How to Get Your Partner to Stop Ignoring You
If your partner is ignoring you, consider that you’ve trained them to do this. This may have been intentional or unintentional on your part, but take a look at your normal responses and interactions with your partner. Do you notice any trends or patterns? When you notice your partner’s eyes gloss over, or they let out a sigh, or any other behavior that tells you they’re ignoring you, what was it that you were doing right before that?
You may have the instinct or reflex to complain, whine, nag, or “have a talk” with them. Although this may work, consider that it could also be a form of punishment, and may eventually lead to just not wanting to be around you at all.
According to behavioral psychology, “punishment” is something that stops unwanted behavior. Punishment tends to be the reflexive response that humans use when unwanted behavior occurs, but it’s much more damaging to the relationship than you might think. And with enough punishment, the relationship ends.
An example of this is swatting the baby’s hand away from the electrical outlet before he sticks his finger into it. Although it’s effective at stopping unwanted behavior, the person receiving the punishment may learn something entirely unintended. In this example, the baby may learn to be afraid of you, rather than what you intend to teach it, which is not to stick its finger in the socket.
Your partner is ignoring you because you’ve trained them not to listen to you. If you whine, nag, or complain, or want to “sit down for a serious talk”, you may be reinforcing the idea that time with you is just annoying. punishment, you’re training them to do that even more.
I’ve given examples of punishers here that are typical or usual punishers, but please know that what is a punisher is subjective, meaning everybody has their own unique set of punishers. What is a punisher for one person may not be for another.
On the other hand, reinforcers are something that increases desired behavior. Similar to punishers, reinforcers are also extremely subjective.
So how do you know what your partner’s punishers and reinforcers are? Through observation. If you do something and it causes the antecedent behavior to happen more often, it’s a reinforcer. If you do something and it causes the antecedent behavior to happen less often, it’s a punisher.
What do you do now? Here is a model on how to use positive reinforcement: rewarding them with things they want when they do what you like.
- Find out what they like. This is done through observation and experimentation.
- Use that as a reinforcer for when they move in the direction of what you want.
- Break it down into baby steps. Move on to the next step once they’ve learned the previous one.
- Continue until they’re no longer ignoring you.
1) Find out what they like.
This comes from knowing your partner. It also ties in with (but are not limited to) the love languages, of which there are 5: physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and gifts. If you need a clue, observe how your partner expresses love. How people express love is usually how they receive it as well.
Also, consider what they do when they’re left on their own, without you around. Do they go get a drink? Do they play video games? Do they grab a bag of chips? These could also be your rewards.
2) Use that as a reinforcer for when they move in the direction of what you want.
Use the smallest bit of a reinforcer when they take a step in the right direction. It could be a smile or a hug, or a “Thank you!”, or whatever you’re choosing. For this case, to start, give them a reinforcer for just looking at you.
*partner looks at you*
Say “I love you!”, put your arms around them and give them a kiss on the cheek
Then go away. This training session is complete, you got what you wanted this time.
Don’t give the reinforcer if they don’t do what you want. Also, don’t nag or complain or demand their attention. If they aren’t looking at you, continue doing what you’re doing anyways. Remember, negative reinforcement and punishment is exactly what has trained your partner to ignore you. Using more of it will only make things worse.
3) Break it down into baby steps. Move on to the next step once they’ve learned the previous one.
Once they’ve learned to look at you when you enter the room, and are doing this reliably (this may only take a few tries), you can move on to the next step. It could be putting the phone down. It could be holding your hand while they look at you. Whatever you want it to be.
Keep moving in these baby steps until they’re doing exactly what you want them to do. It could look like this:
Step 1: look at me when I enter the room.
Step 2: look at me and say “Hi honey!” when I enter the room.
Step 3: look at me, say “Hi honey!” and put the phone down when I enter the room.
Step 4: look at me, say “Hi honey!”, put the phone face down on the table and hold my hands when I sit next to you.
4) Continue until they’re no longer ignoring you.
If you’re not putting any negative reinforcement or punishment into the mix, it will be suprisingly fast to change their behavior. If it’s taking longer than 5 minutes, consider there’s something in your body language or tone of voice that’s punishing for them. Maybe you’re breathing heavily. Maybe you’re staring at them with a grumpy look on your face. Pay attention to what you’re doing, every little thing is a form of communication.
This technique can be used in all sorts of situations, and is the key to mastering life and relationships. Of course your partner wants a great relationship. Of course they want to work with you. And somewhere along the line you’ve taught them that the relationship works best when they’re looking at their phone. Time to take action and show them otherwise. Make it rewarding and fun for them to pay attention to you, and they’ll turn around very quickly!
If all else fails, make a request (aka “use your words”)
One of the shortcomings of using reinforcement methods is that you can only reinforce what’s already happening. If you want your partner to start paying attention to you, and they’re not displaying anything that comes even remotely close to it, then you can make a request. The request can even be in the form of a statement rather than a question. For more about this, please see the “Getting What You Want” video series. [link to the video series]
What I really want you to get from this blog is that, although punishment and negative reinforcement can be effective, these should not be your default. Positive reinforcement tends to teach people the quickest, and runs the least risk of damaging the relationship. In fact, it tends to enrich the lives of everyone involved. If you can master this one aspect, you will find that all sorts of relationships will suddenly start to flow with respect and ease.
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To read more about these techniques, read the following:
“Don’t Shoot the Dog!” by Karen Pryor
“What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love, and Marriage” by Amy Sutherland