Several weeks ago, my husband and I adopted a dog from the shelter. Though both of us grew up with dogs, we were new to adopting an older dog, with an unknown history. The counselor at the shelter recommended obedience classes, specifically positive reinforcement training. Positive reinforcement is based on the idea that any creature – dog, cat, or human – is more likely to learn and repeat behaviors that result in consequences it desires and enjoys. Sounds obvious, right? When I ask my dog to “stay” and she complies, she gets a treat. Basically, the more I reward positive behavior, the more excited my dog is to please me, and the easier it is for us to build a relationship based on trust instead of fear.
Many couples in distress report that trust has eroded in their relationship, and they are left with criticism and fear of failing or disappointing their partners. Positive reinforcement can help couples move from criticism to support, from mistrust to mutual love and respect. A former supervisor of mine used to say “what you pay attention to grows,” meaning if you look for ways in which your partner is “failing,” you’ll find several instances when they let you down. But, if you look for instances when your partner supports you or the relationship, you’ll start to see the small ways they contribute positively to your partnership.
One of the most important aspects of couples therapy is helping clients shift their focus from what their partner is doing wrong to what their partner is doing right. Clients report that when they pay attention to “good” behavior, their relationship becomes safe and supportive and it is easier to have difficult conversations and change unhelpful behavior patterns. Have you ever tried positive reinforcement? Did it help your relationship? Sound off in the comments!
Cara Nazareth, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Contact her via email or telephone today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.