Want to Learn the Secrets of a Well-Trained Boyfriend* / Girlfriend* / Significant Other*? Keep Reading...
How often do you find yourself irritated with your partner that once again they've left their clothes on the floor, the milk out of the fridge, the toilet seat up? And how often do you interpret these behaviours as a sign of disrespect towards you? That they don’t care enough about you? Because surely if they did...they wouldn’t be doing the things you've asked them countless times to stop doing.
If this is your situation, then get your notepad out... it's time for you to do something different. Instead of being annoyed at them because of their behaviour, and trying to change what they’re doing, it’s time for you to change what you’re doing.
How do we train our significant other? Through the principles of Behaviourism. And yes, it's the same thing we do with animals (we are just complex mammals after all).. .If you learn these principles, you won't live to regret it, as they're very simple in their nature, but extremely effective in practice. There are two things we need to learn before we get into boyfriend training 101.
Firstly, we need to change how we think about their behaviour. The stuff that you're interpreting as a sign of disrespect is almost certainly not intentional. Almost always, these annoying behaviours are symptomatic of absent-mindedness or distraction. I know for myself, I often kick off my shoes at the end of a long day and don’t think twice about where they land, despite my shoes almost always being a significant trip hazard. Instead, take a non-judgemental and curious approach to their behaviour, and think of it as an opportunity for you to practice some new skills, as a challenge that you're going to master. Trust me, this makes it much easier for your brain to be creative, rather than getting stuck in anger.
Secondly, we have to learn the principles behind how to increase behaviours we like and decrease behaviours that rub us the wrong way. So, it’s time for you to get clever! Let's start off with increasing behaviours...
If we want to increase a behaviour, we need to shape and reinforce it. It's amazing how quickly we learn to do something when we're reinforced for it. If we're dealing with a simple behaviour, reinforcement is often enough, but more of a complex behaviours require shaping. Shaping is the practice of breaking down a more complex behaviour into small steps, and reinforcing someone along the way.
So, what is reinforcement? Reinforcement comes in two forms, positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is when we get a reward for doing a behaviour, such as receiving praise or getting a monetary reward (the reason most people go to work). Negative reinforcement is when you do something to stop an aversive experience. You put your seatbelt on to stop your car from producing a very annoying warning noise.
So while positive and negative reinforcement are both effective, I am more of a fan of positive reinforcement, as it not only works better neurologically, but you also feel better doing it. The thing is, as human beings we're addicted to those chemical messages that our brain sends through our bodies when we get rewarded, especially if it has something to do with aiding our survival. Being in a relationship with you, is a form of survival for your partner.
Every time we experience a reward, our body sends out powerful chemical messages (otherwise known as neurotransmitters), which motivate us to continue on the task or behaviour. And the feeling part of our brain dominates our decision-making. While negative reinforcement works too, more commonly known as “nagging”, it certainly doesn’t feel as good as dishing out praise and positivity.
So if you want your partner to call you when they're out and let you know where they are, every time he or she takes a single step towards doing the desired behaviour, you reinforce them for it (This is shaping). So if you get a text message from them at 6 pm saying, “I’m going to the pub with some work mates, I’ll be home late”, you respond with “thanks so much for letting me know where you're going (insert pet name here), it’s so nice that you took the time to message me. Keep me posted, love you!” Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, would be sending 10 messages saying “Where are you? Why haven’t you responded to me? You need to tell me where you are NOW” etc.. Which one would you be more likely to respond to?
The golden rule when using reinforcement is that it must happen when the behaviour occurs. If you are trying to reinforce a puppy for its behaviour, you have to do it in the moment, otherwise the puppy isn't going to link the behaviour to the reward. And you'll end up with a happy, but poorly behaved pooch. Another helpful tip is to tell the person why their newly learnt behaviour is valuable to you. Let them know how it makes you feel that they're taking the time to respond to you and really acknowledge the efforts they're going to to meet your needs.
Similarly, be sure that when you are shaping someone’s behaviour, that you are very specific about the behaviours that you reinforce. Don’t confuse someone by rewarding a behaviour that is inconsistent with what you want to see, and think about what you might be accidentally reinforcing already. If you want your partner to be more organised, every time they get even close to making a plan, decide to do something proactive or even talk about doing the desired behaviour, reward them in the moment. Slowly build on that, keeping in mind that shaping is a gradual thing, and it's all about the long term gain.
Also, make shaping fun and lighthearted. The way to train an anxious pup to leave the house is to play a ball game with it until they feel safe to go near the front door. Once they are near the front door you slowly start to play the game with the front door open, then right near the actual doorway, and before you know it you are playing the game outdoors.
Don’t forget, all these principles also apply to you shaping and reinforcing your own behaviour. If you have a goal of wanting to get more active, build up slowly, and reward yourself after each effort. Encouraging yourself along the way is also really important. If you can’t stand the idea of going to the gym that day, go for a walk instead and reward yourself with a lovely mindful coffee at the end of it, or get a friend to come along with you.
Have a go at practising these and tune in for Part 2 - How to decrease pesky unwanted behaviours.
May You Keep Happiness In Sight xx