Stop punishing your partner

End the cycle of punishment and retaliation in your relationship

Everyone has experienced consequences in their lives – time outs as a child, being passed over at work, higher insurance premiums after a car accident. But there is one place punishment never belongs: in your relationship.

Identifying punishing behavior in a relationship is more important than ever in our disconnected and socially isolated world. We are spending more and more time at home with our partners, and it’s natural for this to lead to some frustration and even communication problems as we navigate this new terrain. 

Being punished in a relationship is different from the typical arguments or conflicts every couple faces. It’s a serious relationship problem and must be addressed immediately.

What is punishment in relationships?

Punishment in relationships is when one partner purposely tries to make the other feel bad about an action or behavior that they disapprove of. When you’re punishing your partner, you want to teach them a “lesson” about something they did so that they won’t do it again in the future.

There are many types of punishing behavior in a relationship. Of course, physical abuse must never be tolerated. But punishment often comes in more subtle forms. Most people recognize the silent treatment – but it’s actually a form of punishment. Refusing affection or intimacy can be used as punishment. Sleeping on the couch or avoiding your partner is definitely a punishing behavior, as is purposely sabotaging your partner – for example, by making them late or “forgetting” to do something they asked.

When we get upset in a relationship, it really comes from a place of fear – fear that someone or something isn’t going according to plan. Our essential human need for certainty isn’t being fulfilled, so we react by wanting to regain control of the situation. And one of the most common – and also most damaging – ways that we do that is by punishing someone in a relationship.

What happens when there is punishing behavior in a relationship?

Punishment is the opposite of communication, which is why it’s so damaging to relationships. Rather than getting to the heart of the problem and working through it, the lack of communication exacerbates disconnection and pushes you even further apart. As a result,  this makes you feel even less in control.

When you start to punish your partner, you risk creating a deep level of injury. There is no love in punishment – only hurt, pain and neglect that leads to:

  • Loneliness: Being punished in a relationship makes both partners – including the one doing the punishing – feel even more alone and more misunderstood.
  • Inequality: Punishing behavior in a relationship often indicates an imbalance as one partner holds power over the other. You can’t truly work as a team when there is a power imbalance in this way.
  • Lack of trust: When punishment in relationships is used over and over again, there can be a serious break in trust, so that even if both of you stay in the relationship, there will be a massive emotional, psychological and even spiritual divide.
  • Retaliation: Relationships that use punishment as a tool can get stuck in a cycle of retaliation – one partner feels they were punished unjustly and then punishes their partner in return. Don’t get stuck in this retaliatory pattern.

The partner being punished in a relationship will put up a wall to protect themselves from enduring more pain. But what is the alternative? How do you express your disappointment and ensure that your partner learns from the experience? It comes down to one key ingredient – pleasure.

What is punishment in relationships?

The opposite of punishment: reinforcement

If you really want to fix punishing behavior in a relationship, you must understand the power of what Tony calls “the jackpot.” It stems from a research study on the way dolphins are trained. Dolphins are inherently sensitive creatures. They are highly social, but if something happens that breaks their state, they can fall into a deep frustration.

Now, research has shown that when a trainer wants them to step out of that frustration and perform for them, but chooses to do so with force and anger, the dolphin feels that energy and retreats even further. However, when the trainer implements “the jackpot” – i.e., taking an entire bucket of fish and dumping it on the head of the dolphin – the dolphin becomes so overwhelmed with pleasure and joy that it is able to break out of its depressive state.

And when the dolphin begins to perform the way the trainer wants, the trainer immediately reinforces it. They never punish; they only reinforce. And when there is nothing there to reinforce, the trainer only seeks to create a little spark that ultimately guides the dolphin in the right direction.

This is not meant to minimize the complexity of humans, nor to be condescending. It’s meant for you to open your eyes and see that there you always have a choice about punishing someone in a relationship.

Take potty training as another example. Do you punish your child when they don’t use the toilet correctly? Or do you reward and reinforce the good behavior? Any modern parenting handbook would recommend the latter. It goes even further – sometimes, you reward even attempts or intentions of good behavior because if you waited for perfect behavior to give a reward, you’d be waiting a very long time. So you reward their effort, even if it doesn’t result in a complete success.

being punished in a relationship

Opening to a new type of relationship

The jackpot is all about creating an opening in the relationship. When you open up, even during the difficult times, when you’re scared and hurt and angry, and choose to say “I love this person, and I don’t want to cause more pain,” that is when you are really fighting for the relationship.

As you focus on kindness and positive reinforcement instead of punishing someone in a relationship, you also open the way to creating a healthier bond. By approaching your partner with kindness and compassion, you are encouraging them to do the same for you. This allows you to better communicate with your partner, sharing their struggles instead of viewing them from a distance. You’ll feel and be closer to them.

Kindness is not a fixed trait in a relationship. Think of it as a muscle – something that must be worked on every single day if it is to develop.

“And when we treat each other with kindness and compassion, we are essentially training each other on how we treat each other.” – Tony Robbins

punishing behavior in a relationship

The importance of polarity

Choosing the path of reinforcement doesn’t mean repressing feelings or emotions when your partner does something that upsets you. In a relationship, both partners must be able to share anything, anytime. The key is to approach it while in a beautiful state, rather than when you feel like you’re being punished in a relationship.

Shifting to a beautiful state means adopting an abundance mindset. When you are in a beautiful state, you are conveying and receiving with love. Express how you feel without attaching stories or making accusations. And listen with absolute compassion with the sole goal of helping your partner feel understood and cared for. This not only facilitates communication – it also helps keep the masculine and feminine energies in the right balance.

Women are highly sensitive beings – they feel everything all the time. When a feminine woman chooses punishing behavior in a relationship, she becomes masculine. And if the man succumbs, he becomes more feminine – and polarity will vanish. Likewise, if a masculine man punishes a feminine woman, she puts up walls and retreats, becoming more masculine, and again, polarity disappears. (Take this short quiz to discover if you carry more masculine or feminine energy).

It’s important to understand that women often put emotion into everything, so they have a profoundly detailed memory – because information paired with emotion makes an indelible mark. Men, on the other hand, don’t couple emotion with everything. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s that masculine energy is about breaking through and then letting go. Feminine energy is not about letting go. It’s about filling up and gathering up. And sometimes talking is just a means of getting that energy out of the system.

So learn how to treat each other with kindness, and when you find yourself starting to punish the other, make the decision to choose reinforcement. Because you always have the choice – to give in to punishing behavior in a relationship and create more resistance, disconnection and depolarization – or to open up to reinforcement and learn how to build an even stronger bond.

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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