Feedback in Relationships

This is, I believe, the single most important factor in determining the nature of a relationship between two living minds. I have opened this wide to include animals too, for reasons that will be covered shortly, but here's a few examples of relationships just to get the juices flowing:

In all of these relationships the efficacy of feedback is, to some degree, bi-directional. There are two primary types of feedback - Positive Reinforcement and Negative Feedback(2). Put simply, in every relationship there is a process of behavioural transactions in which the 'ground rules' are established. The level of feedback is much greater at the start of the relationship and falls away rapidly over time, and the same is true of the importance of the feedback - it is essential therefore to get things right early on rather than having to go to lots of effort to change things later.

Feedback works because every participant has certain wants or needs for things that can be supplied by the other. A child wants attention. A martial arts instructor needs trust. A sergeant in the army needs compliance.

Positive feedback involves rewarding a partner with something they want in return for some behaviour that you want. For example, a prisoner can 'reward' a guard with compliance in return for (relatively) respectful and dignified treatment.(3) Positive feedback can also mean decreasing or ceasing something that another dislikes, for example a bully can 'reward' a victim by taking the pressure off a bit, or not punishing them.

Negative feedback involves limiting or denying something that the other participant wants or by forcing upon them something they dislike. The sergeant can use humiliation or physical labour to punish a lazy recruit. A person can deny their partner sex or closeness for a few days if they feel they've been mistreated.

So all of this sounds rather obvious doesn't it? Well here's the key: How people behave affects how they think and how they think affects how they behave. This is another system of feedback, indeed it's a Feedback Loop. If you can continuously cause a person to behave in a certain way, this behaviour will gradually become habitual and automatic. Hence reinforcement. If a child is rewarded for good behaviour with a hug or some sweets, they will come to behave well more frequently - at first they will learn the connection between the behaviour and the reward, but gradually they will come to get the feeling of reward without an actual reward necessarily being given (though it's perhaps better to gradually wean a good-mannered child off the sherbet rather than just cutting off the supply one day. An abrupt change(4) like this could be interpreted as an act of negative feedback). If a barman is rewarded with a tip in return for some conversation then soon enough he will find himself enjoying the conversation irrespective of the reward (assuming the conversation isn't actually unpleasant mind you).

The thing is, whilst this is all kinda obvious, people don't seem to apply it much. It's relegated into the category of 'things to think about' when in fact maybe it should be upgraded (or restored) to 'things to consider before making decisions'. For example...

Many of my friends suffer from what I call 'whiny girlfriend syndrome' (before you all go mad there's an equally prevelant 'whiny boyfriend syndrome' it's just that more of my friends are male heterosexuals). A typical scenario unfolds: Friend gets a call on the phone, "hey honey" ... "what?" ... "don't be silly, you know I-" ... "no, -" ... (face drops) ... "no, honey we talked about this before, he just meant -" ... "no, he just meant that he was tired" ... "what?" ... "hang on" ... (friend raises eyebrows, then excuses himself and goes upstairs and remains on the phone for about an hour and a half).

"Now hang on a minute" I hear you say, "it was probably her time of the month". Yeah that'd be fine, if this kind of thing wasn't a weekly occurrence and it happens just as much with the reversed genders. The problem arises because early in the relationship the girl at some point wants to talk to her boyfriend, so she phones up. He's a little confused perhaps and is a little short with her. She is upset, and after an hour or so of stewing, phones back. The boyfriend, realising she's upset, talks to her at length, gradually reassuring her that he does think she's the greatest thing since sliced football and he's very happy to be with her. She is happy. This maybe happens just once more and the girl begins to make the subconscious connection: upset phonecall => loving attention. So soon she finds things to make her upset so that she can get the attention she wants. This is a positive feedback loop. The boyfriend, thinking he's helping the situation is actually helping create a much bigger problem. Eventually the relationship is defined (to an extent) by unhappiness. And one day the boyfriend just isn't going to care enough to be properly supportive, and so the relationship starts to fall apart: girlfriend makes herself unhappy, and phones boyfriend. Boyfriend is watching star-trek and is a little short with his girl. She becomes yet unhappier. Later she argues with him. He feels a little guilt but also is rather annoyed by his girlfriend's inability to let him have a moment's peace. Gradually phone calls become associated with arguments for him, and he starts to become loathe to talk to her. She now has a reason to be unhappy and alternately stews herself up inside or bugs him on the phone - more arguments ensue until one day they realise they've forgotten why they're together at all and it comes to an end.

Now perhaps things may have been a little different if the boyfriend had behaved differently - if he had recognised behaviour he disliked, namely phoning up to argue and squashed it with some negative feedback, whilst setting up an opportunity for positive feedback at the same time. eg: "have you just phoned me up to argue with me? I don't like that, it's below you. if you want to talk to me just say so, I'll try to accomodate you as time allows. Right now I'm a little busy, I'll phone you back later at 1 and we can have a chat, or would you like to meet up for lunch maybe?"

