How To Use The Reward System To Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Partner - How To Win a Man's Heart

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August 8, 2017

How To Use The Reward System To Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Partner

The Reward System

She came to her first therapy session complaining, “He never talks with me, never asks how my day was. And, he never listens when I talk. It hasn’t always been like this; it’s gotten worse over the past five or six years. I’ve asked him to come to therapy with me but he refuses. I feel stuck. I’m here because I need to decide if I should leave him. I don’t want to, but this is intolerable.”

I often hear this. The woman is more dissatisfied with the marriage than her husband, or at least she is more motivated to seek help for her dissatisfaction.

Shayna and Ben had divorced their respective spouses and had now been married for 17 years. They had no children from this marriage. From stories Shayna told me during our first meeting, it was evident she and Ben still loved each other. In his own way, through small signs, he was saying he loved her. Yet, Shayna and Ben were not making each other happy.

Some couples get so stuck in their daily lives they lose sight of how much they love each other. They lose the joy and specialness they had when first together. Real life interferes: work, family affairs, money. Despite their daily struggles, they try to be there for each other, but they are still dissatisfied. Women, more often than men, are the one’s to seek therapy to address this dissatisfaction. They say their husband will never come for counseling. Sometimes that’s true, but not always.

I asked Shayna to give Ben a message from me. “Tell him I want to meet the man who loves you so much.” He agreed to come in.

Their complaints were not unusual. After 17 years, they both felt unheard and unappreciated. She said he never showed he loved her; he wasn’t playful with her; he didn’t fix things in the house, even when she reminded him; he always had something else to do, rather than just be with her.

He said she nagged him about every little thing; she always found fault with him; she resented time he spent riding his motorcycle; she never wanted to make love.

As they talked, they realized how scared they both were that this marriage, like their first ones, would fail. She asked him, “Why didn’t you speak up? Why is it always me who says we need help?”

“I was scared. I hoped the problems would get better, or maybe just go away. I worried that if I spoke up, I might make things worse.”

After only a few months, he came to a session smiling. “I love her more now than when we first met.” She was smiling, too. She bragged, “You have changed drastically. You talk with me now as if it’s no big deal. I’m curious, though. It seems so easy now, so why weren’t you doing it all these years?”

He was serious. “It’s the reward system. The rewards are worth it now.” She laughed. He explained, “I see how much nicer you are to me when I talk with you. If I suggest we go for a walk together, something you like, you don’t nag me as much. When I fixed the gate right after you asked, you weren’t sarcastic. It’s easy to do these things, since the payoff is so great. I do more for you and you’re nicer to me. It’s that simple.”

“It’s like an upward spiral, I guess,” she replied. “I think I’m being nicer to you because of the changes you are making.”

“Whether you call it a reward system or an upward spiral,” I said, “it is working. You both are putting in efforts to please the other, and both are benefiting.”

This couple was lucky. They found that making adjustments within themselves had a reciprocal benefit. Some couples are not so lucky. They wait, as if to say, “You go first. If I like what I see, then I’ll change.” Unfortunately, with these couples, no one wants to be the one to go first.

Shayna said, “My girlfriends and I used to say men don’t ever change. That’s just the way they are; you put up with them or leave. But, now I tell them there are other options.”

“What made the difference?” I asked them both. “Why was this marriage salvageable, when your first ones weren’t?”

He had a quick response. “Fear of divorce. I didn’t want to go back out there and be alone again.”

“But, you did it once before,” I probed.

“I wasn’t afraid to leave my first marriage because I had a girlfriend on the side. I was so lonely in my marriage I needed love and comfort; I found it in another woman. I’m too old for that now; no one would want me.”

“I don’t think that’s the whole answer,” I challenged. “You were lonely in this marriage, too. But now you both are growing, making changes. Maybe you and your first wife weren’t able or ready to grow together.”

If you think about it, most people change over the life of a marriage. You mature, you learn more about yourself, and you discover what’s most important to you. Unfortunately, for many couples, instead of growing together, they grow in different directions, or at such different paces that one can’t wait for the other. Even less fortunate, one doesn’t grow, but remains stagnant. In these couples, anger builds and becomes entrenched before they learn about the reward system or the upward spiral.

Couples who cannot weather the stress of the growing period, or who have grown so far apart have little to hold them together. They may need to move on, to separate. Ben and Shayna are lucky. Despite their seventeen years of growing anger, they still loved each other enough to use the reward system.


1. Is there a part of the story that reflects anything from your life? If so, what?

2. What one story/situation in your life exemplifies it for you?

3. What happens for each of you in this situation?

4. In thinking about what the couple did about the problem, what ideas does that give you for your relationship?

5. What specific action could you take to alleviate this situation?

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Karen Gail Lewis’s book: The Secret to a Solid Marriage- Understanding Gender Differences and has been published with the author’s permission.

About the author

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis is a marriage and family therapist (39 years) and author of numerous relationship books — on marriage, for singles, about adult siblings.  Her latest is Why Don’t You Understand? A Gender Relationship Dictionary .

For 17 years, she has run Unique Retreats For Women, weekends for self-growth and fun.  She is available for phone consultations.

Go to her website and get a free article about Clues for Understanding Male-ese and Female-ese.