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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

You probably remember some time in your childhood when you were punished and you stopped what you were doing. You learned that (at least in some cases) punishment works.

Now you are an adult and in a serious relationship, and your partner is behaving in a way that you consider improper, inappropriate or disrespectful. Should you use punishment to get your partner to change his or her behavior? The question is: even if it works for an adult-child relationship (in some specific cases), can it work in an adult-adult relationship?

What Is Punishment?

In the context of a relationship:

  • You punish your partner when you try to make him or her feel badly about something that you disapprove of.

For instance, Susan spends $200.00 on a pair of shoes and Stan is not happy about it. Anything that Stan does to specifically make Susan feel bad about that purchase would be punishment, whether it be scolding, pouting or sleeping on the sofa.

What Is Wrong with Punishment?

I have talked with many people who insist that they would never punish their spouse, but it is rare to find an individual who has never done something to "teach her (or him) a lesson." This way of thinking sums up the biggest problem with punishing:

  • People in adult-adult relationships are not children and they are not there to be taught lessons!

The essence of a mature relationship is partnership. When one has the power to punish, that balance is upset and it becomes very difficult to work together as equals. Punishment can have two major dangerous effects.

  1. If it is generally one partner doing the punishing, then the relationship will mirror a parent-child relationship. The punisher will grow to bear the weight of responsibility for the other's behavior. The punished will become disempowered, and resentful.
  2. If, on the other hand, the punished refuses to stand for that behavior, he or she might retaliate. Retaliation and counter-retaliation can easily develop into a full scale war!

Types of Punishment

Punishment comes in many forms. Physical punishment is abusive, illegal and should never be tolerated - even once, however, emotional punishment often gets excused and it can be very insidious.

  • Emotional punishment occurs through emotional distance and/or giving a message of rejection. Examples include withholding affection such as hugs, kisses or sex, or the classic "silent treatment".
  • More abusive forms of emotional punishment can include acts of revenge like, "I'm not going with you to your parents because you didn't treat me right at dinner" or "If you don't let me have a dog, why should I let you have fish?"

But What about Fairness?

I was discussing this issue with a client and she said, "But I just want to be fair! If I can't (do something), why should he (be able to do that or a similar thing)?"

This sounds reasonable, but it does not work.

To be fair means that everybody is treated the same. This can work in a classroom where all are equal, and possibly with children, but in a relationship you need to be individuals; you need to celebrate your differences.

  • In a relationship you have the opportunity (or even the obligation) to explore and understand the special uniqueness of your partner. Instead of punishing - talk. Don't just speak a lot of words, communicate to try to understand how the other person felt and what led up to the behavior that seems to deserve punishment.
  • Explore the particular circumstances and discuss the possibilities that could have led to other outcomes. Put effort into finding out more about your partner and listen, listen, listen.

That conversation will turn the pain and/or discomfort over what happened into an opportunity to learn about your partner and make the relationship even stronger.

Natural Consequences vs. Punishment

This can be a tricky distinction.

Sometimes one behavior can occur for different reasons, with different dynamics. This can be illustrated clearly with the following example:

  1. Let's say a woman refuses to have sex with her husband. If it is because he forgot to buy flowers for their anniversary it is likely to be punishment.
  2. However, if they had an argument and she forgave him, but has not yet emotionally recovered from the argument, that is natural consequences.

For some people it can take time to recover emotionally even after forgiving. And, in fact, she will recover faster if he understands that it is not punishment.

The Bottom Line

Things will happen. You will occasionally feel slighted, disrespected and hurt - and you might feel that you need to teach your partner a lesson. However, know that even if you are successful in the short run, it will damage the relationship. Instead, forgive and seize the pain as an opportunity to get to know your partner. Talk about why he or she did that seemingly terrible thing and learn more about your partner. Turn a crisis into a relationship building opportunity!

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About the author Ari Hahn:
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a professor at TCI College in NYC.
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Page last updated Jun 01, 2014

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