When seeing individuals and couples who are experiencing difficulties in their relationships, I’m frequently told “I tried to behave differently but he/she kept up the old behavior, so I gave up and started fighting again.” In these instances, I sometimes talk about training chickens to peck out a tune on a piano.
If one puts a small piano in a cage with a chicken, as the bird goes about its behavior of randomly pecking, it will eventually peck at a key. The trainer then gives it a kernel of corn. This is repeated each time the chicken pecks at a key and the bird eventually learns it gets corn by pecking at the piano. If the trainer then gives it corn on a random schedule, the bird learns it has to persist in pecking at the key in order to get the reward of corn . Chickens trained on a random or intermittent reinforcement schedule will persist in pecking at the keys for a very long time, to the point of wearing down their beaks.
For better or worse, in human relationships we tend to behave in a similar manner. We come to expect a particular response from our partner.
Consider a typical dialogue:
Partner 1: (irritated tone) Would you help with this?
Partner 2: Stop nagging. You’re a pain.
Partner 1: I wouldn’t nag if you ever helped. You’re useless.
Partner 2: You’re always on my case – that’s the problem.
Partner 1: You never help. You’re lazy like all of your family.
Partner 2: I can’t reason with you. I’ll never be able to do enough to please you.
Then Partner 1 tries to change in order to have better communication patterns:
Partner 1: (pleasantly) Would you please help with this?
Partner 2: (Hearing the anticipated complaint) Stop nagging. You’re a pain.
Partner 1: (persisting in change – pleasantly) I just please need some help with this.
Partner 2: (continuing the expected dialogue) You’re always on my case – get off it.
Partner 1: (pleasantly) I really could use some help.
Partner 2: (continuing with expectation) I can’t talk to you. I’ll never be able to do enough to please you.
At this point, frustrated at not seeing an immediate change of response to his/her change, Partner 1 usually gives up, concludes that change is hopeless, responds with some derogatory comment and the negative interaction goes on.
It’s very difficult to maintain attempts to change when these attempts are met with old responses. However, if we give up and revert to our previous behavior, it reinforces the pattern of expectation. If, on the other hand, we persist in a new behavior in the face of old responses, the old responses become increasingly inappropriate to the situation. If Partner 1 makes a concerted and consistent effort to maintain the new behavior, eventually, if Partner 2 chooses desires to stay in the relationship, he or she will change behavior to better fit the new circumstances. Since most of us tend to figure things out quicker than the average chicken, we can be successful at conscious efforts to adapt to change.