Relationship Benchmark #6: Strong Positive Reinforcement and Emotional Support

August 16, 2016

appreciationMany of the benchmarks of successful relationships have to do with making one another feel secure in affection and commitment. Creating a foundation of trust and security will see you through inevitable challenges in the future. It requires considerable effort, time and energy from both of you. Two particular kinds of efforts are crucial:

  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Emotional Support

Positive Reinforcement

At the most basic level, positive reinforcement serves to communicate what you like and appreciate about a person’s behavior. It’s an effective way of getting more of what you want by providing timely feedback. It also provides your partner with a sense of being appreciated and lets them know that things are going well from your perspective. Positive reinforcement is reassuring.

There are three kinds of scenarios that occur in relationships:

Active Positive Reinforcement

Communicating positive reinforcement is easy. It just requires you to be mindful of your partner’s feelings and generous with praise. When you’re on the receiving end of it, you feel valued and encouraged that you are a great addition to someone else’s life.

Absence of Positive Reinforcement

When your partner fails to communicate appreciation and delight in your company, there are two possibilities:

  1. They are taking you for granted or behaving as if they are entitled to your efforts without reciprocating.
  2. They are not enjoying the relationship and therefore have no positive reinforcement to share.

Neither option bodes well for the future, and amounts to feedback that what you have is not “the real deal.” Your best move is to exit the relationship asap.

Active Negative Reinforcement

The most useful kind of negative reinforcement is the explicit statement:

“This isn’t working out.”

“I feel like you’re moving too fast.”

“I want to keep my options open.”

It sucks, but at least you know what the deal is, and you know what to do.

Another kind of negative reinforcement is behaving in a way that is rejecting without voicing your feelings about the relationship. For example, people losing interest often create distance by adopting behaviors meant to show that they’re not invested. They may fail to respond to texts, cancel plans, or treat you poorly without explaining why. These tactics are rude, disrespectful and immature. If someone you’re seeing ghosts or acts distant, the why doesn’t matter, because the message is negative.

These scenarios illustrate how reinforcement works at the “macro” relationship level, but it’s also useful and effective to provide positive reinforcement at the micro level:

  • You vocalize your pleasure when your partner does something you really like during sex.
  • You let your boyfriend know how much you liked it when he took charge and planned a surprise outing.
  • You tell your girlfriend how proud you felt to have her by your side at a friend’s party.

Every time you give or receive feedback, you’re adding to the foundation of common experiences and understanding that make you a couple.

By the way, successful relationships will also include some negative reinforcement. That’s part of getting to know one another. When someone violates a boundary of yours or is careless with your feelings – even inadvertently – it’s important they realize it so that they can correct course. All new couples experience this to some degree, and working through these “blips” prevents future misunderstandings.

Emotional Support

Supporting your partner is similar to giving positive reinforcement, in the sense that it makes your partner feel valued by you. It’s a way of communicating that you care about their well-being and want to be part of it. When people feel supported in relationships they say things like:

“She always has my back.”

“He’s having a hard time at work right now, and I want to be there for him and listen as much as he needs.”

“She took such good care of me when I was sick.”

“I may not know exactly what to say, but I hope he knows that he can come to me with anything and I won’t run away.”

When we lend emotional support, it’s 100% about giving and 0% about taking. We know that in a good relationship, it all evens out over time. When both people focus on giving, there’s no need to worry about what we’re not getting. You may be asked to lend support during a rough time lasting a while, but you know that support will be reciprocated when you are the one who needs it.

This is the sign of a successful partnership – and the lack of it signals a poor match. I have received a lot of emails over the years expressing that the support wasn’t there when it was most needed. In one case I recall, a young woman wrote to me after she was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to have a kidney removed, and in the following weeks never received a visit from her boyfriend. He expected her to understand that he “couldn’t deal with it.”

That’s an extreme example, but many people learn in times of crisis that the person they thought that could depend on is MIA. But here’s the thing – I can guarantee that the boyfriend who couldn’t deal with dating a person with just one kidney left was not supportive up to that point. The signs of selfishness and/or lack of investment were there to see if only she’d had her eyes open. We can be so good at deceiving ourselves – and hurting ourselves – by giving someone else permission to do all the taking and none of the giving.

This relationship benchmark is about respect – for yourself, for your partner, and for the relationship. That is something to be nurtured so that it may grow strong. If the emotional “feeding” isn’t happening, the relationship cannot thrive.


This is the eighth post in a series. Previous posts include:

10 Ways to Know Your Relationship is the Real Deal

Benchmark #1: You Have No Doubts

Doubts While Dating Help You Find Your True Partner

Benchmark #2: There is No Drama or Mystery

Benchmark #3: There is a Strong Mutual Physical Attraction

Benchmark #4:  There is Consistent Expression of Affection and Feeling

Benchmark #5: No Subject Feels Too Scary to Discuss