Increasing positive behavior in couples (Part 1)

I have spent my semester navigating the vicissitudes of a long-distance relationship as a first-year doctoral student in marriage and family therapy. This relationship has its own set of challenges that is testing the merits of my newly minted pursuit. Even though we are only 189 miles apart, my fiancee, Anita, was not happy with my departure from the comforts of our relationship. Despite my best efforts to assuage her fears about the distance between us, nothing seemed to work. As if were not under enough stress with the newness of the city, school, and classes, locking horns with Anita on a weekly basis took a toll on my mind, spirit, and energy.

Surely, I thought, one of these MFT classes must. have the answer for reconciling my relationship woes; after all, I will be spending the next 4 years of my life becoming a relationship expert. Certainly I should have some insight to my own problems. When I looked at my syllabus for Advanced Contemporary Marriage and Family Therapies, there was the object of my search- an exercise on increasing positive behavior. According to the theory, when couples increase their positive comments towards one another, it fosters a spirit of reciprocal affirmation between the two (Jacobson & Margolin, 1979).

Since most people respond in kind naturally(Fehr & Gachter, 2000), initiating a quid pro quo between us was not a bad idea (Diehl,Hay, & Berg, 2011). Additionally, Gottman suggests that successful couples initiate a ratio of five positive interactions to only one negative comment in happy relationships (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005; Gottman, 1999). Giving positive support to your significant other is like making a deposit in the emotional bank account (Thgade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004)- the higher the balance, the more withdrawals you can make without suffering a negative consequence (Gottman, 1999). Making several positive comments on a daily basis is one sure-fire method to increase the balance. Stuart (1980) suggests that the initiation of positive actions has a tendency to elicit positive reactions from other people. In class, these theories made perfect sense, but my relationship is far from perfect. In a real-world application of this theory, just how practical is this? Since F20 the proof of the pudding is in the eating, I decided to try the homework assignment, trusting the thesis of the positive interchanges in a real-time relationship-mine. The instructions from the assignment stated that even though the initiation of positive comments may not yield an immediate return on investment, I was to continue giving, regardless of the perceived lack of reciprocity (Robinson & Price, 1980). Piercy and Sprenkle (1986) posited that an increase in the perception of rewards may enhance the perceived value of the couple’s relationship and facilitate the exchange of caring behaviors between the pair.

Behavioral Change

What took place over the course of next 5 weeks was nothing short of amazing. In order to avoid suspicion, I gradually increased the amount of positive comments given to Anita. Interestingly, about a week into the assignment, our spats declined. Around the second week, she began to reciprocate the same sentiments to me. I could hear the smile in her voice as we talked to one another. The pleasant exchanges that took place between us became contagious. What had started out as an assignment turned into a new way of communicating for us, which took our relationship to another level. Anita sensed that I was making an effort to change the way I spoke to her and she began to respond in kind-naturally. Now, it was “I love you” at the end of every phone call. I could feel the love over the phone all the way from Durham, North Carolina.

What began as a deliberate act of increasing positive comments actually turned into the expression of heartfelt sentiments, moving away from the forced mechanical rhetoric of the assignment. I feel a lot calmer when I call home now. I am not anxious or fretting about another unpleasant verbal exchange; instead, I anticipate feeling kind of giddy when I call my fiancee. I have always loved her and now I love her even more; it is amazing how language can change the operational tempo of the relationship.

I also feel a lot better about myself because I initiated a change in the relationship that worked. My takeaway from the application of increasing positive behavior is that if l give off positive energy, it will come back to me in the same manner. The recursive nature of parallel positive escalation between couples fosters goodwill and may be the spark needed to revitalize an otherwise fractured relationship back to healthy levels of communication.

Therapists can use the teclmique of increasing positive behavior with couples as an in-session or out-of-session assignment to reduce marital discord and lessen conflict. The positive effect of paying it forward seems to suggest that compliments can become contagious when volleyed back and forth between couples.

Here is one way a therapist may introduce this idea: Most couples come into therapy only wanting their partner to change; they do not realize that their “ace in the hole” is their own behavior. You are in control of your behavior and I suggest that you use it to improve your relationship. What I’m going to suggest is that you increase the number of positive things you say and do to and for your partner by five times this week and see what happens. Don’t wait for your partner to do or say something nice in return. This little experiment is independent of what your partner says or does. After the week is over, I’ll ask you three questions: (a) Has your partner changed? (b) Have you changed? (c) How do you feel about the relationship?

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