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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Keys to a Positive Marriage--Belief in the Other Person and Their Growth

What is love?  Is it a feeling of romance?  Is it a bonding between two persons?  Is it shared experience?

I think it is many things, but let me tell you one thing I believe it is.   It is an awareness that the other person is important.  They are important not only because you love them, not only because they make you feel good, not only because they are beautiful, not only because they are intelligent, not only because they are funny and sociable, but they are important because they exist.  There is a reason for them to exist on this Earth.

Perhaps you don't see it that way, but stay with me for a moment.  At least hopefully you believe that your partner has a potential to be something special.  My belief is that each person has a capacity for growth for becoming a unique person.  They have a capacity for self-directedness and self-actualization. 

I sometimes think of life as a trajectory.  It is as if we are fired from an artillery piece out into the sky and into the world.  Under the best of circumstances, each person traces a very unique arc to their eventual landing place.  This trajectory is theirs uniquely, and the quality of their life and the meaning of their life will depend on the success they have in this task. 

As a spouse or partner, we can assist the other person in this.  Or we can ignore it, or even fight against it.  When we are in a relationship, it is likely that at different times, we will probably do all three.  But love is helping our partner on their unique trajectory. 

There may be times when what is good for the other will rub us the wrong way.  Perhaps one partner has a desire to go back to college, and we are worried about what that will do to family finances.  Perhaps one partner feels the need to be away from the house to do volunteer work, and we want their time for ourselves.  Perhaps the highest grossing wage earner decides that they really need to do something different in life, but it will bring in less money.  Things such as this may trouble us or frighten us.  But one aspect of love is realizing that our partner needs support and help.  They do not need to be encumbered by our selfishness.

This is essentially recognizing the other person as a person, and not as an object or possession.  It takes joy in letting the other person be who they are while still staying in the committed bounds of the marriage relationship.  While I am not Buddhist, let me use a concept from the Easter religions here.  It is the concept of Mudita.  (Pronounced moo-di-tah.)  This is the idea of taking joy in the good fortune of others.  We take joy and happiness in the other person discovering themselves, developing their talents, and being all that it is possible in their being to be.  This is in many ways similar to the Christian concept of agape.  It is love directed toward the best interests of the other person.  It strives towards being selfless rather than just getting our own needs met.

This is not to say that we don't have the right to speak up when our partners do something which offends us.  We do have the right.  If my spouse wanted to take a trek by herself to the Himalayas, I would definitely speak up.  But I need to be aware of her needs and the things which will lead to her self-actualization, even if they don't seem to meet my needs at the moment.

The opposite of this concept is narcissism.  In narcissism, I want my spouse to be an extension of me.  I want to pull their strings, like one would with a marionette.  Or I expect them to behave as a puppet.  I see them as an extension of me, and not truly as another person with their own wants, feelings, needs, and trajectory in life.

Now, of course, all of this is very idealistic.  It is often beyond our ability to be this selfless.  But then, to quote Robert Browning, "Man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Keys to a Positive Marriage--Using Positive Reinforcement

It is tempting in marriage to think that our partner is the source of the marriage's problems and then to try to change our partner by making negative comments.  Negative feedback is sometimes necessary.  But oftentimes criticism changes little if anything.  As I have said in one of my earlier blog postings, I'm not sure we can ever change our partner for the better.  On the negative side, maybe some people batter their partner into submission with their words or actions, but that is not positive change.

So I don't recommend setting out trying to change your partner.  But there is one fundamental principle of psychology which should not be overlooked.  And that is the power of positive reinforcement. 

Positive reinforcement is good for a marriage in several ways.  It shows that you are paying attention not just when your partner is doing something wrong or something you don't like.  It shows that you are aware of when they are doing positive, constructive behaviors.

Secondly, positive reinforcement enhances the self-esteem of your partner.

Thirdly, positive reinforcement keeps you positive.  It keeps you looking for and being aware of the positives in the marriage.  It can make you a better a person.

