Paula has a long list of complaints about her husband, and some of them are quite serious. “He doesn’t really talk that much, and he never opens up to me.” She reveals all of this as part of her ongoing psychotherapy with me.
“Also, he just slumps on the couch channel surfing most every night. If I ask him a question, I get a mumble back, maybe a grumble. If I really push him to get with the program, he explodes with anger. He’s taken over our dining room with work papers, and he will fight me to the death about cleaning it.”
Paula concludes: “I think I am living with a caveman. I am basically out of ideas about how to get him to behave better.”
Paula’s phrase “behave better” caught my ear because it captures the essence of what many of us try to do in our relationships. When I get out of control with work, or start being negative around the house, my wife asks me—and, if need be, tells me—to shape up. She tells me the problem as she sees it, then tells me the solution … also as she sees it.
Most of the time it’s something like this: “Please chillax, you’re stressing me and everyone else out, and you’re a giant pain in the ass when you do X, Y and Z.” In essence, she’s asking me to behave better. My wife has influence on me, and I listen to what she says and, most of time, try to change for the better.
Paula doesn’t have it this easy with her man. He resists. He grumbles and snorts negative replies. He doesn’t appear to want to change. This is a problem I see all the time. People want their partners to change but have difficulty knowing how to make these changes happen.
My first reply in these types of situations is usually something like this: “Get your partner in here and let’s have the two of you talk about it together with my consultation.” When I offered Paula this opportunity, she replied, “Are you kidding me? He’d rather get divorced than come to therapy.” I hear this all the time, too, but I try not to take it personally.
If this is the situation at hand and you need to improve your relationship all by yourself, I have three pieces of advice that can be used alone or in combination.
Go on Strike
Do you do the cooking? The cleaning? The shopping? The laundry folding?
Yes? Well, stop doing it. In the language of behavioral modification, going on strike would be called punishment by contingent withdrawal. Take the fact that Paula’s husband will not clean his work papers off the dining room table. He just won’t (well, maybe he will on Thanksgiving, but there’s very little chance other days of the year).
In a situation like this, I’d encourage Paula to express herself clearly and state what the punishment will be if her husband doesn’t clean up the table (or, said differently, if he continues his indifferent behavior). Maybe something like this, “Honey, I’ve asked you repeatedly to do a better job cleaning the dining room. This is a fine work space, but we have to keep it neat. I am embarrassed to have my friends over because it looks like we’re hoarders. If you don’t clean this stuff up within the next three days, I am going on strike. I am going to stop doing X, Y or Z…” X, Y and Z can be any behaviors you think will get his attention. Stop what you’re doing and make him realize you’re serious about this issue.
Be direct, be compassionate, be firm. Draw your line in the sand as you would with a child. It’s never easy to go on strike, but it works, and it can work for you.
Shape by Successive Approximations
This strategy has a ridiculous name, I know, but bear with me. The method uses positive reinforcement to increase good behavior in increments (rather than “punishing” bad behavior). You need to begin with a target behavior in mind. Think small. For example, suppose you’d like your husband to look at you and be engaged in a conversation when he’s sitting on the couch. The small behavior here is “look at you.” Reward this behavior. Go closer. Smile. Touch him.
[Sidebar: I have to pause here to admit how ridiculous this all sounds. It’s true, it’s ridiculous, but it works. This is precisely how they get dogs to do all those amazing tricks at the circus. Surely, it can’t be that hard to train your partner to show up for a little conversation.]
Once he’s got the looking at you down, start rewarding the next behavior in the chain, perhaps his replying to you or putting down the remote to talk. This is the “successive approximations” part: Once he has achieved the first step, start rewarding the next step.
Reward him for being involved in the conversation with you. Reward each successive behavior in the chain until he puts the whole enchilada of conversation together to suit your liking. Wikipedia has a great example of a rat pressing a lever. I am not likening your partner to a rat. (Although I am sure he’s capable of rat-like behaviors, especially the poor hygiene stuff. My apologies to rat lovers.) It’s just a great illustration of how this simple system gets remarkable results.
[Another sidebar: I realize this reads like a “blame the victim story.” You might ask: Why is it that if my husband is the caveman that I need to do all the work? He should do all the work, not me! He never does anything! I am sure this is true, but my reply is simple: Do you want to argue about who should do what, or do you want to have a better relationship and spend your time together more enjoyably? I could go on and on about this issue, but instead I’ll just note that it sucks you have to do all the work. I am sincerely sorry about this fact.]
Build Positive Cycles, Not Vicious Ones
You might ask: Where does all this positive reinforcement lead? Good sex, that’s where. I am being flippant, but I’d like to make the point that positive connection breeds positive connection.
Imagine this for Paula. She tells her husband she really wants him to talk more and be more open with her. He tries it, then she reinforces each step in the chain. He does OK—not great—but he’s trying, so she snuggles up to him on the couch and rubs his shoulders a bit. He loves this, so he tries a bit harder… He gets it right (finally!) and shows some affection toward her as the icing on the cake. Paula is beyond happy, so she decides to get a little friskier than usual in bed. He loves that even more, so he returns the favors in kind and they have sex three nights in a row. He puts the remote down and really starts engaging with her.
What I describe above is bare-bones behavior change. This is what it looks like when it’s really stripped down. Of course, nothing is this simple or easy in real life, but the key here is to look for and build on virtuous cycles (technically speaking, positive feedback loops), instead of living your life in a vicious cycle where your pursuit efforts are met by more withdrawal on his part.
Although behavior change is complex, you can help your relationship grow by identifying positive target behaviors, then reinforcing the heck out of them. Should all the work fall on you? Of course not, but if small changes take root, you might be surprised at the scope of the positive outcomes.
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