The hallmark of satisfying relationships is that each partner feels that important rewards will be experienced in their relationship. Often distressed couples will decrease their rewarding behavior toward their spouse because they feel they are not receiving rewards from their spouse. This follows the rule of reciprocity in relationships-- you give what you get. Thus, if you get rewarded, you will probably reward your spouse. Similarly, if you get punished, you will probably punish your spouse through either withdrawal or criticism. The unfortunate outcome for distressed couples is that as one spouse decreases rewards, the other spouse also decreases rewards, thereby confirming each spouse's belief that the relationship is unrewarding. The purpose of this handout-- and of the initial homework assignments in marital therapy -- are to help you and your spouse learn what is rewarding and how to get more rewards in your relationship.
- Question: Why should I reward my spouse? He/she isn't rewarding me!
Answer: Someone has to take the first step. You may have to engage in positive behavior for a while before you see the results you want. Don't forget--- you and your spouse have been teaching each other not to reward each other for a long time. It may take some time before you teach each other more positive behavior.
- Question: How can I know what he/she likes?
Answer: This is a good point. Distressed couples often spend too much time complaining about what they don't get and very little time articulating what they do have. So the first step will be to help each other learn what your spouse does that is rewarding-- even if only slightly rewarding.
- Question: Why should I have to tell him/her what I like? He/she should know what I like without my asking.
Answer: This is an assumption that spouses should be mind-readers. It would be a lot better if they were, but unfortunately, they're not.
Identifying rewarding behavior
- Be specific about the behavior
- Ask your spouse what you have done that is rewarding
- Ask your spouse what he/she would like you to do that could be rewarding
- Don't argue at this stage: you are only trying to gather information.
Can you think of anything that your spouse did or said during the last week that gave you any pleasure at all?
" Well, he/she was nice to me on monday."
Note: "Nice" is too vague a term. What you want to do is teach your spouse the specific behavior that you like so that he or she can repeat that specific behavior again.
What did your spouse do that was rewarding during the last week? Be specific:
Homework: one of the common problems with distressed couples is that they are often unaware of what they do that is rewarding. They are negative trackers. Your assignment is to learn more about the positive behaviors of your spouse during the coming week. Each day you should write down the specific behaviors that your spouse does that are rewarding to you. For example, one wife wrote that she liked it when her husband 1) made her coffee (monday). 2) Helped clean up the dishes (tuesday). List the rewards for the coming week below. Note: do not show the list to your spouse until the next therapy session.
What would you like your spouse to do that you might find rewarding during the next week? Limit your requests to specific behaviors that do not take too much time to complete.
Rewarding positive behaviors
Have you ever said anything like the following?
- " You never do anything for me" (all or nothing thinking)
- " You helped me tonight. But you almost never help me." (zap treatment)
- " Why can't you be more affectionate, considerate, helpful?" ( Why accusation)
- or, do you withdraw and pout?
What do you think the outcome is for each of the examples above? For the all or nothing example, the other spouse will think that there is nothing he/she can do that will make a difference and that he/she may as well either withdraw or defend by complaining or attacking. In the zap example, the reward is followed by the punitive accusation about the past: consequently, the spouse will only remember the punishment (the zap) and not help in the future. The "why" treatment is very common and very negative. It usually results in an argument. Ask yourself: what is a satisfactory response to "why?" And, finally, withdrawal may help you decrease negative interactions in the present but it will annoy your spouse and it will not teach him/her how to do things that you like.
In order to enhance your relationship both spouses need to take responsibility for changing.
A basic rule is that behavior that is rewarded will increase and behavior that is punished will decrease. A second rule is that you must learn to teach your spouse how to do specific things that you like. To be an effective teacher, you must do the following.
- Label the specific behavior you like: "I really liked it when you helped with dinner," not "You were nice tonight."
- Reward your spouse as soon as possible.
- Make your reward credible: look at or touch your spouse when you tell him/her what you like.
- Stay in the present: don't bring up past grievances or failures to perform.
Build on the positive
The rationale for all of this is that you are responsible for teaching your spouse the behaviors that you like. The more you label and reward specific behaviors, the more likely it is that those behaviors will occur. And your purpose right now should be to try to improve the relationship for yourself by teaching your spouse what it is that you like.
Homework: List below each example of how and when you label and reward your spouse during the coming week.
Automatic thoughts are ideas that you have which come spontaneously, seem plausible to you and which are associated with negative feelings. Automatic thoughts, however, are only thoughts and they may or may not be true. The purpose of this handout is to help you identify some of the automatic thoughts which may contribute to your distress. Below, I have listed and given examples of some automatic thoughts that are typical among distressed couples.
