How To Change Your Husband


Lovers spatThis seems to be a new era of people trying to change other people’s behavior. And no one asks me how to do it more often than women who are concerned about behaviors in their husbands.

Even though absolutely anybody from AA and Co-dependents Anonymous to most PhD psychologists would tell them that it can’t be done, it CAN be done by those who have great self-control and great patience.

Curiously enough, like so many of the things that I’ve seen work in humans as well as animals — like offering conditioning — they have their forerunners in the ancient wisdom coming from My-Grandmother-Of-Blessed-Memory. If she heard someone say something stupid or do something stupid and talk about it, she would mutter in Yiddish something that sounded like, “Af alle narishkeit eaft’min nisht anferin!”

What this means is, “You don’t answer every single foolishness!”

I grew up seeing My-Grandmother-Of-Blessed-Memory refusing to answer things said either by my mother or my father, which she thought were irrelevant.  It effectively put them in their places.

The basic principle of conditioning is that you reinforce good behavior to increase its usage frequency. Eliminating or even decreasing the frequency of bad behavior is a great deal more difficult. Very often there is an interim period where the behavior actually often increases.  After all, the behavior has been very practiced for a long time. We can’t expect someone to give it up right away just because it doesn’t work anymore.

Getting rid of a bad behavior can be done in the way My-Grandmother-Of-Blessed-Memory discouraged foolish questions.  Behavior is NOT rewarded (or in some cases, punished – but I don’t want to go there). Ultimately it is possible to extinguish a behavior if you’re patient, if you ignore the increased frequency of the happening and most of all, if you can hold back your own reactions.

As a matter of fact, the strongest way to reinforce behavior isn’t even to give a reward all the time.  It’s the one that gives a reward part of the time.

In psychology training, students do an experiment where an animal is given a bar to press to obtain food, they soon learn that any time they want food, all they have to do is press the bar.

Then – the sneaky psychologists change the rules.  The bar will only work every second or third time it is pressed.  Yet the animal learns to continue to press the bar until, eventually more food is dispensed.

This is like the slot machines in a casino.  You won’t win every time you spin the wheels, but you hit enough small “jackpots” to keep you inserting money and spinning the wheels. You expect to eventually get the big jackpot.

Those are the basics of reinforcement theory.

Now the single behavior that bothers me the most is the feeling that they’re being judged or even punished by their husbands.  I’m not talking here about horrible physical abuse of women. That is against the law, and anybody who knows about it ought to report it to the police (since the victim seldom will).

I’m talking about the smaller and subtler behaviors.  For example, I saw a case recently where a lady’s husband seemed to enjoy frightening her.  He thought it was the funniest thing in the world to put a scare into her and said she had no sense of humor.  But he was not particularly creative in coming up with ways to frighten her so he would just copy scary scenes from movies.

The one that bothered her the most was how he re-enacted Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, whenever she took a shower.  Do you remember the music (actually screaming violin sound effects) – EEE!  EEE!  EEE!   EEE! ?

When she heard him start singing like that she knew he was coming –and often had a real butcher knife. Of course she would scream – wouldn’t you?

From what she told me, I don’t know if she was strong enough to totally extinguish her behavior or response because then she would have to trust her husband and not scream. If she could keep absolutely silent, he would stop with the Hitchcock impression.

So essentially, her husband was the lab rat, thrusting a knife through the shower curtain was like pushing the bar, and her fright and screams were the food reward.

But her response was more reflexive than voluntary. She just couldn’t help herself from screaming.

Other than this little fault, her husband was reportedly quite a good man and would provide for her, but her inability to extinguish this behavior led to a divorce.

I am certain her petition to the court was enjoyed by the attorneys and the judge and passed around at later bar meetings (and meetings in the bar) – Divorce granted on grounds of Alfred Hitchcock.

More often women are complaining about verbal abuse much more subtle than that.  Very often women complain that their husbands simply take statements about how they act in ways that he doesn’t like and generalize about them:  “You always do this.”  “You always react in this way.”  “You’re always crying when I say these things.”

This is called “Catastrophising”  Of course a woman may not always be upset or devastated.  Sometimes women just have more emotional acting out and they can shrug their shoulders and go on.  Very often it’s what a man says in response to the action, which causes her even more  pain and she has not heard or listened to it.

It’s not unusual in the relationship between men and women for the pot to call the kettle black. Do men always do one type of thing, or do women do it too?  Is it always women, or can it sometimes be men?

I think that argument started between Adam and Eve.

I’ve heard examples from women where a man will bring up something she did maybe ten years before (often called “throwing it in her face” or even worse, “Throwing it up to her”) and for which there is no denial.

This actually is one of the easiest things to counteract – by not responding.  Since there is no possible answer, then the man becomes frustrated and walks away.

Another – maybe the most frequent — complaint that I’ve heard, is much smaller than any of the above, but it can be very painful.

It’s often used in comedy.  I’ve heard comedienne Kathy Griffin call it “the throwaway line.”  After speaking with their husbands, women often report that he turns away if he’s directing his remarks to another person (even if nobody else is present) and says, in a barely audible voice, “There she goes again!” or “ I don’t know why she can’t stop doing this!”

Maybe these things don’t seem significant — except when they’re heard over and over again.

If you are old enough, you may remember the televised debate where Ronald Reagan used the phrase “There he goes again” to illustrate arguments by Jimmy Carter that Reagan considered  nonsense.

