This is the third in a series of articles on relationship development, and some factors we are unaware of that contribute to our relationships. This article discusses the role of learning in our relationships. Unlike animals human beings learn from observing others. The power of observational learning is often overlooked by counselors and parenting experts alike. Not only do children learn from watching their parents, they learn when their parents reinforce behaviors. Even behaviors that are considered to be negative such as screaming and yelling can be reinforced accidently by parents.
In talking about relationships, observational learning occurs when the child sees the interaction between their parents. A child will learn how to treat the opposite sex from the same sex parent. This can cause confusion for children in a big way. An example of this is when a husband or wife berates or belittles the other spouse the child learns to berate that parent by OBERSERVING it. The confusion comes in when the child is punished by the parent usually under the guise of being disrespectful. In the teen years these children will often yell back at the parent. “Well, Dad treats you that way!” Then the explosions occur. That teenager has brought the dysfunction of the marital relationship out of the dark and into the open. Most of the times this information is ignored, and the parents keep trying to fix the teenager.
The second type of learning is called Operant Conditioning. This is behavior that is either reinforced by the spouse or ignored by the spouse. I see this often in drug and alcohol counseling. In the honeymoon part of the relationship the drinking by the other spouse is often ignored. It can be reinforced by the spouses drinking together. Over time the drinking which has always been there becomes a problem for the un-drinking spouse. The un-drinking spouse can either continue to ignore the drinking or try to make the spouse quit drinking. Usually by this time the drinking is reinforcing the drinking. What the un-drinking spouse does not realize is that it’s too late to have an effect on the behavior.
Another area that is affected reinforcing behaviors is emotional regulation. The easy meaning of that phrase is how you manage your emotions. Whether parents want to admit it or not, children learn to manage their emotions from their parents. Go to any public place you can see this dynamic in action. For example, a child is having a tantrum after being denied something. The parent can either explode with loud yelling, loud behaviors “be quiet now” “behave yourself” On the opposite side of the spectrum you have the parenting that is quieter. They lean over and whisper in their ear. Their quiet but the aggression shows in their behavior. Whether it is the quiet behaviors or the loud exploding behaviors, both of them result in the children having problems with managing their emotions.
In a marital relationship the exploder is someone that explodes instead of managing their emotions. The quiet person will deny their emotions maintaining they don’t have any emotions. In this person their behavior expresses their emotional state. The ideal when it comes to emotions is expression, and managing them at the lowest intensity.
A relationship is much more complicated that most people are aware of. Hopefully through this series the complexity of how human beings interact with each other will take away the blaming that often occurs in relationships. Moving towards understanding yourself and your partner will be healthier and will lead to less conflict.