- Labeling - you attribute a negative personality trait to your spouse leading you to believe that he or she can never change.
" He's passive-aggressive" " she's neurotic."
- Fortune-telling - you forecast the future and predict that things will never get better, leaving you felling helpless and hopeless.
" He'll never change" "I'll always be unhappy in my marriage."
- Mind-reading - you interpret the motivations of your spouse as hostile or selfish on the basis of very little evidence. "You don't care how I feel" " you're saying that because you're trying to get back at me."
- Catastrophic thinking - you treat conflict or problems as if they indicate that the world has ended or that your marriage is awful." It's awful that we have these arguments" "I can't stand her nagging" "It's awful that we haven't had sex recently."
- Emotional reasoning - you feel depressed and anxious and you conclude that your emotions indicate that your marriage is a failure." We must have a terrible marriage because I'm unhappy."" I don't have the same feelings toward him that I used to--therefore we're no longer in love."
- Negative filter - you focus on the few negative experiences in your relationship and fail to recognize or recall the positives. You probably bring up past history in a series of complaints that sounds like you're putting your spouse on trial.
" You were rude toward me last week." " You talked to that other person and ignored me entirely."
- All or nothing thinking - you describe your interactions as being all good or all bad without examining the possibility that some experiences with your spouse are positive.
"You're never kind toward me." "You never show affection." " You're always negative."
- Discounting the positive - you may recognize the positives that do exist, but you disregard them by saying--" that's what a wife or husband should do."
"Well, so what that he did that---it means nothing" " these are trivial things that you're talking about"
- Perfectionism - you hold up a standard for a relationship that is unrealistically high and then compare your relationship to this standard.
" It's not like it was in the first year--so it's not worth it"
" my wife (husband) should make me happy all the time."
- Shoulds - you have a list of "commandments" about your relationship and condemn yourself (when you're depressed) or your spouse (when you're angry) for not living up to your shoulds.
- " My spouse should always know what I want without my asking"
- " If my spouse doesn't do what I want her (him) to do I should punish him (her)."
- " I shouldn't ever be unhappy (bored, angry, etc.) With my spouse."
- " I shouldn't have to work at a relationship--it should come naturally."
- " Talking about these things just makes them worse."
- " My spouse should change first."
- " It's all his (her) fault, so why should I change?"
- " If I don't get my way, I should complain (pout, withdraw, give up)."
- " Our sex life should always be fantastic."
- " If I'm attracted to other people it means that I shouldn't stay in this marriage."
- " I should try to win in all of our conflicts."
- " My spouse should accept me just the way I am."
- " If we're having problems it means we have an awful relationship."
- " I shouldn't have to wait for change--it should come immediately."
- Personalizing you attribute your partner's moods and behavior to something about yourself or you take all the blame for the problems.
- " He's in a bad mood because of me."
- " If it weren't for me, we wouldn't have any of these problems."
- Externalization of responsibility you believe that all the problems in the relationship are out of your control.
- " If it weren't for her, we wouldn't have these problems."
- " He argues with me, that's why we can't get along."
- Homework: Each day write down four automatic thoughts or assumptions that either are thinking or saying. Which distortions are your most common distortions?
Changing your automatic thoughts and assumptions
Your therapist can help you learn to think and act differently in your relationship so that both of you can experience greater rewards. Some of the techniques that you may learn about are the following:
- Identify your automatic thoughts when you are angry, anxious or sad. What are the advantages and disadvantages to your thought?
- What cognitive distortions are you using?
- What if your thought is true--what if your spouse is not paying attention to you--why does that bother you?
- What is the evidence for your thinking? For example, if you label your spouse as unloving, is there any evidence for and against this label?
- What are the underlying assumptions? Your "should" statements? What are the advantages and disadvantages of your assumptions.?
- If you had a friend who had this problem, what would you advise them to do?
- Are there less negative explanations for your partner's behavior?
- What is your role in the conflict? Do you provoke? Do you ignore his/her positives? What alternative adaptive behavior could you use in the future?
- You may think that what has happened is awful. Think about what happened along a continuum-- what could be worse? Are you looking at things out of proportion to what they are?
- What could you do to correct the situation in the future?
Rules for arguing
Most arguments are disruptive and unproductive. That doesn't mean that you should never disagree with your spouse. However, if you and your spouse are going to get the most out of your disagreements, it would be useful to develop some ground rules for your arguments.
