The other day I was feeling particularly excited. Not because something momentous had happened. I hadn’t won the lottery, bought a puppy or treated myself to a pizza. No, this was particularly geeky brand of excitement. The kind that only comes about when you have studied a subject that barely anyone else has heard of (Behaviour analysis, I’m looking at you!) and someone you love attempts to understand it. In a moment that took me completely by surprise, not only did they try to learn about it, in the way that my friends smile and politely ask “So you do something with psychology, right?”. This gem of a person went one step further. They showed me that they could define something, a psychological concept, which had impacted upon our behaviour on that very same day. Cue me squealing and dancing on the spot like I’d just been told I was going to Disneyland. The things I get excited about on a Tuesday night eh? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Who is this amazing human being, who learned how to understand our behaviour and used this knowledge to help our relationship run more smoothly? As the title suggests, it is none other than my long-suffering boyfriend! Let’s call him Aiden.
Carry on reading to find out what he learned and how you too can use it to strengthen your own relationship!
For a couple of years, I was studying and working away from Aiden due to conflicting career paths, long-distance style. AKA some pretty difficult times for our relationship. During this period I learned more and more about the science of behaviour and how you can use it within your own life to change your behaviour for the better, i.e. eat healthier, be more organised and have a better relationship. I learned that pretty much everything we do is a behaviour. And whether you like it or not, every interaction that you have with someone is shaping their behaviour in some way. How you react to their actions in that moment will alter the likelihood that they will do the same again in the future. Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds!
You do something they like as a consequence for a certain behaviour, then you will have reinforced or strengthened this behaviour. For example, Aiden spontaneously started to do the dishes, so I jumped in with a “thank you” and a quick kiss on the neck. If I know what my boyfriend likes well enough (and I should do by now!) then I’d say it’s likely that my reaction positively reinforced his dish washing behaviour. And this means? That he’s more likely to wash the dishes when they need doing again, without me nagging him. Result! But don’t worry, I make it my business to dry said dishes. It isn’t fair to let one partner do all of the chores, no matter how much positive reinforcement you give them!
After learning all of these amazing new concepts, I was dying to tell my significant other about them. Maybe at the time I was too enthusiastic and couldn’t explain these new ideas clearly. Because I didn’t really get across to him what behavioural science is about. Or what positive reinforcement can do, if you use it well.
But this all changed when we moved in together.
So, we were in the kitchen doing the dishes as couples do. All of a sudden, Aiden mentioned that I hadn’t made much of a fuss when he had mentioned that he had passed a course that he had done at work that day. And this confused him because he knew I was aware of how important it was to him.
I felt bad for a second because I thought this was true, but then I was sure that I would have said something. And then I remembered that I had congratulated him about it when he had arrived home from work. But his reaction hadn’t been particularly great. I pointed out that when I’d said “Well done” for passing the course, he had replied with something like“Well it’s pretty easy to pass, what did you think I had failed?!”. Even if he had said this in jest, it had taken me slightly aback. It wasn’t the“Thank you” that I had been expecting!
A thoughtful expression came over Aiden’s face as he considered this. Maybe he was just thinking about what to have for dessert. Or maybe he was finally seeing the behaviour analytic light? Because at this moment my boyfriend said “Ahh, so I didn’t give positive reinforcement after you congratulated me before? So that’s why you didn’t bring up the course again!”. *
He was amazed that something as subtle as a different-than-expected reaction could have that kind of an effect on my behaviour. The process occurred without him even being aware of it! And it would have gone unnoticed by the both of us if I hadn’t put what I have learned about behaviour to good use.
Sure enough, this situation seems pretty harmless. And in the long run, there would be no harm done from this one-time thing. But just imagine what could happen to a relationship where you do not get positively reinforced for most of the good things that you do. Your work is not recognized day in day out. Suddenly it’s easy to see why people begin to feel resentful or underappreciated and eventually breakups happen.
So the next time you and your partner get in a disagreement, or when you are nagging them about the same tired thing that they never do and you can’t understand why they won’t just do it. Stop and think in terms of behaviour. What actually is going on? Are you providing enough positive reinforcement for the things that you want to see them do more of? Or have you been unwittingly ignoring the good things that they actually do for you? Maybe you’re not getting enough positive reinforcement from them either and your stuck in a sort of vicious circle of frustration and resentment?
You might be surprised by the powerful and scientifically based benefits that come about from giving out extra positive reinforcement to your partner.
Try spreading the positive reinforcement love today and do let me know how you get on!
Top picture courtesy of moi. All other images courtesy of Giphy.
*Disclaimer: I’m not putting all the blame on my man. There have definitely been many times when I haven’t positively reinforced Aiden’s behaviour when I should have. For example, he picked up his clothes which had been lying on the floor for a while and I forgot to thank him for it. It really is the little things that you should appreciate in each other!