My marriage feels like a prison. (Aka: There are no bad dogs!)

“Nate, my marriage feels like a prison.”

I was on the phone with a client who needed help in her marriage. She felt trapped. Stuck. Hurt.

“There’s not love in our marriage anymore. I’m constantly walking on eggshells. He’s completely checked out. He gets angry all the time. He comes home and hides in his favorite chair and plays video games. He barely talks to me. Lately it feels like we’re more like roommates than partners.”

“That sounds really crappy,” I said. Suddenly, my mind jumped to an article I’d read lately about dog training. (Random thoughts like this jump into my head all the time when I’m coaching.) In this article, I learned that there are essentially two ways to train a dog:

You can use a reward system and give dogs treats and praise when they do something right...

Or you can use a discipline system and punish a dog with a scolding, a leash-pull, or even a smack. (I don’t advocate this, but it’s the reality of how some people train their animals.)

Dogs that are trained using discipline and punishment growl and bark more. They didn’t trust strangers. And when their trainers show up for a training session, they try to hide in the corner.

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Dogs that are rewarded for good behavior LOVE their trainers. These dogs wag their tails when their trainers walk in the room, and roll over for tummy-rubs.

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I asked my client, “When was the last time your husband had a win at home? When was the last time he felt like a good husband?” (AKA good dog.)

“Uhhhh… oh wow. Um. I don’t know. He doesn’t really act like a good husband very often these days, so I don’t even remember the last time I said something nice about him.”

I hear stories like this all the time. It’s a glaring signal to me that someone is stuck in a mediocre relationship.

You see, couples fight. And sometimes they fight so much they get into a bad place. They aren’t getting what they want out of their marriage anymore. They don’t feel loved, supported, or respected.

So… to get out of the bad place, they try to punish and “discipline” their partner into getting what they want.

(Sound familiar?)

And you know what? Oftentimes they actually DO get what they want - a clean house, a clean batch of laundry, a foot rub, or even an apology - but it never lasts.

Within days, or even hours, the bad habits resurface, they get stuck again, and they start punishing each other.

Why do we do this?!

It all goes back to the dog analogy.

Think about it this way:

If every time you see a certain dog, you yell at it, throw things at it, and hit it, that dog is going to start growling at you every time you come around.

He’s going to start associating your presence with pain and punishment.

“I don’t like that human.”

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If that same dog does something bad and you beat it, you condition it to know that when you’re around, it had better watch out and not do that bad thing.Your presence and the fear of punishment is the thing that keeps it in line more so than the realization that the thing it’s doing is bad.

However, if every time you see a certain dog you give it belly rubs and praise, and you give it treats for rolling over, or shaking your hand, that dog will be EXCITED every time you come around. It will jump and wag its tail, and bark happily. It will roll over for you so you can pat its belly.

If you drop something, he’ll go pick it up for you! If you have a sad day, he’ll cuddle with you and lick your face to cheer you up.

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This dog has learned that when you’re around, he feels love and safety. He feels like a good dog. And in return, he offers you his love and loyalty… and GOOD behavior!

Our partners aren’t much different.

When all they get from us is complaints, or anger, or the feeling that they’re a terrible partner… they’re going to “bark,” and “bite” and hide from us when we are around.

When they feel like they can get a win, like they’re loved, and appreciated and respected, they’ll be eager to show up for us as their best selves!

“Now hold on a second there, Nate. Are you saying I’m responsible for my partner’s bad behavior?”

I totally get where you’re coming from here, and the answer is no… and yes.

You’re NOT responsible for your partner’s behavior. The only person whose behavior you’re responsible for is YOURS.

But here’s the deal. If you’re in a relationship, you share responsibility for its success or failure.

Part of YOUR responsibility in creating an respectful, loving, thriving relationship is to make it as easy as possible for your partner to succeed.

This is called teamwork.

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Think about it this way. What would happen if the quarterback of a pro football team threw an interception, and his linemen said, “Well, he’s not doing his job, so I’m going to teach him a lesson. I’m going to stop doing MY job and let him get sacked a few times. That will teach him to not throw interceptions anymore!”

This behavior only hurts the team… and it’s a real a-hole move.

If the lineman REALLY wants to make a difference, he’ll pull his teammate aside and say, “Hey man, don’t let that interception phase you. You’re an amazing QB. We’ll get the ball back soon, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you have all the time you need to make plays and win the game. You can count on me and I know I can count on you.”

True teammates praise the effort, not the results.

(This is why it drives me NUTS when people say stuff like, "Why should I thank her for taking care of the kids... it's her job?" or "I shouldn't have to praise him for emptying the dishwasher. He lives here too!" What a freaking crappy way to live! Just be generous with our praise!!!! IT WILL MAKE THINGS SO MUCH BETTER, AND YOU'LL BE SO MUCH MORE FUN TO LIVE WITH!!!) *deep breath* Rant over.

Take a minute to think...

What are you punishing your partner for to try to get more of what you want or less of what you don’t want out of them?

What efforts can you praise your partner for instead of punishing them for not giving you the results you want?

How would change your partner’s perspective of you if you started giving her or him wins?

Leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear what you’ve got going on.


P.S. Learning something new does NOTHING to make your relationship better until you IMPLEMENT it! Actions > Insights. So I put together a 7-day Love Challenge to help you take ACTION. Just enter your info below for details:


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