Psychology of motivation: Your ticket to a more productive partner

My husband is great at a lot of things. He's a great companion, a great handyman, a great dad, a great salesman, and a great problem-solver. But he will be the first to admit he is not great at being productive around the house. The lure of the couch and television after a long day at work far outweigh the lure of the carpet that needs to be vacuumed. As the only other adult in the household capable of keeping up with the chores, this can leave me in the lurch.

And so, I turn to the trusty science of psychology for some ideas. How can I motivate my partner to be productive around the house? Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., summarizes several psychological theories of motivation in this Psychology Today article, several of which, it turns out, I have already attempted to apply in one way or another.

Drive Reduction Theory: A rousing game of "chicken"

According to Whitbourne, drive reduction theory argues that people "prefer the state of homeostasis in which all of their needs are fulfilled." This all boils down to a game of "chicken" I have played from time to time. If I ask my husband to wash the dishes and he says he will, I just hold him to his word and don't do them myself. They might sit for days, untouched, while I make do. Eventually, he'll need clean dishes and wash them to get what he needs, or he'll get so tired of my reminders or huffing and puffing that he'll do the dishes to get it to stop. Unfortunately, my husband is stubborn, so I'll often lose the game of "chicken" and just do the darn dishes.

This theory can also be used in another way: creating the incentive for him to take matters into his own hands. If, for example, I continually fold his clothes poorly, perhaps he'll take over laundry duty to avoid the wrinkly wardrobe. In my case, my husband just spent some time teaching me how to fold the laundry correctly. I still do the laundry, and his clothes aren't wrinkly. I think he is better at this motivation thing than I am.

Incentive Theory: The "Baby's Coming" effect

One of the most productive times in our marriage was right before our baby was born. I got into nesting mode shortly before the due date. One night, I told my husband I didn't think it would be very long before the baby was here, and we both started buzzing around the house, propelled by adrenaline, scrubbing and straightening the night away. The external force of the baby's impending appearance motivated my husband to do things he normally wouldn't do, which, according to Whitbourne, is at the heart of incentive theory. Perhaps the same effect could be achieved by the knowledge that guests are coming over, the necessity of preparing for a trip, or the offer of a backrub at the end of a good stretch of housework.

Self-Determination Theory: A personal decision to take out the garbage

Whitbourne describes the crux of self-determination theory: "The most satisfying activities you can engage in, the ones that will motivate you the most, are those that allow you to feel most in control of your behavior." Now, my husband is, of course, always in control of his behavior. But sometimes I like to, let's say, manage that control a bit. Asking him, for example, "Honey, would you please either clean the bathroom or take out the garbage?" implies that he must choose one of those activities, but that he has control over which he chooses. It seems like less work to take out the garbage, so he chooses to do that. This feels like a win to him because, by way of his choice, he "got off easy," but it's also a win for me because he did something.

Now, I know my husband doesn't want to be unproductive as he's always expressing a desire to be more helpful. Perhaps one day he'll be motivated by self-actualization theory, which "proposes that we are most motivated to realize our own inner potential." Until then, however, I will continue taking stabs at helping him along a bit. Hopefully after he reads this article, he won't use guilt to motivate me to let him off the hook.

You might also like:

Marriage: The Ultimate Résumé Builder

Breaking Up with Technology to Save Your Relationship

The Top 5 "Little Things" That Will Make Your New Husband Happy