taste great, but most of it does, and you get used to all that cheese.
Then, one day, you press the lever and there’s no cheese. What? You press it again a few times. Nothing. But you’ve had a lot of cheese and you still feel pretty good, and then the next time you press the lever there’s delicious cheese again. Over time, the bits of cheese get smaller and further between, and the bigger pieces are usually a nasty, hard Parmesan or a smelly Limburger. But it’s still cheese, you think, and remember how good that double brie is? Let’s keep pressing until we get more of that, surely it’s just around the corner.
This behaviour is really hard to unlearn - even if you manage to get out, when you get into a normal relationship, you can't stop yourself from pressing the lever (asking for love, asking for proof of love) all the time - you know you shouldn't press the lever QUITE so much because surely the cheese is going to run out at some point, or even worse, you press the lever too many times and the new decent person just can't handle your incessant demands for cheese. But naming and recognising these things as a common phenomenon helps us to realise that we deserve more.
You deserve all the cheese you want. Creamy camembert, sharp, crumbly vintage cheddar, salty haloumi… Whatever makes you happiest. Cheese.