Having mastered the skills of behavioural training part one, and your boyfriend* is almost in shipshape, onto part two we go!
So, how do we decrease those undesirable and pesky behaviours? There are three main things that we can do here. Extinction, satiation, and lastly punishment. We’re all familiar with punishment, as unfortunately it tends to be most peoples’ go-to method. We use punishment whenever we inflict a negative consequence in response to someone’s behaviour. While punishment can be effective or even necessary at times, it may well be worth reconsidering this as your primary behaviour change strategy.
Here’s why. The problem with punishment, as highlighted previously, is that we are very reward focused and motivated by pleasant emotions. Punishment most definitely is not reward focused, nor does it result in the experience of pleasant emotions. In addition, when we do punish someone, we often make the mistake of not clearly expressing what it is we want them to do instead. We just say, “Don’t do that!” but then don’t say, “What I’d really like to see is…”. So if you are going to use punishment, make sure you add the second part. It’s like punishing a dog for peeing on the floor but then not showing it where you actually want it to do its business.
Punishment is also commonly associated with strong and difficult to tolerate emotions, which can lead to avoidance. If you want your partner to discuss a difficult topic with you, but start yelling at them when they say something you don't want to hear, not only will they stop listening and avoid discussing the topic, but they’re also more likely to start avoiding you. You may have a good reason for yelling at them (perhaps they said something hurtful), but it may be more constructive to ask them to rephrase what they’ve said, rather than reacting strongly and not getting what you really want.
Extinction, on the other hand, is the process of ignoring undesirable behaviours. Every time your partner can’t find his keys and yells out to you “Do you know where my keys are?” (this is one of my pet peeves), ignoring their requests will eventually lead them to stop asking and increase the likelihood that they’ll find their keys on their own. If each time you engage in a discussion about where their keys could be, you’re reinforcing their behaviour. Warning – it is very likely that they will escalate their behaviour before they stop. But if you can tolerate this, extinction should surely follow.
Similarly, if your partner keeps telling you about the same issue (over and over again), looking very bored when they talk about it (neutral face not annoyed face), will extinguish this behaviour. This is where you need to be on your game, because as soon as they stop talking about that topic, you need to become really engaged and animated so that you reinforce them for changing the subject. In other words, your attention and engagement function as a powerful tool for reinforcing the behaviour you like and reducing those that you don’t like. So be careful where you place your attention.
Last but not least, we have satiation. Satiation is when you pre-empt the other person's needs, and give it to them before they display an undesirable behaviour. So your partner says that you don’t spend enough time with them, pre-empt this by starting to allocate specific times during the week where you only spend time with them. This way they feel satiated and don’t feel the need to nag you about your time together. Similarly, if your mother (or mother-in-law) is always calling to say "I never hear from you", beat them to the punch.
The last rule of thumb is to make sure that what you're trying to change is within your partner’s capabilities. Don’t expect them to become super tidy if they are not naturally that way inclined, work with what you know they can do. Also, this stuff takes practice; so don’t get disheartened if you don’t see an amazing 180 straight away, you’re learning a new skill for life after all, and that’s not something that you can rush!
May You Keep Happiness In Sight xx