Thirty one year old Harry is a fairly typical client in our local anger management classes. At work he is considered a very nice man, a lamb, really. By his co=workers, he would be voted last place on a list of people who needed anger management.
But his wife Holly tells a different story. She would vote him numero uno on the list! When not yelling or criticizing her, he comes across as sarcastic, nasty and degrading to her. Yet, if asked privately how he felt about his wife he would say that he loved her and he doesn’t know why he treats her the way he does.
Harry doesn’t realize it, but he has developed a habit of communicating those ways to his wife when she says or does certain things that “trigger” him.
A habit is the opposite of mindfulness. It is going though a certain “routine” without even thinking about it. It is mindless behavior…automatic behavior…that does not involve thinking.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard – or diverts to other tasks.
Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit. They shape our lives- and our relationships – far more than we realize. They are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them to the exclusion of all else, including common sense.
A bad relationship habit can be formed long before we are in a relationship, often starting in childhood and strengthened throughout the years. How do habits form? According to author Charles Duhigg who wrote “The Power of Habits”, it takes constant repetition of three ingredients for a habit to form:
A Trigger of some kind
A Routine (Reaction to the trigger)
Let’s breakdown Harry’s habit and see what it going on.
A Trigger (Holly “commanded” him in sharp voice to complete a “honey-do” around the house………
A Routine #1: Harry (in his head said to himself: “I am not a child; she can’t boss me around that way;I’ll say I will do it but then won’t actually do it until I am good and ready.”)
Routine #2- He says to holly: “Get off my back…you are the last person who should talk about getting things done….you can’t order me around…why don’t you worry about your stuff and I’ll worry about mine”
RewardGains control over wife; feels autonomous, able to rebel and get away with it
This habit cycle probably has occurred all Harry’s life starting with his mother or father (authority figures) and repeated often. Now, it is automatic; he doesn’t even think of trying to think differently.
Harry’s habit is what is known as a relationship “keystone” habit. It has a ripple affect on the family. Unfortunately, it is a negative affect.
Because of his habit the atmosphere of the whole house changes and is soured. Holly has been through this routine many times before with Harry. After waiting three hours for him to do the honey-do, she finally explodes and calls him a passive-aggressive person. They brood all night, barely talking to each other.There is no conversation at the dinner table. The children are upset and tense.
Can People change Habits?
The answer is YES with motivation, persistence and practice. The good news is that when we are dealing with keystone habits, one little change can ripple into many positive things.
How do we do it? According to Duhigg cited above, we change a habit by changing the “routine” part of the equation, since we often cannot change the trigger or the reward that we are after. That is, we RESPOND instead of REACT to the trigger. Harry should find a different way to deal with his wife’s commanding behavior. How about asking her to ask him in a nicer way? How about being honest with her and actually saying when he will do the task? How about telling her how her tone makes him feel?
Working on changing simple keystone habits is an excellent place to start to repair a relationship and get love feelings flowing again. I encourage it with my local patience because it is simple in concept, it is “do-able,” and it can make a large difference for relatively little effort put into it.
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Next time: I will share the most common habit changes that couples make that really make a difference!