It’s a rare person who knows how to train a puppy. Most of us do it wrong. I know. I’ve had plenty of puppies and I’ve always done it wrong. Mostly doing it right is about understanding the power and usefulness of rewards and the confusion, counter-productiveness, and uselessness of punishment.
And, by the way, when it comes to training, anger, scolding, recrimination, shaming...they’re all punishments.
I’m sure you can guess where I’m headed, because we don’t talk about animal animals here. Just people animals. And noble creatures though we may be, training a partner is the same as training a puppy. That’s right. When it comes to changing behavior, partners and puppies are pretty much the same thing.
First of all, let’s look at the lure of punishment. It’s a power move, designed to instill fear in the enemy. So the scold, the yell, the harsh tone, the recrimination, the name calling: they’re all designed to stop the other person in their tracks and make them afraid to transgress ever, ever, ever again. I get it!
But, ya know, if that shit worked I wouldn’t be writing this. I will grant that sometimes it does work in the short run. Sometimes. But what we win as a result of our brief reign of terror we lose much more in our partner’s desire to please us. I may be more afraid to leave a cupboard door open but I’m also much less eager to please you by doing so.
All the acrimony has accomplished is a reduction in my desire to please, whatever the short-term results.
So, yeah, that angry punishing response may feel effective, but long term it isn’t.
So what do we do instead?
Well, although we’re way less cute than puppies—sadly (though some of you are awfully cute!)—we do have language, which we all know puppies dearly wish they had.
Here, then, is what you can do.
Use your strengths. They are that
your partner cares about you and your well being
you can make your needs very, very clear, so there’s no confusion about what exactly you want
you can ask what your partner needs to give you what you need, and by so doing smooth over any possible obstacles to your getting what you want
Here’s a rough template. Let’s say your partner’s been leaving cupboard doors open left and right. You’ve complained about that in an annoyed tone of voice. But now you say, when you have their attention:
“Honey, I need to ask you for something. It would mean so, so much to me if when you’re in the kitchen you’d close all the cupboard doors when you’re through. It would be a real sign you love me. Can you do that for me? Is there any reason you can’t?”
All honey, no bitterness. Which means that you need to ask for this early on in the open-cupboard-door saga, before bitterness creeps in.
So now your puppy—I mean, partner—knows what to do. The next part is most important. It’s where with a puppy you’d be saying, “Such a good BOY!!” and handing out doggy treats when he brought the ball back approximately to where you are. You can do pretty much the same thing. “Oh, you closed all the cupboard doors! My hero!” And you pop a chocolate in his mouth.
This works better than a reign of terror, and, hey, you also don’t have the reign of terror.
Now since we never sugar coat things, I’m not going to say this works perfectly. Most of us aren’t partnered up with a human being who’s as bright as a border collie is as a dog. And anyway, even with all the doggy treats in the world you’ll never be able to teach a border collie to play the saxophone.
But you only have two choices. The punishment approach and the reward approach.
With the punishment approach, you’ll be living only in your fantasy of how effective your approach is, you may get results though they’ll only last a short while, and you’ll poison your relationship by damaging your partner’s desire to please you.
With the reward approach, it may or may not take longer to get results but either way they’ll be longer-lasting. And the benefits to your relationship will be huge, even if your partner is slower to learn than you’d like.
It’s up to you.
For more, a lot more, on getting your needs met, check out Why Couples Fight.