We use positive reinforcement in our relationships every day, in everything from smiling when our spouse opens the door for us, complimenting an outfit (reinforcing the probability we will see it again), or offering a cookie to our kids after they force the last spoonful of peas into their mouth. While at first glance this technique may appear to be manipulative, if done out of love (and good intentions), it becomes motivational to better the lives of the ones we love. It motivates husbands to be gentlemen. It motivates wives to wear the clothes that flatter them best (or at least makes their husbands/boyfriends happy), and it motivates kids to eat healthier.
This may sound great, but there is one problem with this. Positive reinforcement has a close relative. Well, actually it is more of an ill-tempered distant cousin, known by the name, negative reinforcement. While many of us use positive reinforcement without thinking about it, we also use negative reinforcement. It works is by nagging our loved ones to the point they can’t stand hearing our voices anymore, ignoring a husband who isn’t as attentive as he used to be, or making snide remarks about the waist band on a pair of jeans, which sits so high, it looks like it could double as a bra strap.
While negative reinforcement may work for hindering an undesirable behavior temporarily, if it does not teach the right behavior, you can expect the old habits to fall back in place time and again. In many cases, negative reinforcement only creates a wedge between couples, consisting of guilt, fear, confusion, and anxiety. Instead of embracing positive change, the guilty spouse avoids contact with their partner altogether, quickly discovering that their main motivation in the relationship is to avoid being nagged and/or punished.
The goal of any relationship should be to make our partner feel good, supported, and happy. You can’t force a certain behavior out of anyone, as when it comes down to it, it is ultimately their choice how they want to live. This is the beauty of positive reinforcement, as it shows them the benefit of change, motivating them to work towards a better life, without the need of constantly reminding them of their failures.
Here are four tips to help maximize the effectiveness of positive reinforcement.
1. Lead by Example, Not a Whipping Chain. If you want to bring about change, you must first be the change. In other words, you may need to lead by example if you want to bring about change from a spouse. Being a role model is always better than being an annoying watchdog.
2. Focus on the Positive, Don’t Dwell on the Negative. There’s something positive about everyone, so bring that out in everyone you love. While many couples demand change by focusing on what is wrong with their spouse, they would get much farther if they would only concentrate on what was right. Studies show that people are more motivated by the reward of feeling good, rather than the punishment of feeling bad. If you want to create a lasting change, you need to make your partner feel good about the change, rather than the fear of repercussion if they don’t.
3. Baby Steps. If you’ve ever watched the film What About Bob?, starring Bill Murray, you will recognize this catch phrase, which was used to identify the psychological treatment for Bill’s character. While this was idea was poked fun at throughout the movie, taking small, reasonable steps towards any goal has always been the best way to accomplish something that’s difficult. The biggest reason people fail to make change, is they overwhelm themselves with too many expectations. Don’t add to this anxiety with threats, but rather offer them an way to experience short term results.
4. Investigate the Cause of the Behavior. It is difficult to make change when you do not know the cause of the unwanted behavior. Instead of telling your spouse, they need to do this for themselves, or that they have to do it for you, otherwise you’re leaving, look at the behavior from their standpoint. If they are a workaholic, staying up late every night, partaking in only a very minimum of family time, perhaps they feel pressure from outside to succeed (pressure which could be unknowingly coming from you). If you can identify the source of the problem, you’ll know where to focus your attention.
Couples often see negative reinforcement as a last resort to serious problems, but negative reinforcement only teaches fear and anxiety. If you want lasting change, you have to offer an way to discover the benefits of the desired behavior. Then, and only then, will they discover what they’ve been missing out on.