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Tips to Build a Rewarding Romantic Relationship

Reinforcement in Romantic Relationships

Experimental tests of both reward and punishment in romantic relationships have a fairly long history. For example, in 1975, research by Birchler, Weiss, and Vincent explored such interactions between married couples. The group compared the behaviors of couples who were having problems, to happily married individuals and strangers, in both lab experiments and at home. After observing how the couples related, the researchers found significantly less reward among distressed married couples. In other words, unhappy couples did not reward the appropriate and loving behaviors of their spouses. In contrast, happy couples responded and reinforced loving behaviors in a spouse by agreeing, approving, laughing, smiling, or providing some positive physical contact.

Furthermore, distressed couples also punished more. They were quick to criticize, complain, interrupt, disagree, and turn away from their spouse. Overall, by not rewarding loving behaviors and overly punishing their spouses, distressed couples actually created an unhappy marriage.

Similar results were found by Lochman and Allen (1979) in an experiment with datingcouples. The researchers asked 80 dating couples to take part in a role playing experiment. While being explained their various roles, one of the participants of each couple was randomly and secretly asked to be more approving or disapproving of their partner. Therefore, during the role plays, some participants acted in ways that showed their approval, while others were disapproving of their partner. Then, the partner who received the positive or negative treatment was interviewed.

Not surprisingly, partners who received more approval and less disapproval were more satisfied. They also acted more lovingly back to their partner too! Therefore, being rewarding appears to help in dating relationships as well.

Putting these points together, a more recent article by Dermer (2006) carefully articulated the use of reinforcement in motivating loving behavior. Throughout the analysis, Dermer illustrated that reinforcement serves two primarily important functions in building loving behaviors.

  • First, proper rewards conveys that a behavior is attended to, understood, and responded to in a satisfying way by a partner.
  • Second, selective use of rewards also increases the frequency of loving behaviors that are performed.

Taken together, these points indicate that rewarding a partner when they are positive, caring, and loving can motivate them to be more passionate and attracted to you. By this method, loving interactions and relationships are actually “built” one rewarding exchange at a time.

Four Tips for Building a Rewarding Relationship

Given the above research, it appears that rewarding a date or mate is indeed important for relationship satisfaction. In the long run, rewarding relationships thrive, while punishing or neglectful relationships wither and end. Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can keep your relationship rewarding…

Gratitude: One of the most important thing both partners can do for one another is to remember to be grateful for each other. Being grateful for a partner’s positive efforts motivates reciprocity and reward in return. In addition, such gestures can make the relationship feel more sacred and committed. Overall then, when your partner does something nice and loving, share your gratitude. When you do something nice and loving, look for gratitude in return as well.

Attention: Partners behave in all kinds of ways to get each other’s attention. When loving gestures are ignored, they may resort to less-positive methods of getting noticed. Therefore, when your partner is being nice and thoughtful, spend a few minutes at least talking to them.Build some rapport and connection. Share some positive conversation. Look for some attention and conversation in return too.

Touch: One of the most fundamental things that distinguishes romantic relationships is the level of affectionate and intimate touch. For many people, that relationship may be their only source of such affection. Therefore, touching your date or mate affectionately can increase attraction and be very rewarding. Touch is also quite persuasive too. Therefore, when your partner is already being loving—or you would like them to be more so—remember to reward them with some affectionate physical contact too.

Forgiveness: On the flip side, as the research above also notes, rewarding relationships are low on punishment (or non-existent). Holding a grudge derails all of the gratitude, conversation, and affection. Therefore, it is important to learn when and how to let your partner make amends for their mistakes—and, if they do, then reward them with forgiveness too. Finding positive ways to resolve arguments and constructive ways to address annoying habits are important as well.

Overall though, it is important to remember that ANY behavior that is rewarded will become more frequent—even bad ones. Therefore, do not be overly “nice” and reward all the time. Nevertheless, be sure to reward your partner in the ways above when their behaviors are positive, affectionate, and they have earned it. Also, in a rewarding relationship, look to be treated the same way yourself. With such reciprocal reward, gratitude, attention, affection, and forgiveness will continue to flourish too.