Many couples have blazing arguments over nothing at all, fueled only by the escalatory venom with which the other argues their case. Men often question the virtue of their girlfriends simply for the attention they get. The best thing to do in such a situation is simply to say "Obviously you just want to argue. Well I don't so I'm not going to. You say what you like, but we both know that you can trust me, and if you really can't, well that's your problem. I'm going to go out for a bit." - or something to that effect. An argument is an activity in its own right. Some people just enjoy arguing. (Most people in my experience).

One final example, namely relationships with children. Everything that needs to be said has really already been said above, but one last important 'rule' remains - that of not sending mixed messages. If a child (not necessarily yours mind, you could be a teacher or even a family friend) behaves in a disagreeable way you should first remove attention, since this is usually what a child wants most of all. If the child is receiving attention from others (eg peers or, worse still, other adults) then you should try to remove the child from the attention. You should sustain this punishment while the child continues to attempt to 'win back' your attention in negative ways (crying, screaming, cheap tricks etc). Once the child has realised that you aren't going to change your mind (or perhaps, in very rare circumstances, if some kind of honest apology is offered) then you can shortly thereafter attempt to re-establish positive communication. Don't be surprised however if the very same trick is used on you (children learn from those around them after all!) - ie the child shirks your attention. If so, DO NOT attempt to win it back. YOU call the shots. "Fair enough." you should say, and just let them stew.

With regard to apologies, I tend to take the view that an apology is too cheap a payment for bad behaviour. You don't want them to be sorry, you want them not to do it! (Whatever it was.) - This goes for all relationships, be they with children, parents, partners, business acquaintances or pets. (yes pets do apologise ... kinda.)

Note that feedback doesn't just apply to 'bad' behaviour. It applies to any behavioural or characteristic trait that can be consciously controlled (with relative ease) that you as one side of a relationship want to see more or less of. If you want more sex then make your partner want it too by reinforcing a positive connection in their mind (eg sex leads to gestures of love, or even the classic "you do me and I'll return the favour"). If your schoolteacher consistently mocks you in class in front of your peers, tell them that while they contnue to do so, you will cease paying any attention in their classes whatsoever (naturally you have to keep your side of the bargain if they agree however).

To housetrain your pets reward them with a small treat for using a litter tray, and shun them if they mess up (make sure they understand the connection by showing them the 'deposit' and forcefully saying "NO" or some such. (Going "oh you naughty little pussy cat, you've made mummy very cross by leaving your poopy-poos on the cashmere rug, oh yes you have you naughty thing" is about the stupidest thing you can do (and people DO do it)).

Anyway, hopefully I've managed to get my message accross adequately. Just remember kids - think before you act.

Incidentally, by way of references, for more info on feedback systems with regard to psychology, I highly recommend "The Principles of Hypnotherapy" by Dylan Morgan, published: Eildon Press 1996, £14.95. ISBN 0 9525620 1 4 or available online for free on his website: (look in the 'Library' section).

My own experience with children is limited to that of my role as a martial arts instructor. I teach a lot of children and often have to give them their first taste of discipline and self-control - traits which their parents have apparently neglected to teach them.

(1) or Barwoman, Barperson, Barhermaphrodite, Barsheepdog, Barrosebush
(2) If negative feedback is working against an existing positive association then initially negative feedback causes a decline in the association and then afterward (or from the beginning if no such inital association exists) creates a negative association. This is why it's important to get things right early on or going back may turn out to be very difficult. (If for example you allow your sexual partner to do something that makes you uncomfortable, you should say so early on, or later trying to go back and change things may put great strain on the relationship.)
(3) I know there are better examples but I want to show how feedback is relevant and useful even relationships in which the power is very one-sided.
(4) The human brain is very good at detecting change. The more rapid the change the more pronounced the reaction. Sharp changes in colour and brightness are perceived as the boundaries of physical objects. An unexpected jump in the numbers on a bank statement (in either direction) provoke a heightened interest. Sudden audible changes of great magnitude grab our attention at an instinctive animal level. If you want to change a system but want the changes to slip by unnoticed, do it slowly. Gradually decrease the amount of confectionary you award your kids with. If fighting someone, smoothly invade their space. If you rush yourself into attacking range then they will see the maneuvre and counter-react rapidly. If the other person has noticed the change set up another feedback system to keep them from regressing. Eg if your kid notes the apparent devaluation of good behaviour on the sweets-exchange, observe "you're a big boy now, you don't need me awarding you for every good thing you do". Later, you might remark how pleased you are with the child's maturity in not asking for rewards. You might even reward this behaviour, moving yourself onto a new meta-level of behavioural control.