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How to Build a Rewarding Romantic Relationship

Four ways to use positive reinforcement to improve your love life.

Source: bokan/Shutterstock

In one of my first posts, I discussed the basics of how to improve romantic interactions by rewarding your partner. Later, I explored why punishing a partner may backfire and what to do instead. I have also talked about how a history of such punishment may make people avoid relationships altogether.

While those posts applied supported theoretical principles, I have yet to share actual tests of reinforcement in romantic relationships. I decided to dive into the research and see what I could find.

Reinforcement in Romantic Relationships

Experimental tests of both reward and punishment in romantic relationships have a fairly long history. In 1975, research by Birchler, Weiss, and Vincent explored such interactions within married couples. The group compared the behavior of couples that were having problems to happily married individuals and strangers, in both lab experiments and at home. After observing how the couples related, the researchers found significantly less reward among distressed married couples. In other words, unhappy couples did not reward the appropriate and loving behaviors of their spouses. In contrast, happy couples did reinforce loving behaviors in a spouse by agreeing, approving, laughing, smiling, or providing some positive physical contact.

Further, distressed couples punished more. They were quick to criticize, complain, interrupt, disagree, and turn away from a spouse. Overall, by not rewarding loving behavior and overly punishing their spouses, distressed couples actually created an unhappy marriage.

Similar results were found by Lochman and Allen (1979) in an experiment with dating couples. The researchers asked 80 such couples to take part in a role-playing experiment. While being explained their various roles, one participant in each couple was randomly and secretly asked to be more approving or disapproving of their partner. Therefore, during the role plays, some participants acted in ways that showed their approval, while others were disapproving of their partner. Then, the partner who received the positive or negative treatment was interviewed. Not surprisingly, partners who received more approval and less disapproval were more satisfied. They also acted more lovingly back to their partner. Therefore, being rewarding appears to help in dating relationships as well.

Putting these points together, a more recent article by Dermer (2006) carefully articulated the use of reinforcement in motivating loving behavior. Throughout the analysis, Dermer illustrated that reinforcement serves two primarily important functions in building loving behaviors:

  1. Proper rewards convey that a behavior is attended to, understood, and responded to in a satisfying way by a partner.
  2. The selective use of rewards also increases the frequency of loving behaviors that are performed.

Taken together, these points indicate that rewarding a partner when they are positive, caring, and loving can motivate them to be more passionate and attracted to you. By this method, loving interactions and relationships are actually "built" one rewarding exchange at a time.

Four Tips for Building a Rewarding Relationship

Given the above research, it appears that rewarding a date or mate is indeed important for relationship satisfaction. In the long run, rewarding relationships thrive, while punishing or neglectful relationships wither and end. Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can keep your relationship rewarding:

1. Gratitude.

One of the most important things partners can do for each other is to remember to be grateful for each other. Being grateful for a partner's positive efforts motivates reciprocity and reward in return. In addition, such gestures can make the relationship feel more sacred and committed. Overall, then, when your partner does something nice and loving, share your gratitude. When you do something nice and loving, look for gratitude in return as well.

2. Attention.

Partners behave in all kinds of ways to get each other's attention. When loving gestures are ignored, they may resort to less positive methods of getting noticed. Therefore, when your partner is being nice and thoughtful, spend a few minutes at least talking to them. Build some rapport and connection. Share some positive conversation. Look for some attention and conversation in return too.

3. Touch.

One of the most fundamental things that distinguishes romantic relationships is the level of affectionate and intimate touch. For many people, their relationship may be their only source of such affection. Therefore, touching your date or mate affectionately can increase attraction and be very rewarding. Touch is also quite persuasive too. Therefore, when your partner is already being loving — or you would like them to be more so — remember to reward them with some affectionate physical contact too.

4. Forgiveness.

On the flip side, as the research above also notes, rewarding relationships are low (or non-existent) on punishment. Holding a grudge derails all of the gratitude, conversation, and affection. Therefore, it is important to learn when and how to let your partner make amends for their mistakes — and, if they do, reward them with forgiveness, too. Finding positive ways to resolve arguments and constructive ways to address annoying habits are important as well.

Overall, though, it is important to remember that any behavior that is rewarded will become more frequent — even bad ones. Therefore, do not be overly "nice" and reward all the time. Nevertheless, be sure to reward your partner in the ways above when their behaviors are positive and affectionate, and they have earned it. Also, in a rewarding relationship, look to be treated the same way yourself. With reciprocal reward, gratitude, attention, affection, and forgiveness will continue to flourish.

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© 2017 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Birchler, G. R., Weiss, R. L., & Vincent, J. P. (1975). Multimethod analysis of social reinforcement exchange between maritally distressed and nondistressed spouse and stranger dyads. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 349-360.

Dermer, M. L. (2006). Towards understanding the meaning of affectionate verbal behavior: Towards creating romantic loving. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7, 452-480.

Lochman, J. E., & Allen, G. (1979). Elicited effects of approval and disapproval: An examination of parameters having implications for counseling couples in conflict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 47, 634-636.

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