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How to build a healthy relationship

Psychology makes life more complicated but the application of it makes life easier.

In behavioral psychology there is a concept called “operant conditioning” and even though the advice to apply it in interpersonal communication may sound unorthodox it is probably the most effective thing you would ever do to improve your relationship.

“Operant conditioning” is a term coined by Burrhus Frederic Skinner better known as B.F. Skinner. In a nutshell, the operant conditioning is a way of modeling the behavior of a subject using the reinforcement that follows the desired behavior.

B.F. Skinner distinguishes 3 types of operants:

  • Neutral operants. The external stimuli that don’t affect the repeatability of the desired behavior.
  • Reinforcers. Both positive and negative, these are the stimuli that increase the likelihood of recurrence of the desired behavior.
  • Punishers. Stimuli that weaken the behavior.

B.F. Skinner set numerous experiments on rats making them follow exceptionally complex behavioral patterns using positive reinforcements. Humans are not rats but the principles that professor Skinner discovered can be applied in a similar way.

Now, I am not advocating for the use of “operant conditioning” in a cold-hearted and manipulative way. On the contrary, I am convinced that if both partners in a couple are transparent in their intentions and condition each other consciously without hidden motives they will observe constant improvements in their relationship. With that being said, I propose another definition of a healthy relationship.


Use Positive Reinforcement.

Years ago, I read an illuminating book by Karen Pryor “Do not Shoot the Dog”. The book is about training animals mostly, however, the author claims that the underlying principles of modeling the desired behavior are the same for people. Pryor emphasizes the power of positive reinforcement illustrating an example with dolphins. She writes that negative reinforcement doesn’t work with dolphins. You can’t really punish a dolphin, it will simply swim away. The same is fair with people, the most effective tool to model the behavior of your partner is reinforcing it positively.

Reward your partners when they are good. We all love praise and attention. We all love to feel good about ourselves. Use compliments, surprises, and small gifts as reinforcers of the desired behavior.

Again, do not consider this advice as a guideline for manipulation. Be direct and transparent about your intentions. Tell your partner what exactly you are doing. Positive reinforcement won’t stop working if both of you know that you use it. Collaborate to move toward your common goals.


Close your eyes to the first failures.

A common mistake in behavior modeling is to neglect the overall progress in the behavior that took place and instead focus on small oversights. Let’s imagine your partner had cleaned the home but missed one spot. Obviously, the dirt stands out. Naturally, a first impulse would be to criticize your partner for leaving that spot and that would be the wrong thing to do. Your criticism will serve as a punishing operant and as a result, will kill the desire in your partner to clean the house ever again decreasing the probability of recurrence. And that is the golden rule of the operant conditioning.

While integrating a new behavior, some missteps are inevitable. You need to learn how to ignore them and encourage first faltering steps. Even the smallest attempts of your partner to self-improve deserve your highest appreciation. Focusing on the positive change will not only enable you to understand which reinforcers are more effective but also make corrections in your own behavior.


Use a Feedback Loop.

Establish a working feedback loop that you will use with your partner every time one of you experiences the undesired behavior of the other. Facing the consequences of such behavior, you should do two things: you deliver your feedback and receive feedback from your partner.

The feedback you deliver to your partner must communicate how you feel about the situation. Basically, you tell your partner 3 things:

  • This is what you’ve done.
  • This is how it affected me negatively.
  • This is an alternative scenario that I would much prefer to what happened.

Receiving the feedback also consists of three parts. Ask your partner 3 following questions:

  • Are the alternatives that I propose sensible?
  • What is your perception of the situation?
  • What solutions do you suggest?

Any argument can be resolved between two mature adults who are willing to work together and apply this feedback loop.


Stop and look within.

When it is too late and the conflict is already happening, minimize the amount of negative information that you give to your partner.

A lot of negativity thrown in the heat of a fight may put you out of line just for one second but the damage that you can make in this second can be collateral.

Take a breather. Ask yourself one uncomfortable question:

It’s possible that it was something you said or did recently, it could be that the conflict was accumulating over a span of several months. Maybe you had it coming.

Putting blame on another person is the easiest thing to do. Taking responsibility is hard. Always do what’s hard — self-reflect to find out if the root cause is hidden within.


Never leave a fight unresolved.

Every time there is a fight there must be a peaceful resolution. The worst thing to do is to walk away when you are mad spending time alone with unresolved conflict in the heart. A short pause to cool down could help but don’t stretch it above what’s necessary. The longer the silence lasts, the bigger the gap grows between you.

Time alone will catalyze all sorts of negative thoughts and doubts. “She doesn’t respect me!” “She doesn’t appreciate what I do for her!” “She is not the last woman on earth!” “I can find someone better than her!” “I should break up!” Hesitation aggravates the situation and puts you’ve built up to this point under the risk. Strive for immediate resolution. Life is too short to spend it on negative emotions. Make love, not war.


Sexual compatibility is crucial.

If a woman and a man are sexually incompatible their union is doomed. Find someone who would match your libido.


Redefine Love.

Reread the section About Love from time to time. Service to your partner will set your relationship on the path of fascinating transformation. As a matter of fact, service to your partner can be characterized as follows:

Your ability to serve and hence to manifest your love is defined by your ability to tame your ego.

A couple where both partners understand this builds the strongest bonds.

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Thank you for reading my book “Meditations of the Millennial”.

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