When positive reinforcement is toxic

Father’s day was probably harder than I was able to fully acknowledge within myself. 

It’s the whole thing really.  How I loved (still do) my Dad so much, but how much hurt there was in so many ways.  One day maybe I’ll be healthy and strong enough to write more about my father.  He’s been gone for twelve years now (how is that possible), and I’m still working through some things.  So I don’t like the reminiscing about my father part of Father’s day, and I certainly don’t like sorting through the mixed bag of my husband being a really good father and a horrible father. 

While the world seemed to be sharing hugs, cards, family picnics, photo ops, accolades for good men, and making new memories, I was just trying to keep my good attitude game face on and get through the day. 

Pretty sure it’s come up in past posts, maybe quoting an article, or in your comments, on how perceptive passive aggressive men are regarding honing in, being aware o,f and in tune to your state of being.  They know if you’re up or down, happy or sad, strong or vulnerable.  It’s definitely some kind of empathy, and in my opinion it’s downright uncanny in an unnerving way at times.  This kind of empathy seems to lack compassion (at least when you want him to show compassion), but it’s definitely some kind of unique radar that he possesses. 

This is why when I’m hurting and he’s doing the withdrawal of relationship shtick part of the passive aggressive cycle, that I just don’t buy the clueless and confused stare-off in-space-and-through-me denial when I confront him about seeming to not care. 

The subject of this post says ‘when positive reinforcement is toxic’.  I’m thinking about this sad facet of the cycle of my relationship with my husband that happens when I finally get so squished in my soul and spirit that I start to go flat and grey inside.  It could be called depression, but that isn’t entirely accurate for what I’m trying to convey. 

Oh, I get and feel depressed, but it’s more like an ‘I give up’ or ‘I’m worn out’ kind of depressed patch of road.  It’s a feeling of emotional weariness, and when hope seems to be hemorrhaging out faster than I can staunch the leaks. 

When I get this down and out, I tend to also involuntarily detach from him.  It just happens.  My ‘caring’ detaches by default, and I think this is the part that pulls him around.  Maybe it’s his survival instincts that sense my energy is at a new distance and not available as supply. 

Once upon a time, I used to want to believe (and did believe) that it was him really feeling bad for hurting me, and that he was sorry for the impact it had on me.  It was a soothing thing to believe, but like a puzzle piece that looks like it should fit into a jigsaw puzzle, but you discover it doesn’t exactly fit, I came to realize over time that not everything was adding up to support my belief in his remorse.

Maybe he did feel remorse that was real, but it couldn’t have been really deep remorse.

There I was, caught in this recurring pattern wherein I’d become so depleted that stepping over a cliff didn’t look that dangerous or frightening, and he would respond by being attentive, kind, tender, seemingly understanding… and normal

He can seem so normal (or what I perceive as a normal, healthy, caring partner), that it all felt so real and right.   In my depleted state of being, it would feel so comforting and safe that I’d want to cry.

Now wash, rinse, and repeat this over the years.

It means that I’m objectively examining how I’ve been taught and trained that pain can bring relief, that chaos can bring comfort, and that depression can bring his stepping up and behaving responsibly.  It trains me to accept being diminished, being hurt, and being depressed, because once that happens to an unbearable peak in the cycle, then comfort and safety and relief must be around the corner.  It means that even if temporarily, he’ll behave as if he loves me.

When it happens now, I can still feel much of the  relieved and comforted feelings, but inject wariness and a kind of disembodied objective voice telling me to pay attention to my body’s reactions.  He can rub my feet, and it relieves some of the pain in my feet, but somewhere my muscles are tightening, and my heart rate might accelerate the way it can when I’m startled.  He can curl around me in the bed in a comforting pose, and the warmth of his body feels good, but my sleepy feeling dissipates, and I start to feel an on edge kind of wakefulness forcing me to think when I want to sleep.

My body has a mind of its own. 


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8 Responses to When positive reinforcement is toxic

  1. discarded says:

