Stopping a Partner’s Bad Behavior

When a partner behaves badly, it is often difficult to know how to react. Should you ignore the behavior? Punish them? Scream and yell? Sometimes, nothing seems to work.

Psychology does offer helpful solutions to the problem though. In fact, we see these processes playing out, for good and bad, in everyday life. We even see correcting and managing a lover gone right…or wrong…on reality TV.

Today, however, I’m going to discuss with you how to respectfully influence a partner’s bad behavior. As an example, I will look at the reality TV show Jersey Shore – specifically Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s out of control behavior and her boyfriend Jionni’s attempts to manage it. Where did they go wrong? How can you do it right? Read on…

A Jersey Shore Recap

For those not following the show, the Jersey Shore is an MTV reality series following the exploits of a group of New Jersey 20-somethings. The group loves to dance, party, play pranks, and of course drink and make bad relationship decisions. At the time of writing this article, the group is currently tearing up the clubs and streets of Italy.

The past two episodes have focused on the interaction between Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and her now long-distance boyfriend Jionni. Jionni traveled to Italy to visit Snooki, only to be confronted with her embarrassing behavior. Essentially, on the night of his arrival, the group went out to a club. Snooki, hot and horny for Jionni after their extended separation, started dancing suggestively. At one point, she lifted her skirt – flashing the whole club. This behavior was embarrassing to Jionni and, out of pride, he chose to leave the club. Ultimately, he also left Italy.

At first glance, Jionni’s behavior may seem a bit extreme. However, Snooki has a history of behavior that is “disrespectful” and not appropriate for their serious, monogamous relationship. She flashes her private parts in public routinely. She gets sloppy drunk and makes out with roommates. Arguably, she has even cheated. Jionni’s efforts to motivate more respectful behavior have failed to this point.

So, what is someone supposed to do in that situation? Should they leave? Should they just “put up with it”? Not when they can influence better…

Motivating Better Behavior

People behave in ways that have been rewarded in the past. Therefore, to change a bad behavior, you need to do two things:

1) Do not reward the behavior you want to “go away” (called Extinction). When a person is doing something we don’t like, it is important to ignore them. Don’t give them the attention or results they are looking for. Only ignoring them will stop the behavior, because there will be no motivation to continue it.

2) Reward an alternative behavior that you would like to see in place of the bad behavior (called Positive Reinforcement). You need to give your partner an alternative way of getting what they want, which is also more positive for you. You can’t just expect them to “do nothing”. There is something that they want. Tell them a better way to get it.

Let’s look at these two points in the case of Snooki. What “reward” was she looking for? Clearly, it was sexual attention from her boyfriend. In the past, she has been “rewarded” with sexual attention when she behaved suggestively and flashed other guys. So, she figured the behavior would get her what she wanted again. Except, it didn’t with Jionni.

Jionni started out well, in response, by walking away. He did not reward or pay attention to the behavior (starting Extinction). This caused frustration and concern on the part of Snooki, who ran after him. Such behavior is typical of someone who has not received the desired reward for their behavior. They wonder “what’s wrong”? Remaining firm and not accidentally reinforcing bad behavior is key in this step. Temper tantrums and insults are also disrespectful behavior to be ignored.

Unfortunately, Jionni stopped there. He just walked away. He did not give Snooki another positive behavior suggestion. He did not find the win-win – a behavior that made them both happy. Ideally, he should have suggested another way for her to get his sexual attention that was not embarrassing for him. Perhaps, he could have led her off the dance floor and told her he would rather cuddle in the corner. Then, Jionni could have kept his pride – and Snooki would have had her “nookie”.

Jionni’s Mistake: Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

Instead of my suggestion above, Jionni chose to leave the entire country and deprive Snooki of all affection. He also argued, scolded, and shamed her for her behavior. Essentially, his “extinction” turned into “punishment”.

Punishment, however, does not work. First, it does not satisfy the original desire the person’s behavior was meant to meet. It simply temporarily stops them from behaving. Second, it causes intense negative feelings that the individual is motivated to get rid of (in any way). Finally, it eventually “wears off” and the person goes back to performing the bad behavior – although, they might just do it in secret.

What does punishment look like in reality (well reality TV anyway)? In the case of Snooki, she was socially and sexually frustrated when Jionni left. She also initially felt bad about her behavior. However, with prolonged “punishment” from Jionni, her mood began to change. She (and her roommates) began to blame Jionni for her negative feelings, in order to make Snooki “feel better” in any way possible. They incorrectly justified her behavior to help her avoid the frustration. Snooki also took a break from speaking with Jionni (after professing her love repeatedly before), because he was “making her feel bad”. Finally, Snooki found a way to get the sex that she wanted too. She cheated on Jionni with her roommate Vinny.

The moral of the story: you can “change” behavior to a preferred alternative, but you cannot “punish” it away. When you punish alone, especially for a prolonged period without alternative options, you only drive your partner away. It will not stop bad behavior. It will only make them hate you and sneak around to get their needs met behind your back.


Bad dates and “Jersey Shore Snooki” can be managed. You don’t have to leave, or put up with it either. You simply need to ignore the bad behavior and give them an alternative that is better. Show them a more positive way to get your attention, affection, praise, and reward. Reinforce the good behaviors that you do like (for more, see here and here). In the end, you will be respected and they will be rewarded. Everyone will be satisfied. A true relationship win-win.

I only hope the Jersey Shore folks figure it out too!

Please leave me your thoughts. Share, like, tweet, and comment below.

Until next time…happy dating and relating!

Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor

© 2011-2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

About Dr. Jeremy Nicholson

My name is Dr. Jeremy Nicholson. I am a Doctor of Social and Personality Psychology, with a research and writing focus on influence, persuasion, dating, and relationships. I also hold Master’s degrees in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Social Work. I currently lives in Boston, Mass.
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