Whether we call it going along to get along, being a doormat, or enabling, few of us feel good about giving in to demanding partners, coworkers, friends and family members.
We aren’t happy about not getting our own way and are all too familiar with the truth of the adage, Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.
Obviously, giving in to others’ demands encourages them to make more demands. So, how does one set limits in a constructive way?
First, when dealing with an adult, understand that THE FORMATIVE YEARS ARE OVER! Telling a partner what to do or not to do is inappropriate and ineffective.
Think in terms of setting limits with your own behavior rather than your partner’s. Luckily, taking a look at habits of interaction and changing your half of the pattern can also bring about behavior change in your partner.
A direct request for behavior change is always worth one try. Go ahead. Ask him to put his dishes in the dishwasher instead of the sink. Or ask her to say yes to sex at least once a week.
Asking once is behaving self-responsibly. Asking repeatedly is behaving like a demanding, parental nag. And, as we all know, nagging does not inspire behavior change in partners.
The four keys
The following tried-and-true principles of human behavior are the four keys to responding constructively by setting limits with our own behavior:
1. Reinforce desired behavior. In child-rearing, this is “catch them being good.” It works on grown-ups, too.
Everyone likes to be acknowledged and appreciated. When she doeswant to have sex, express your delight in a sincere manner. No sarcasm allowed.
If you’re not in the habit of regularly giving compliments, you may be surprised to learn how cooperative an appreciated partner can be.
The change to make: Practice looking for desired behaviors and never pass up opportunities to reinforce desired behaviors when you see them.
2. Do not reinforce undesired behavior. In child-rearing, this is “ignore the tantrum.” Think back to the last time you saw a child throwing a tantrum. Mother’s attempts to calm things down only lead to escalation.
An adult behaving like a demanding, parental nag is essentially an adult throwing a tantrum. Contrary to popular belief, criticizing undesired behaviors and demanding change do not bring about lasting transformation.
Nagging does not inspire long term results. At best, there may be momentary concessions.
The change to make, if you are the demanding, parental nag: Stop behaving that way!
The change to make, if you are the one being nagged: When she points out that, once again, you left dishes in the sink which proves that you never listen to her, don’t respect her, and are a sexist pig, try not escalating.
Do not jump up and load the dishwasher, promise to do better, or point out that she is a demanding, parental nag. Any of these behaviors will actually reinforce her to tantrum again. Instead, agree with her or change the subject. Seriously.
SHE: …disrespectful, sexist pig. HE: I guess you’re right. SHE: Are you mocking me? HE: Not at all. SHE: Just make sure you do it next time. HE: I’m thinking of taking a walk. Would you like to go with me?
3. Let natural consequences emerge. In child-rearing, this is “let them get burned.“ Experiencing natural consequences amounts to learning the hard way.
Think toddlers learning the natural consequences of teasing the cat. Or partners learning the natural consequences of failing to get the trash to the curb.
The change to make: In order to let natural consequences emerge, we must stop protecting loved ones from what naturally happens as a result of undesired behaviors.
Spouses delivering a tongue-lashing over the other’s undesired behavior is not, however, natural consequences emerging. This is punishment.
4. Do not punish. Punishment is any behavior intended to inflict pain. This means physical abuse, of course.
It also means verbal/emotional abuse, yelling, name-calling, sarcasm, mean jokes, silent treatment, withdrawal of affection, and museums trips (pointing out example after example of similar transgressions.) There is no place for punishment in loving relationships.
The change to make: Eliminate punishment from your behavior repertoire.
Constructive responses 1 & 4 are simple to carry out. Constructive responses 2 & 3 are more nuanced. All guarantee results through practice. (For help with the nuances of 2 & 3, see previous posts: The One and Only Marital Obligation and How to Train Your Dragon.)
This article was originally published in Psychology Today and republished with the permission of the author.
About the author
Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with twenty-nine years of clinical experience and the author of Everybody Marries The Wrong Person.
She completed a doctorate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Kansas, an internship at Colorado State University Counseling Center, and a postdoctoral fellowship at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Meinecke has taught and guest-lectured undergraduates, graduate students, and medical residents. She has worked with adults, adolescents, and couples in university and hospital settings. For the past nineteen years, she has maintained a fulltime private practice.
To know more about Dr. Christine Meinecke, visit http://www.everybodymarriesthewrongperson.com/