Culture, Marriage

Operant Conditioning and Love Languages

It’s been awful quiet on the site lately, but now that the 4th of July is behind us (happy belated birthday, America!), I’m back at it. In my mini blogging hiatus, I joined in my husband’s fascination with the Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson.

BF Skinner
B. F. Skinner (a.k.a. “The Rat Guy”)

One of my favorite clips I stumbled across was “The BEST relationship advice EVER – Jordan Peterson“. The idea is that just like B. F. Skinner trained rats to climb a ladder by rewarding them with pellets, we can train our significant others to do whatever we want by rewarding their good behavior. It’s called operant conditioning, and it’s not anything terribly new or revolutionary, but I appreciated his translation from rats to humans.

One practical application of operant conditioning is using it to teach your spouse to speak your love language. How exactly would you do that? Watch for them to speak your love language. Then once they do, reward them by overtly speaking their love language. They will like the reward, so they’ll be more likely to perform that behavior again in order to get the reward.

Thankfully, we didn’t marry rats (I hope), and we can use operant conditioning in much more sophisticated ways than Dr. Skinner did. We have the ability to communicate to our spouses exactly what we want them to do. Becuase one thing that your spouse does have in common with Skinner’s rats is the fact that they are probably clueless. That is perfectly normal. You didn’t marry a psychic, you married a person who sees life through their own experience, not yours.

The rats had no clue that Skinner wanted them to push the button or climb the ladder. It was mere chance and a lot of patience that finally got them to perfom the behavior. When you’re dating someone, they will go out of their way to find out what you like and what you want. Once you’re married or have been in a relationship for a long time, and the jets cool a little bit, those behaviors are less likely to occur spontaneously. Now your spouse is more likely to be concerned with day to day living rather than maintaining your fascination.

That’s normal, but it’s not ideal, and for most people, it won’t keep their love bucket full. But again, we didn’t marry rats. We can tell them what we want and what we need. Once they speak your language well, you give them their pellet (you speak their language back), and reinforce that behavior. Even if they did it grudgingly. Next time you ask and they comply, you give them another pellet. And another and another, and eventually, the behaviour will occur spontaneously. It takes patience, consistency, and perserverance, but it can be done.

Sounds kind of manipulative, doesn’t it? I know if it was me, I’d be a little miffed that my husband was treating me like some rat in a science experiment. We dont’ like being controlled, and we especially don’t like having to tell our spouses something that seems painfully obvious to us. They should want to make us feel loved on their own, right?

Proverbs 12:25

Yeah, they should, but again, they see life through their own experience, and they primarily feel the need to speak thier own language. Communication is so essential for getting your needs met. “You don’t get to complain about not getting what you didn’t ask for.” And as for the manipulative bit, let your spouse know exactly what you’re doing. This isn’t a blinded experiment, this is one that will work even better if you first obtain informed consent.

Your spouse wants you to feel loved. You should want your spouse to feel loved. But learning to communicate love effectively to each other can be difficult. Remember, you need to make sure you are speaking their language effectively as well. If both of you are speaking love to each other in return, you’re setting yourself up for some mighty full love buckets!

Happy experimenting!!


Want to lean more about the 5 Love Languages?

Start on Gary Chapman’s website!

Operant Conditioning and Love Languages


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