Are You Teaching People to Treat You Badly?

Don't treat unkindness with kindness.

Posted Sep 22, 2011 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Sally's husband was often nasty and mean. One morning, over breakfast, Hank began yelling at her because she was on the phone instead of keeping him company. Later, after Hank went to work, Sally picked up his shirts from the laundry, ran some other errands for him, and decided to cook his favorite dish for dinner. Do you think Sally did the right thing?

Sally, alas, believed that if she could only create an ideal loving home atmosphere, her husband's unkindness would stop. Unfortunately, she was actually rewarding her husband's negative behavior. In response to his outbursts, Hank found his chores done for him and he was served his favorite dinner. Why would he change his treatment of his wife when she responds so positively?

The events that follow an action will weaken or strengthen the likelihood that it will occur again. In behavioral psychology, this is called the "Law of Effect" and states that behavior varies as a function of its consequences. Hence, if Sally is nice to Hank when he treats her badly, she is teaching him to continue being unkind. By putting up with Hank's nasty behavior, Sally gives him the message that it's okay to treat her that way. If she instead showed him that she was willing to be especially kind and helpful only when he was considerate and loving, a positive pattern would be more likely to develop.

Similarly, Tommy believed that kindness would overcome unkindness. He sent flowers to his wife whenever she flared up at him, hoping this gesture would put her in a good mood. Instead, it only encouraged her to flare up at him even more. If Tommy understood the psychological Law of Effect, he would not repay his wife's unkindness with kindness but with a firm, assertive response that clearly expressed his unhappiness.

Keep in mind: The meek shall inherit the earth because the aggressive people of the world will trample their face into it. Despite the Biblical decree, if you always turn the other cheek, all you'll end up with is a completely sore face.

To encourage positive and discourage offensive behavior:

  • Do not reward behaviors in others that you wish to eliminate.
  • Follow actor Alan Alda's advice: "Be fair with others, but then keep after them until they're fair with you."
  • Learn to speak up assertively.
  • Do not reward unkind behavior from others.
  • If someone treats you badly, say so—do not smile and pretend it's okay.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.