Sometimes the direct approach to changing a habit doesn’t work. This I think can especially be the case with relationship habits. When we set about changing our habitual ways of relating we can find that our emotions get stirred up.
This post is a response to Lunna who wrote in the comments to my last post that they would:
[L]ike to read something about habit. You know when a couple is breaking up, how to overcome the habit of not calling, or not seeing the other person, which to me may feel like coming out of a bad addiction.
When we are changing in some way (what we eat, how we relate or what we do) we usually find habits get in the way. This makes it easy to believe that habits are a problem, which they are at this time. I think it is important to see that most of the time, habits serve us well.
The Positive Part Habits Play in Our Lives
In some ways the difference between us as newborns and who we are now is habit. I have spent a little time around 3-5 year olds and am impressed by how much repetition is involved. So much time goes into guiding them again and again in the ways of social etiquette, spelling and many other things too. The effect of all this is to develop a whole range of habits. As an adult I habitually check before I cross the road, spell (mostly) correctly, and know how to put on my clothes. All this is habit.
All these habits mean that I can focus on what is interesting to me at the moment. I know that I can cross a road safely to look at something on the other side. A friend and I can investigate a topic or issue because we both know how to communicate through our common language. We don’t have to stop and ‘make up the rules’ for how we communicate — these ‘rules’ are habits by now.
It seems to me that habits save us an enormous amount of energy (imagine having to re-learn walking every day) and are usually a very positive part of our lives.
How to Develop a Habit
Developing a habit is a matter of practice: doing the same thing over and over. For this reason it is important that you practice the right thing — or practice doing what you’re practising in the right way.
A habit is ‘unconscious’ and leads to our behaving ‘automatically’. This means that habits can be dangerous. In a life threatening situation it can be important to not behave automatically. A famous example from vocational training comes from the airline industry. A steward enters the cockpit to alert the captain that an engine is on fire. The captain looks at the instruments and says, “No, it’s not”. The captain has been trained to pay attention to the instruments; 99.999% of the time this will be the correct thing to do. In this situation (perhaps the only time in their whole career), it was not helpful. (I believe the plane landed safely.)
When Habits Aren’t Helpful
Habits can impede our awareness and lead to dull routine. Habits can lead to our not noticing new aspects of a familiar situation. They can end up being a straight jacket instead of something that frees us. Inquiring in the same way how our partner is each morning can lead to our not listening to the answer. My relationship suffers because I have slipped into doing this automatically instead of paying attention.
When changing a habit, we usually try to do this directly, by changing our behaviour. This can work well. If we wish to stop smoking we can stop doing the things which trigger this habit. We stop sitting in that particular chair at home because when we do we automatically light up. We stop shopping where we usually do because that’s where we buy the cigarettes. We do something after we’ve eaten instead of lighting up, and so on.
Habits have “Baggage”
Sometimes the direct approach to changing a habit doesn’t work. This I think can especially be the case with relationship habits.
When we set about changing our habitual ways of relating we can find that our emotions get stirred up. We can find that we don’t want to alter where we habitually put our dirty clothes (in the dirty clothes basket and not on the floor), or how we make a cup of tea (warming the tea pot first). We find that with the habit comes a whole lot of baggage (I want to relax, not be hassled about the laundry, or bother with what I see as the trivia of making a cup of tea).
If we are to be happy about changing our habits, especially in relationships, it can mean dealing with this baggage. This may mean everyone involved examining why they care about how this thing is done. It may mean coming up with innovative solutions. If I want to leave the washing up ’til morning, and you don’t, then maybe you do the washing up at night and I do some other part of the housework. Is there a way to make the washing up more enjoyable — playing your favourite CD while doing it, or doing it together while talking over the day or planning a holiday?
Habits Have Benefits
When we set about changing a habit we can discover that the habit has a surprising benefit as part of the “baggage”.
A friend of mine who wanted to give up smoking discovered that when he stopped for a cigarette was the only time that he took a break. When he found another way to take a break it became easier to give up smoking.
When we leave a relationship, or want to change one in a major way, the baggage and benefits can be quite complex. The way I make a meal can involve feelings about my mother and how I show care. How I have my books organised can be more personal than some friendships.
Habits are usually what we do quite unconsciously.
The first requirement for change is to notice that we are doing them.
- Noticing the behaviour. For me this has usually been a process of getting quicker at spotting the habit, gradually reducing the time it takes to notice the habit I’m doing and then doing something different instead.
- Noticing the triggers. It can take awhile to figure out what these are. Sometimes others will notice when we don’t.
- We can then start substituting different behaviour for our habit. We may want to substitute a different habit (breathing and relaxing instead of smoking for instance) or stop behaving habitually (listening to the answer when I ask my partner how they are).
- If there aren’t particularly strong emotions attached to a habit, playing can be helpful. Partners swapping roles or tasks can bring freshness into the relationship. I find shaving a pretty boring activity so I try to find ways to do it differently — starting in different places and so on. This brings a little freshness to what is otherwise a very dull routine for me.
Dealing With the Baggage
The baggage will usually be quite noticeable. It may be surprising and seem ridiculous, but it is usually strongly felt.
- Dismissing these feelings isn’t helpful in my experience. However strange or silly I judge them to be, they are part of dealing with the habit. In my experience they are always attached to a valid need.
- Finding another way to satisfy the need: ways to take time out, ways to feel close to my partner, or maintain my independence. There are usually many ways to satisfy a need — so long as we are willing to pay attention and not dismiss it.
Getting the Benefits
Finding the benefits is often harder than spotting the baggage. It can take awhile to realise that smoking gives me a break or that not listening is a way of gaining separateness.
- It is easier to embrace a new pleasure than deny ourselves an old one. Finding a different way to get the benefit that the habit brings us will help. Building a better relationship with my partner is easier than just stopping not listening. Taking up a hobby or doing a class may help me listen to my partner (if the benefit of not listening was gaining separateness).
I think habits are usually very helpful and that when they aren’t there are ways that we can change them. With habits that are a big part of a relationship, this may mean dealing with the baggage and the benefits too.
I’d like to hear how you have dealt with changing habits. What has worked for you, especially when it has involved changing or ending a relationship? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by