First: if you and your spouse are explosive in your arguing or if you have experienced violence in your relationship, use "time out" when you feel very angry. Tell your partner that you need time out and go to another room for at least 15 minutes. If your partner asks for time out, don't follow them. Use the time to challenge your angry thoughts and to plan a more adaptive way to express your needs. When you return, consider the following rules:
- Present the difference as a problem to be solved by both of you
- stick to one simple topic
- stay in the present
- indicate your own role in the problem--accept some responsibility
- invite your spouse to solve the problem with you
- ask your spouse if he or she has some ideas about solutions
- suggest some points of agreement
- propose that you try one solution that both of you agree on
- bring up past wrongs
- bring up irrelevant material
- label your spouse
- ask, " why do you always...?"
- raise your voice
- try to be affectionate when your spouse is disagreeing with you
- be sarcastic
- interpret your spouse's motives
- try to win
- try to make your spouse seem foolish
Are you and your spouse really talking about the same thing when you're arguing? In many distressed couples many arguments can be reduced by learning how to listen to each other. At first, this exercise will seem very artificial-- but you may learn that your problems often are due to not hearing what your spouse is saying.
For example, you and your husband are arguing about something and one of you begins to get annoyed. This is a good sign that you should try rephrasing.
- Briefly state your point (limit: 3 sentences)
- Ask spouse to rephrase this point
- Indicate what was correct and what was left out of rephrasing
- Spouse rephrases again
- Ask for points of agreement
- Rephrase points of disagreement
- Ask for points of disagreement
- Rephrase points of disagreement example:
- Wife: I'm not sure that I'm making myself clear. Let me briefly say what my point is and maybe you can rephrase it to see if I'm getting my point across.
- ( Wife states her point in three sentences)
Wife: I take care of the kids all week and I think that on the weekends, when you're around, that you could help out with the kids more. I feel that when I try to talk to you about this you ignore me and it gets me angry.
- (Husbands summarizes the wife's point without indicating whether he agrees or disagrees--- the purpose is to be sure if he understands what is being said)
Husband: You're saying that I should help out with the kids more on the weekend.
- Husband: (rephrasing)... Is that what you said?
- Wife: you were right that I said , "I'd like you to help out with the kids on the weekend," but you left out that, " I feel you ignore me when I talk to you about this,"... Could you rephrase that part you left out?
- Husband: (rephrases) OK, you feel that I ignore you when you talk about this.
- Wife: OK. Is there anything that I said that you agree with?
- Husband: (limits his statement to his agreement)
I agree with the part that I could help out with the kids more on the weekend. What did I say that you disagree with?
- Husband: I disagree with the idea that I ignore you because I do hear what you day a lot of the time but I just don't want to get into arguments. Can you rephrase my disagreement?
- Wife: (Rephrases, asks for feedback of whether rephrasing is accurate, corrects her rephrasing, indicates what she agrees on and disagrees on and why)
Conclusion: This couple has come to recognize an important point of agreement---that the husband should help out more with the kids on the weekend. The wife feels ignored and the husband says he hears her but wants to avoid arguments. Actually, the rephrasing described above is a good example of how the wife can be heard and how the argument can be decreased in severity.
Mutual problem solving
This couple is now ready for mutual problem solving in which each of them will contribute to identifying and solving the problem. The first step is to start off by identifying the problem in simple terms which refer to manageable behavior. In this case, the wife will bring up the problem of the care of the children on the weekend. The steps in mutual problem solving are:
- Identifying the problem as "our" problem.
- Ask your spouse if he/she would be willing to help in solving the problem.
- Work on only one problem.
- Identify your own role in the problem.
- Brainstorm possible solutions. Say, "let's see how many possible solutions we can come up with." Don't make judgments about any possible solutions at this point.
- Go through the possible solutions. Each of you should prioritize (from most attractive to not acceptable) the possible solutions.
- Be willing to compromise. There is no ultrasolution---only a middle ground that works a little for you and a little for your spouse. Select a solution you both find acceptable.
- Set up an experiment with your agreed-upon solution.
- Carry out your experiment.
- Revise the solution or try a different solution if the first one didn't work.
- Reward each other for working together as partners.
Keep in mind-- having problems is not the problem. The problem is not having a way to find the solutions.
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Blog Posts on Relationships:
For information about couples therapy, read a chapter from
Brief Therapy for Couples: Helping Partners Help Themselves
- W. Kim Halford
Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, 3rd Edition
-Alan S. Gurman and Neil S. Jacobson
Marriage and Relationship Education: What Works and How to Provide It
Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotional Expression
-W. Kim Halford
-James W. Pennebaker
Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships, and Express Yourself without Losing Control
-W. Robert Nay
Sexual Dysfunction: A Guide for Assessment and Treatment (2nd ed)
-John P. Wincze and Michael P. Carey
For information about couples therapy with gay men, read a chapter from Couple Therapy with Gay Men by David E. Greenan and Gil Tunnell
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