It made a powerful impact.  Many lawyers still use this technique and call it “The Reagan.”

In the half dozen or so women who complained to me about this in the last  few days, I have asked them all the same question.  Where do you think this comes from?  Why do you think he does this?  Do you have any idea?

Of course, I understand why it bothers them.

And the answer has been exactly the same from every single woman I’ve asked — It comes from his father.

“His father talks like that to his mother all the time, every day.”

Sound familiar?  All the time – every day.

This is the vocabulary of pain – catastrophising.

I think I’ve learned a lot more psychiatry from my patients than I have in all the years of schooling I’ve taken – and that is a whole lot of years.

If I have the opportunity to treat people or get them to listen to me, then I will tell them, “You have a chance of changing his behavior, but it’s very difficult and it’s very slow and you might not even think that it’s worth it.”

The answer sounds simple but extremely difficult — You just ignore it.  I’m certain that these people’s fathers got a rise out of their mothers.  Usually insecurity and defensiveness – “No, I’m not like that.”  “No, I haven’t been like this for ten years.”  “No, you don’t listen.”  “No, you don’t understand.”

Whatever the reaction is, I don’t think it’s a loving one most of the time.  It may start out as being “Yes, dear” — but after a while, it becomes an insecure expression of assertiveness or even aggression.

I don’t know that the man directly takes pleasure from this, but I know that he has gotten a reaction and sometimes getting a reaction is better than not getting any at all, even if it’s getting a bad one.

This is not just a husband and wife issue.  This is one of the things I learned this the first day in my psychiatry residency.  The very first thing the professors did was to watch how we talked to patients.

The tendency of the beginner is to answer back and to engage and to increasingly escalate. In other words – to fight and argue with your patient.

My professor gave us a very simple demonstration  which I have used subsequently with patients.   He would take his fist and hit the knuckles of  one hand with the other while raising his hand slowly.  He said, “That’s how you escalate an argument.  That’s how you begin one and that’s how you escalate it and you have to be really careful because if you tell people what they shouldn’t be hearing, they will come back and they will explain to you why they were right.”

I have seen this a hundred million times.  I’ve looked at patients and I especially looked at marital situations.  One fist hitting the other – but maybe nobody hits the other person.  Yet this simple interaction can lead can lead to a divorce.

Remember what My-Grandmother-Of-Blessed-Memory said — “You don’t answer every single foolishness!”  The way to stop someone from saying things that are hurtful is simply to ignore them.  Don’t answer their foolishness.

It’s been shown time and time again in studies of marital therapy that to pay attention to something is to perpetuate it.

My-Grandmother- Of- Blessed- Memory’s phrase not only had the effect of not responding — It was a brilliant choice of phase because it’s in the third person.

Remember — if you really want to extinguish a behavior, the most powerful thing to do is do nothing.

And while you’re doing nothing, try thinking “This is only a behavior.  This person probably has no reason to deliberately put me down.  They’re simply saying what they think is correct because they’re not thinking at all.  They’re mimicking what they heard for years growing up without realizing where it comes from and chances are these things are perpetuated for generations.”

Extinguishing a bad behavior is difficult.  Reinforcing a good one is a lot easier.

Curiously enough, if I ever mention this one to someone, the usual answer is, “They told me to do that with my children.”

It is not unusual in teacher’s meetings and in PTA meetings, for people to tell parents to reward or praise your child for doing something good.  If you want to shape a positive behavior and increase its frequency and increase even perhaps its intensity, all you have to do is reward someone for doing what you want them to do.

More sophisticated systems are written by many child psychologists that I call “Token Economies.” Instead of paying a child money to behave, put the star on the calendar when the child is good for the day, or give and take points that might add up to a privilege or a treat. But if you’re going that route, be sure to put the calendar or score card on the refrigerator where it can be seen or in a child’s room where they can look at it constantly.

It’s harder to use symbols.  It’s easier to use bare brains.  Besides the piece of candy you start with now may indeed end up being obesity later, so here if you’re going to do this with children, then you have to know who you’re dealing with and how they’re going to react.  Sometimes this is done now playing video games.  Incidentally there are lots of parents limiting time playing video games so that the kids get enough time with homework.  If you’re doing this and it’s already in the economy, time playing a video game may be a good decision.

For adult spouses, I don’t think you have to worry so much about.  I think a kiss is the best thing.

Different strokes for different folks.  You will find that you know your customer and that you know him well.

Just remember, the answer to changing behavior is very simple.  First you start with a very specific behavior.  Since you’ve got to keep this all in your head and respond at a moment’s notice, it doesn’t work terribly well if a large number of behaviors are attacked.  You’ll forget some, and remember others, so start with just one.

The clearer you can define it, the better this is going to work.

Secondly, be consistent.  Think of the rat pushing the lever who only gets a response every three times.  The little rat is going to keep pushing anyway.

Once you decide to make a behavioral change, you have to not react every single time and if you’re forced to react, remember My-Dear-Grandmother-Of-Blessed-Memory’s words — it is not necessary to answer all things.  Certainly not every foolish thing.

Make a statement sound objective.  Do not give an emotional answer yourself and suddenly you are the authority.

It has always amazed me through text and articles on applied psychology that the easiest and most powerful way to change behavior in a human is to look at their response and to color their response with a direct response.

Ignore it and make it go away.  Celebrate it and you’ll have all that you can possibly handle.

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