Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy

Living Edition
| Editors: Jay Lebow, Anthony Chambers, Douglas C. Breunlin

Behavior Exchange in Couple and Family Therapy

  • Jennifer DuchschereEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_74-1

Name of the Strategy or Intervention

Behavior exchange in couple and family therapy

Synonym List


Behavior Exchange (BE) is a therapeutic tool which seeks to increase the ratio of positive to negative behaviors that occur within a dyad (Gurman and Jacobson 2002; Jacobson and Christensen 1996; Jacobson and Margolin 1979). A BE model of relationships assumes that each partner holds some amount of control or influence over the other’s behaviors, and thus the dyad is engaged in a continuous cycle of interacting behaviors and responses (Jacobson and Margolin 1979). Partners often respond to positive behaviors with positive behaviors, and respond to negative behaviors with negative behaviors (Gottman et al. 1976).

Theoretical Framework

BE is derived from behaviorism and makes the assumption that small shifts in behavior will influence the overall dyadic dynamic. It is thus often incorporated into behavior-based therapies, such as traditional behavioral couple therapy (TBCT) or integrative behavioral couples therapy (IBCT; Jacobson and Christensen 1996).

Rationale for the Strategy or Intervention

Previous research suggests that distressed couples are less likely to engage in rewarding or positively reinforcing behaviors and are more likely to engage in negative or unwanted behaviors (cf. Birchler et al. 1975). This finding has been demonstrated as a general effect as well as within specific dyadic interactions such as problem-solving (Birchler et al. 1975). Increased negative behaviors have been linked to higher levels of partner avoidance (e.g., engaging in activities without their partner; Birchler et al. 1975) and lower levels of marital satisfaction (as cited by Birchler et al. 1975; Gottman 1993).

When behaviors occur without a naturally rewarding context, they may lead to heightened reactivity to a partner’s behaviors (Jacobson and Margolin 1979). This reactivity is illustrated by distressed couples responding more intensely to immediate rewards or consequences as opposed to delayed rewards or consequences, whereas nondistressed couples may not be as significantly affected by immediate responses (Jacobson and Margolin 1979).

Description of the Strategy or Intervention

In a therapeutic context, BE seeks to resolve the imbalance of positive and negative behaviors exchanged by distressed couples. In order to do so, reinforcing or rewarding behaviors are identified (with the therapist) that would increase a partner’s relationship satisfaction. It is important to note that these identified behaviors are often unique in that both dyadic and individual differences must be considered. Even within the dyad, each partner may desire seemingly unrelated behaviors. Examples of target behaviors include demonstrations of affection, increased verbal communication, or spending more time together (Jacobson and Christensen 1996; Gurman and Jacobson 2002; Jacobson and Margolin 1979). Chosen behaviors should be ones which partners seek to increase (positive) rather than those they want eliminated (negative), so as not to provide further effort and attention to the negative behaviors within the relationship (Gurman and Jacobson 2002). Additionally, these behaviors should not generate additional conflict; thus, behaviors should feasible (low-cost) for a partner to complete as well as require similar effort across the dyad (Gurman and Jacobson 2002).

After rewarding behaviors are generated within the session, therapists often guide the couple to individually choose a behavior to try at home and notice what the responses are to these changed actions. The idea is that if the behaviors chosen are truly rewarding, or have the potential to actually increase relationship satisfaction, their partner will respond positively. For example, a husband may choose to increase his physical affection toward his wife by hugging her each day when he comes home from work. If his wife is indeed seeking increased physical affection, she may respond by smiling or engaging in conversation. These responses are natural and positively reinforcing for the initial act of hugging.

Jacobson and Christensen (1996) provided a simple structure for BE. They suggested that in session, each partner generate a list of behaviors they believed their partner would want more or less of (rather than create this list about behaviors they want their partner to change). A behavior is chosen to “try out” during the week without knowing whether their partner would agree that a given behavior would shift their current level of relationship satisfaction. During the next session, the behaviors attempted are explored and each partner may respond. The partners at this time may then review the list and provide feedback as to why or why not a particular action would be something wanted. After this, they may continue in the same fashion as traditional BE. Research on the effects of BE demonstrate that although it generally creates rapid change, it is not sufficient for lasting change (Jacobson and Christensen 1996). Jacobson (1984) examined the components of behavioral marital therapy, including BE and communication/problem-solving training (CPT). He found that BE demonstrated significant increases in marital satisfaction and positive behaviors, while reducing desires for behavioral change immediately after the termination of therapy. However, after 6 months couples receiving only BE lost their gained progress, whereas those who received CPT or the combination of CPT and BE were more likely to maintain their gains or continue to improve. It seems that although BE can increase positive behaviors at home short-term, it does not tend to get at underlying relationship issues or help the couple determine how to work through challenges in the future (Jacobson and Christensen 1996). As such, BE is insufficient treatment for a distressed couple.

The above describes the use of BE within romantic relationships because there is existing and ongoing literature on this topic; however, BE might also be a successful tactic in other types of relationships in which dyads or families are struggling with the presence of rewarding or reinforcing behaviors. For example, if a parent is seeking behavior change in their child but is using punishment or consequences as the motivation for the child, shifts in their behavior may need to reflect those which are rewarding to the child.

Case Example

Karen (30) and Justin (32) have been married for 5 years. They have two young children. They decided to start therapy due to feeling distant from one another in the past year. While they do not argue frequently, they both acknowledged that their relationship currently feels more like “roommates” rather than partners in marriage. Karen expressed that at times she doubts Justin’s feelings for her because his physical affection and intimacy has decreased. She believes this shift has resulted in her seeking any affection. Justin reported feeling stressed from responsibilities related to both work and taking care of their children. He described still being in love with Karen, but simply that he “doesn’t have time to show it.”

Karen and Justin were asked to create separate lists of behaviors they could reasonably do during the week in attempt to increase their partner’s relationship satisfaction. These lists were not shown to the other partner. Rather, they were asked to try one of the behaviors on this list during the week and take note of their partner’s response.

When Karen and Justin came in for their next session, they reported that the task had gone well. Karen reported that one evening during the week, she prepared lunches for Justin and their children for the next day. When Justin discovered that she helped with this task generally designated to him, he responded by smiling and giving her a hug. Justin indicated that his idea was to come home from work, kiss Karen and tell her that he loves her. The first time this behavior occurred, Karen’s mood seemed uplifted and she inquired more about his day at work. Although Justin’s goal was to try this one time, he ultimately did this several times throughout the week stating that they actually felt like they were a couple.



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  7. Jacobson, N. S., & Margolin, G. (1979). Marital therapy: Strategies based on social learning and behavior exchange principles. New York: Brunner/Mazel.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kelley Quirk
    • 1
  • Adam Fisher
    • 2
  1. 1.Human Development and Family StudiesColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.The Family Institute at Northwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA