Have you ever wished that your partner would change?
- Maybe they shut down emotionally when you wish they would open up and talk about how they are feeling?
- Perhaps they leave their clothes lying on the floor and you wish that they would be tidier?
- Maybe they don’t apologize when they have messed up and you wish they would just say “I’m sorry…”
Whatever the case, you’re about to learn how to get your partner to change their behavior for the better, all the while thinking that doing so was their idea.
Sound like manipulation? It totally is, so please read the warning below before trying this at home.
WARNING: If you’ve attended any of my relationship repair courses, you may have heard me say that you can’t change your partner and that trying to do so is not only futile in most cases. I stand by this. The only person you should be attempting to change is you. If you want to fundamentally change who your partner is, you are most likely the one who needs to do some looking in the mirror. However, if you want to influence your spouse’s behavior to do something that is in their own best interests to do, then read on…
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
- Albert Einstein
A TALKING PARROT HOLDS THE KEY TO GETTING YOUR PARTNER TO CHANGE (SERIOUSLY)
The other day, I stumbled upon a brilliant TED talk that holds the key to understanding how to influence your partner to change. It’s presented by a talking parrot, Einstein, who appears to understand and speak English (watch the video below).
From the video, can you figure out the key to inspiring your partner to change?
Clue: It has nothing to do with the parrot and everything to do with the handler.
Obviously, Einstein has been very well trained to recognize her handler’s words and has memorized the correct responses to those words. Her behavior has been very intentionally crafted by her handler.
This video got me thinking about how human beings can be trained in the exact same way Einstein has been.
PRAISE AND REWARD – THE SECRET TO BEHAVIOR CHANGE
Enter your Did you notice the two things that Einstein’s handler did over and over again?
Whenever Einstein responded correctly, the handler gave her praise (saying “Yeah… That’s right… Much better…”) or rewarded her by feeding her a seed.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “My husband/wife is not a pet, Bruce!”
And you’re right – at least in part.
You see, at some level, we humans are still animals no matter how sophisticated and evolved we may think we are.
One of the traits wired into all animals is the motivation to move towards pleasure and move away from pain.
In the video above, the handler stimulates the pleasure centers in Einstein’s brain by rewarding her correct responses with praise and a seed.
Now, you might argue that Einstein cannot perceive praise because Einstein cannot understand English.
However, I’d argue that Einstein can perceive prosity (a fancy name for voice tone) and will perceive the handler’s voice tone as a reward.
BIG IDEA #1: REWARD THE BEHAVIOR YOU WANT...
So, the first big idea I want you to take away from this video is that you can influence your spouse’s behavior by praising them when they do the thing you would like them to do.
Obviously, we’re not going to be saying “Good boy” or “Good girl” to our spouses or feed them chocolates every time they do the thing we’d like them to. We’re going to be a little more subtle.
- When he does open up and talk about how he is feeling, thank him and let them know how much his words mean to you. Let him know how courageous you think he is for taking the risk to be vulnerable. Squeeze his hand. Smile at him. Make love with him.
- Perhaps she leaves her clothes lying on the floor and you wish that she would be tidier? When she does tidy the room, acknowledge her, thank her and let her know that you appreciate her. Make sure you’re not being sarcastic e.g. “Thanks for tidying up the room (for a change…)”
- When they do say “I’m sorry…” after having screwed up, hug or kiss them.
You get the idea… it’s not rocket science.
Notice how the rewards don’t have to be enormous gestures. Praise, acknowledgment, appreciation, small gifts, and touch can go a long way. Knowing your partner’s Love Language will help you figure out the best reward for them.
CRITICISM – KRYPTONITE TO LASTING BEHAVIOR CHANGE
I first learned about the idea of praise and reward when reading about how dolphins in aquariums are trained to do tricks. For example, when the dolphin jumps through the hoop, they get given a fish to eat.
However, when the dolphin doesn’t get the trick right, they don’t get punished. Instead, the trainer just ignores their incorrect behavior.
The trainer acts as if nothing has happened and just repeats the instruction until the dolphin gets the trick right – at which point s/he praises and rewards the dolphin for doing it correctly.
This is where most of us humans get it all wrong with our spouses (and kids for that matter).
Instead of ignoring bad behavior, we punish it with criticism:
- “Why have you shut down – again!?? What’s wrong with you???”
- “Why are your clothes still on the floor? How many times must I tell you that I hate it when you leave your clothes on the floor?”
- “You never say that you’re sorry. It’s always my fault!”
Of course, this never inspires our spouse to change. If anything, it pushes them away from us and keeps them stuck in the same old pattern.
If they do change their behavior as the result of your criticism, it will only be temporary (and they will resent you for it). Before long, they will be back to their old ways.
“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
- Dale Carnegie
In some cases, we may punish bad behavior with emotional or physical violence. As a kid, I received a spanking every now and then.
Did it teach me what not to do? Yes!
Did it inspire me to not do that thing again? No. I just did the bad behavior in secret and made sure that I was not caught.
BIG IDEA #2: IGNORE THE BEHAVIOR YOU DON'T WANT
If you want your spouse to voluntarily change their behavior, ignore the thing you don’t want them to do. Act as if it didn’t happen and instead, model the behavior you do want them to do.
- If he shuts down emotionally, act as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on and be kind, loving and open with him.
- If she leaves her clothes lying on the floor, leave the clothes there until the mess gets too much and she picks them up (at which point thank her for cleaning up the room and reward her in some small way).
- If they don’t apologize when they have messed up, you apologize for your part in what happened. Side note: I’m not suggesting that you take all the blame or that you be a doormat or play the victim role. I’m suggesting that you model being a responsible adult by taking responsibility for your part.
A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT INFLUENCING YOUR PARTNER
TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAIN…
I’ll bet it took a while to train Einstein to respond like she does in the video. It didn’t happen with a few seeds and the occasional “Good girl…”
Please don’t expect that your initial praise will make a difference overnight. You have to be consistent with it over time. If you are, you’ll slowly begin to notice positive changes in your spouses’ behaviors.
Those changes are very likely to stick.
THIS IS ACTUALLY ABOUT YOU, NOT YOUR SPOUSE…
Becoming the kind of person who praises and appreciates instead of criticizing is going to stretch you and grow you.
Becoming the kind of person who rewards instead of punishes is going to make you a more loving spouse, parent, and friend.
If you approach changing your partner’s behavior as an opportunity for you to grow, the likelihood of them changing increases. So, I guess that in the end, I am saying that the only person you can change is yourself.
- Reward the behavior you want…
- Ignore the behavior you don’t want…
Obviously, these two ideas are just that – ideas, not rules.
Of course, there will always be exceptions and situations that warrant more sophisticated solutions (like the ones I teach in The Conflict Cure).
You can also try these ideas out with your kids, your boss, your parents – anyone you care about!
I suspect that you’ll soon realize that you have super-powers to influence those you care for. Make sure that you use them for good.
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