Teaching Romantic Behavior

This is a topic that they do not teach in the graduate courses in behavior analysis. It rarely makes it into the purview of supervisory topics for clinicians who are used to working with much more language and basic functional living skills like the ABBLS-R, VBMAPP, or PEAK assessments, but it is a topic that will eventually does come up. Sometimes you’ll have a teenager who has mastered a wide repertoire of individual and group friendship related skills, has meaningful social experiences opening up ahead of them, and then the big question drops; “What if I want a boyfriend or girlfriend?”. Like most behavior, including verbal and other social behavior, even romantic behavior can be broken down into components and taught, but unlike a friendly conversation or turn taking game, the stakes are much higher.

With romantic relationships, many things appear simple but as many of us know, without a strong foundation it can be a complex series of social and heavily emotional evoking stimuli that can alter judgement and lead people to making choices they might never have made before. In clinical practice, especially with teenagers on the autism spectrum, the “go to” resource I have used is the PEERS Treatment Manual, specifically for social skills in teenagers. As you can see from the image above (credited to the manual), it is an evidence based curriculum which focuses on breaking down the components of decision making when entering the world of dating, and provides a great range of materials and practice strategies to be used before generalizing to the natural environment. For example, the first few steps listed above:

-Talk to mutual friends, if you have them.

-Flirt with your eyes.

-Give specific or general compliments, depending on how well you know them.

-Ask them if they’re dating anyone.

-Show interest in them by trading information and finding common interests.

-Laugh at their jokes when appropriate.

(Laugeson, 2015)

We can use very concrete behavioral examples of what types of social skills we’d like our clients to employ, as well as asking questions along the way that relate directly to the person they intend to engage with. It does not assume that romantic or dating success will follow, but helps the learner pick up on cues as to whether their initial inquiries and engagement is heading in a direction, while also having them be direct about their intentions so that the subject of their interest is also in the know. It helps with icebreakers, sourcing friends and using a network of others to help, and also (not captured above) brings up the topic of both consent from the other person, and parent involvement in early teenage dating scenarios. Everyone is informed, and the social behaviors are framed around the feedback each step of the way. From a behavior analytic perspective, it is easy to apply to real world scenarios while helping the learner recognize what lies ahead of them before they jump into the real situation. The next chapter, by the way, works on conflict within relationships, which I think is incredibly helpful, especially to learn early in life. I know I wish I had.

There are, of course, many schools of thought on romantic behavior which takes place pre-adulthood. Prior to a career in behavior analysis, I had a background in school counseling focusing on adolescents in high school. The individual and group therapy work that goes on in a school was, to say the least, a little looser than what a behavior analyst might do. More often than not, in the school setting you were not teaching people to begin relationships, but rather coming in later when complications arose. As was the texts and resources given to us in dealing with both the formation and conflict that comes in young relationships. In a school setting, assuming both parties were attending the same school and had the interest in utilizing school counseling services, the focus on some of the resources were framed with a different outlook with topics such as: Anger, Monopolizing, Attention Seeking, Resistance, Arguments and Fighting, “Contagious Exiting”, and Crying. As you might imagine, it was less of a skill building process, and more of a crash course on dealing with tangled and heavily emotional topics through expression. I also want to be clear that I am not bashing this viewpoint; conflict resolution was often successful, but the framework was built around mental constructs, and was usually a multiple step process lead by the individuals themselves and the tangents of what lead up to the issues that arose. In both behavior analytic, and the counseling framework, clarity was key, conflict resolution was taught, and communication was valued. I think both avenues had some truths that were helpful in both teaching and working through very high emotions, but the behavioral viewpoint was a little cleaner in execution of what skills were being exhibited, and what skills were not. This is only my opinion. Data point of one.

In my experience in both “worlds” of working with adolescents and teaching romantic and behavior, it has become clear that the research out there and effective curriculums focus largely on the following skills:

  • Dating means different things at different ages. A 13 year old dating is very very different than an 18 year old dating, both in definition, and the involvement of adults to mediate the where’s and the how’s.
  • What dating means and the expectations are should be clear up front.
  • Identifying ahead of time what it might mean if the subject is interest back, and also if they are not.
  • Framing what a relationship looks like for the age and interests of both involved.
  • Determining appropriate activities.
  • Setting and accepting boundaries.
  • Asking questions. Asking the right questions.
  • Individualizing the therapeutic training to take into account the interests and expectations of each party and what subjectivity means.
  • Conflict resolution skills ahead of time.
  • Respecting the privacy of the other person and not speaking out of turn even to the therapist on matters that are not free to discuss. Privacy skills.

This is sometimes just the start. There are layers that clinicians will be allowed to be privy to, and others that are not. Respecting boundaries also applies to this therapeutic and educative approach. There are times when a client will ask you to back off, or keep details to themselves. Their independence and autonomy is all the more important when they are beginning to experience these new situations. Pacing lessons with the modern, and very rapidly moving, social media, phone based world of adolescent and young adult relationship communication is not easy.

In my experience no two trainings have ever been alike and when it comes to a behavior analytic or therapeutic approach, the client’s needs and interests come first. They may need some teaching on how to balance that with others needs and interests, but that is also a part of learning about what matters and what can develop.


Galassi, J. P., & Akos, P. (2007). Strengths-based school counseling: Promoting student development and achievement. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 

Kaveri Subrahmanyam, & Patricia Greenfield. (2008). Online communication and adolescent relationships. The Future of Children, 18(1), 119–146. https://doi.org/10.1353/foc.0.0006

Laugeson, E. A. (2017). Peers for young adults: Social skills training for adults with autism spectrum disorder and other social challenges. Routledge.

Maich, K. L. (2018). Applied Behavior Analysis: Fifty case studies in home, school, and community settings. Springer.

Smead, R. (1995). Skills and techniques for group work with children and adolescents. Research Press. 

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?

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