    I’ve been creeping on this and a few similar blogs for quite some time now, debating about whether or not to post. I know my next sentence will cause most of your followers to hate me immediately. I am the skanky cow who had an emotional affair with your husband. I totally accept your hatred but I wanted to post to let you all know that if you imagine your husband and the cow having a smooth sailing relationship and him being different/better with her than he is with you, well, that is simply not true. I have gone through exactly what you have gone through though on a (thank God) much smaller scale. I’ll explain. First, as you already know, your husband is the nicest guy at our company. He is always smiling and cheerful, so helpful, solid and dependable. When he first singled me out to talk to me (and only later did I realized it was At me, since I have heard hours upon hours of stories about him and how wonderful and considerate he is to you, his wife, while I seriously doubt he could list 10 facts about me. At gunpoint) he had the demeanor of a 10 year old boy, he was just that sweet and innocent and if I am completely honest, looking back, he seemed to have a schoolboy crush on me, (I am 12 years older) he was awkward and uncomfortable about it. He told me that his best friend from college had been a woman and they remained friends to this day and he thought that he and I could have a similar relationship. I was skeptical, man/woman friendships, you know. But I was really drawn to him for some unknown reason (at that time) and he assured me that his wife knew about me, his new friend, and was completely unfazed by me, I mean everyone needs friends, right? We mainly texted and emailed though he did come to my office to visit me somewhat frequently while he was trying to hook me and Much Less Frequently after he knew he had me emotionally invested in him. We had almost a year of an unusual but really nice friendship. He texted me about his family, things going on in his department, told me how he worked so much harder than everyone else, (unrecognized though, of course) and looked to me for support and encouragement which I just ate up with a spoon. He seemed to need me so much. As we became closer, I saw many of the same puzzling behaviors that you all experience. If I didn’t respond immediately to a text, he would be “busy” for a couple of days afterwards. He would “forget” to come by to visit after promising that he would. He “didn’t mean” to upset me. If questioned about something, he stonewalled me, though never intentionally!; it’s just that there was this and this and this and this that he had to get done first. He would tell me something In Text (so it was in black and white) and the next day, deny having said that. Obstructionism? Check. Procrastination? Check. I think I saw it all though I didn’t understand it at the time. All the behaviors that are usually reserved for the wife, never outsiders. At one point, he dropped me like a stone. Overnight. Without explanation. And when I say dropped, I am talking about zero replies to emails, texts, phone calls. He simply stopped acknowledging my existence in any way. I was beyond confused, rejected, hurt and angry. I told him in an email to just tell me what I had done to upset him and I would apologize and we could make up. No answer. I sent many emails pleading with him to tell me what I had done, why he suddenly couldn’t stand me anymore. All ignored. I finally got up the nerve to confront him one day after work (after being ignored for about 6 months) and he finally told me that he thought we had gotten too close. So, he was actually trying to be a good husband and once he became aware that our feelings had crossed over, passed just friendship, he did pull away from me. He handled it very poorly though, exactly like a 10 year old would have. His communication skills are amazingly lacking unless he is talking about how wonderful he is. He never asked me questions about me or my family. All our conversations were about him. But what I really wanted all you wives to know is this: his stories painted an idyllic image of his family time. I pictured him with you and the two kids skipping about the kitchen, arm in arm, laughing with each other while baking cookies, preparing meals together, I was led to visualize the 4 of you flopped on the couch together watching movies together, etc. He never talked badly about you and neither did I. If you had read our texts to each other, you would have thought it was two 12 year olds swapping camp stories. Nothing romantic, nothing personal, really. About me: I am still trying to figure out this “friendship”, what drew me to your husband. He triggered something in me that I had never encountered before. I am 54 and have never before been co-dependent with anyone. I’ve never before been pathetically clingy and needy for acknowledgement long past the point that a normal person would have said “take your brand of friendship and stick it where the sun don’t shine.” I’ve never before tolerated being treated so disrespectfully by someone who claimed to want to be my friend. I read the Scott Wetzler book first. Then How To Break Your Addiction To A Person, where, after much soul searching, I figured out that I must have been seeking my father’s validation through your husband. His withholding, controlling personality was exactly like my father’s (who had died the previous summer.) I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out Me and why I would be so drawn to such an emotionally closed off person and why I couldn’t seem to let go of him. Your husband sells quite a shiny façade. Underneath, well, he is just like my father who never made time for me, never made me feel important or special or valued. So basically, I am really very sorry about getting involved with your husband. But there is no need to be jealous of me, I’m just a woman, very similar to you, just working out crap from my childhood, probably just like you are, and I got devalued and discarded just like you did. Reading all of your stories just makes me grateful that I am not married to him.


  2. Seeing the Light says:

    PJs, I recently read an excellent post about this skill that looks like empathy. It was a June 6, 2014 post called “Emotional Awareness” at graceformyheart.wordpress.com. I thought it was very insightful and applicable.

    You say, “My body has a mind of its own.” I would guess that your body is responding to what your soul knows. However good those sensations (massage, physical warmth) feel, the deepest part of you knows you are not completely safe with this person, and it is keeping your body on guard in an effort to protect you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WritesinPJ's says:

      Seeing the Light, I just read the post, thank you. I don’t think my husband is a narc, but he was raised by one. Narcissistically driven might be accurate. He definitely has emotional awareness.


      • Exodus says:

        PJ’s, narcissists have emotional awareness and they are emotional people. It’s just that they don’t care about other people’s emotions unless it’s to their advantage to do so…like how my mother never cared that I was sick unless people pitied her for having a sick child.
        Narcissists are self centered and are always in a state of seeking pleasure for themselves. They are addicted to pleasure. They ignore other people’s needs or problems unless it makes them look good for caring but, there’s is always a price to pay for their kind service/attention. A husband who has an affair isn’t concerned about his family or his children’s security. Even if he’s just plain miserable with his wife, how could a man put his children’s welfare and safety in harms way? Does it occur to people that when they have an affair that they could have hooked up with someone that was dangerous and who might put their spouse, children and even their jobs at risk? Fatal attractions occur all the time.


  3. WritesinPJ's says:

    My response became so long, that I made a post instead.


  4. Pingback: Response to the other woman | my life in pajamas

  5. jaded says:

    Hi PJs, this part: “When I get this down and out, I tend to also involuntarily detach from him. It just happens. My ‘caring’ detaches by default, and I think this is the part that pulls him around. Maybe it’s his survival instincts that sense my energy is at a new distance and not available as supply.” also is a self preservation thing that your body mind soul goes into in order for you to survive and protect yourself because you just can’t take anymore. I’ve experienced it many times, to the point of just going into mute mode for several weeks, even months and also to the point of just being in the same room with him is enough to send me into a state of sheer exhaustion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exodus says:

      I too have become a mute or rather a slightly breathing corpse.

      When we reach the point that we can actually detach, that’s the stage where we no longer care and it can either work for us or against us. Obviously, it can work for us if we leave but if we continue to stay and live as a corpse, that’s not good. It’s not healthy to live in a stifling oppressive environment where we must deny and hence, deprive ourselves from normal reactions and behaviors that are natural to us. Repressed emotions cause disease as well and in women, it’s very important that we find healthy outlets for our emotions. We should be caring about others who care about us and avoiding emotional vampires that continually deplete us.


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