When it absolutely seems essential to you that your partner change their behavior, then even though I am not sure that it can be accomplished quickly, you can encourage behavior change slowly by using reinforcement.  It takes time, and it needs to be consistent.  By consistent, I don't mean that positive reinforcement needs to occur every day.  But it can't stop for weeks or months at a time.   

Start by carefully observing your partner's actions, then reinforcing them when they are acting more positively or doing something which approaches what you want. In other words, wait for them to make a positive change, even if it’s a small one and then reinforce them. Reinforcement increases the likelihood that they will come back at a later time and repeat the positive behavior. Note that I didn't say that it makes them do it again, and I didn't say that it guarantees that they would do it again.  I said that it enhances the probability that they will do it again.  Nothing is guaranteed here. 

It accomplishes this by following their pleasing behaviors with something which is pleasant and rewarding, such as expressing appreciation or doing something nice for them. If the husband is working on something which the wife has been asking him to fix for awhile, she might bring him a sandwich and a soft drink while he is repairing it.

This method does not wait until a full and total change.  It waits only for an approximate change before reinforcing the other person. Let’s say that the husband has been complaining to his wife that she isn’t keeping the house as neat as he wants it. One day he comes home and the kitchen is clean and straight, but the living room is still messy. If he comments to her on how disastrous the living room looks, then the wife will feel that her new attempts to change her behavior have been met with punishment. Is she likely to clean the living room the next day? It’s doubtful. She’s likely to think, “Well, if I clean the living room, he’ll just complain about the bedroom.” Even if the husband is totally upset with how the rest of the house looks, he needs to try to be patient, gradually encouraging the type of cleaning behavior that he wants from his wife through reinforcement. Similarly, if the wife is trying to get him to be more involved with the children, it is important that she not wait until he has become the perfect dad before starting to make positive comments.

Positive reinforcement can sometimes build a strong sense of goodwill between partners which carries far beyond the original problem. If the wife reinforces the husband for washing the outside of her car, she may find that he next cleans the inside of her car. And if she keeps reinforcing him, he may go on to do other car related or household chores as well.

One delightful advantage of reinforcement is that we never know where it will lead! It usually leads somewhere positive. One place where positive reinforcement can lead is “positive reciprocity.” This means that we tend to get back what we give. The wife brings a sandwich to her husband in the workshop, and he may give her back a hug. When we start giving out positively reinforcing behaviors to our spouse, we are likely to receive back other pleasant behaviors from them. Now, it would be unreasonable to expect this type of reciprocity immediately. But in the long run, when we want positive behaviors from our spouse, we are most likely to get them if we have been giving them out freely.

Reinforcing your partner may require you to reorient yourself to a new way of relating--focusing on what they are doing “right” rather than what they are doing “wrong.” (“Right” and “wrong” are put in quotes because I am defining them here only by what you want them to do or don’t want them to do.) Simply paying attention to their positive, constructive behaviors can have a beneficial impact on how you feel about them.

Another advantage of responding to your partner’s behavior in this way is that they tend to be more open to other feedback you may give them and less likely to be defensive. It is as if we are saying to them, “You are so wonderful, and all you have to do to keep being wonderful is just keep doing what you are already doing.” Who can resist that? Who doesn’t want to hear that?

What if reinforcement does not seem to be working? Or what if there seems to be little or no opportunity to provide reinforcement? There are times that we just can’t wait around for the other person to do something differently. In this type of situation, we have to be more assertive about expressing what our desires and needs are. By being direct and telling the other person what we need or want, we may be able to prompt them to try something new or different. But it is still important to be ready to reinforce them if they follow through.

When asking a partner to change their behavior, they may become defensive. In order to minimize this, it is helpful to follow a few guidelines:
--Provide the feedback about what you don’t like and the request for what you want from them in private.
--Make the request in a straightforward non-emotional tone of voice if possible.
--Don’t ask for more than one or two changes at a time. Don’t throw everything and the kitchen sink at them all at once.
--Make a positive request rather than a negative request (example: I would really appreciate it if you could speak to me in a calm tone when you are discussing a problem. Try to focus on what you want in a positive way rather than on what they are doing “wrong.”