Perhaps it's time to review some basics rules of motivation.
First, negatives (criticism, etc.) rarely work. The same is true for manipulation (laying on the guilt). You may get some cooperation at first, but, in the long run, both are likely to lead to resentment and barriers in your marriage.
Likewise, using tradeoffs (“I'll do this, if you do that”) as an incentive carries risks. There is a certain amount of give and take in every healthy marriage, and tit-for-tat can work for minor jobs (“I'll cut the lawn, if you weed the garden”). But when tradeoffs are used for major issues (using either affection or sex as a reward), it can lead to disaster.
In “Spousonomics,” Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson warn that, in important areas of the marriage, tit-for-tat incentives can easily turn into tit-for-tat punishments if one spouse fails to live up to the deal. If you let me down, I can let you down, which justifies you letting me down again, which begins an endless downward spiral of negatives.
The best way to motivate a person of good will is through positive, not negative, feedback. Here are a few examples.
•Praise the positive. In 1925, Elizabeth Hurlock was among the first to determine the best way to motivate students to learn. She found students who were praised for correct answers learned three times faster than those who were criticized for their errors.
Her findings have been repeatedly confirmed by other social scientists. Negatives help stop undesirable behavior, but it is rewards that motivate us to make positive changes.
Let your spouse know he or she got it right. Whether the act was small or major, expected or unexpected, sincere compliments are major incentives to do it again and even better.
•Forgive the foul-up. Szuchman and Anderson call this a “get out of jail free card.” Forgiveness is a powerful motivator because it means you care about your spouse and your marriage more than what went wrong. Forgiveness means letting go of the anger and not reminding your spouse of how they failed.
However, forgiveness does not mean ignoring the gaff. Your spouse needs to know you feel hurt, otherwise there's no reason to stop doing the hurtful things. Express your feelings, but not in a hurtful way; explain, don't punish. Then work out a specific plan to help avoid a repeat of the problem.
•Trust your spouse. Szuchman and Anderson explain that the intimate nature of marriage makes trust “critical to keeping you both open and responsive to each other.” Without trust, small problems become major battles and minor irritants turn into overwhelming resentment.
Expert John Gray adds that this is especially important when wives want their husbands to do something. If husbands don't respond immediately, wives may say in a huff, “OK, I'll do it myself!”
When men are focused on something (whether working on a project or watching TV), they need time to mentally disengage from the task at hand before they can respond. Waiting is a positive way of showing trust and is more likely to succeed than the negatives of nagging.
Positives are not only better motivators, but they also set a tone in marriages that add a sense of fun. And in the end, that's why you got married: To enjoy your life together.
©2012, All Rights Reserved. James Sheridan’s website is www.marriagedoneright.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.