2. 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.]
3. 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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