In my last post, I wrote about how to handle the feeling that no matter what you do, it’s never good enough.

But now I want you to consider whether your reactions to your partner and their illness have shaped their behaviors into something you don’t like?

A classic example of this is someone who has borderline personality disorder. Often, as children, people with BPD were not validated when they had legitimate concerns. As a result, they learned to perform more and more extreme behaviors until they got the attention they needed. Now, as adults, people with untreated BPD have tendencies to resort to self harm or actual suicide attempts when upset because they don’t think they will get attention any other way.

Your partner may not have BPD, but they still may be doing something to get your attention that absolutely grates on you. But is this behavior the only way your partner can get your attention? Are you responding to them when they do what you ask as well?

A quick lesson in reinforcement versus punishment is in order:

  • Positive reinforcement is when the person performing the behavior gets something they want for performing appropriately. Example: Your partner makes a special effort to get dressed up for going out and you tell them how nice they look.
  • Negative reinforcement is when something that is aversive to the person is removed when they perform appropriately. Example: A partner says to the other, “If you come home on time every night this week, I will mow the lawn on Saturday so you can watch the game.”
  • Punishment occurs when the person does something that is aversive, and the other person applies a negative consequence in hopes that the punished person will dislike the punishment and not repeat the behavior. Example: Your partner did not pick up the dry cleaning, despite being reminded five times; therefore, you give them the silent treatment all night.

We use reinforcement and punishment everyday, and most of the time, don’t even realize it. However, behavior shaping is a powerful tool in relationships, and especially when the relationship involves mental illness.

And as you might have guessed, positive reinforcement is usually the most well-received by the person who is the target to change their behavior.

Some tips to try for behaviors that you would like your partner to stop doing:

  • Praise the tiniest step in the right direction, but ignore any behavior that you don’t like. Example: Your partner has been unemployed due to their illness, but you want them to return to work full-time. When your partner makes one tiny movement in the direction of returning to work, say, making a phone call or sending an email about a job, give them lots of praise. If you come home and find out that your partner did nothing towards finding a job today, stay silent on the topic. It takes a lot of baby steps to reach a goal, and reinforcing the tiniest moves along the way adds up to big movement.
  • Resist the urge to nag or criticize. This one is hard, especially if this has been your habit for a while. People get defensive when feeling as if they are under attack. Silence and ignoring the negative behavior is far more effective. Bite your tongue, leave the room, breathe deeply, or do whatever you need to to resist making critical comments. Behaviors that are ignored generally diffuse quickly and are less likely to reoccur because they didn’t get any reinforcement.
  • Train your partner to do something else. Example: If your partner has trouble “remembering” to take their meds, make it impossible for them to forget. Put the pill bottles somewhere that they absolutely would have to deliberately move them out of the way in order to do something else. The more absurd, the better, such as keeping them in the empty coffee pot, if your partner is the one who makes the coffee in the morning. Once the behavior of taking the meds regularly becomes a habit, you can consider putting the meds in a more appropriate place. For other troublesome behaviors, the goal is to find something else for your partner to do that would make the offending behavior impossible to do.

A great article to read if you are considering trying this out: “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage”

A popular book on behavior training: Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor