in: Dating & Relationships

When Habit Hurts: De-Programming a Relationship

One of the more-wonderful features of an established relationship is familiarity. But what happens when familiarity turns to tiresome predictability?

“We never go out anymore.”

“We used to love spending time together but now it is just all about the kids.”

“The love is there but we just don’t talk like we used to.”

Sound familiar? You may be stuck in a destructive relationship habit. 

New and unknown aspects of relating to another person can be exciting in the beginning, but as the relationship progresses we come to need a level of known predictability. Knowing what time our partner will be home from work or understanding that one loves Sushi and the other hates Pho is beneficial. We begin to design the experience of our relationship so that we can order and orient ourselves to each other in positive ways. But some habits slip in that harm rather than help couples. 

Common habits couples get into are about lifestyle: staying home all of the time together instead of enjoying aspects of being the world as they did while dating. Falling into spending all of the time outside of work caring for kids and neglecting the practice of having alone time together.

Other habits can be manifested in patterns of relating: the habit of ignoring conflict and not talking about or having the skills to resolve disagreements. In the short term these choices may suffice; but over time important parts of the relationship erode. 

We all carry expectations and assumptions about how relationships are and should be. Sometimes these are unconscious. Relationship habits can be aspects about our personalities or legacies from our families of origin that get in the way of making space for the natural flow of relating with one another.

One couple I worked with was stuck inside of an issue about forgiveness and taking responsibility for actions in the relationship. This led us to a dialogue about apologies. Both members of the couple were clear that they valued the idea of apologizing when doing something wrong, and in fact were both diligently trying to instill this value in their children. They realized through examining this that coming from divorced families in which their parents did not apologize to each other for wrongdoings had impacted them negatively. It had impacted each partner’s ability to acknowledge and take responsibility for a mistake or misunderstanding. The assumption associated with apologizing was that it is shameful and denoted a weakness of character. Once each partner was able to understand and acknowledge they had been carrying around and unaware of these outdated concepts, the flow improved in their marriage.

Confining habits can get in the way of getting the love you want. Consider the expectations of gender. I have worked with couples where the norm or expectation is that the male partner will initiate sex. But often when the female partner notices that sex is not happening and would like this intimate connection, she may feel rejected and/or blame her male partner for the lack of sex. The couple becomes habituated to one way of doing something that has potentially gotten stale, routine or oppressive. Working together to unearth common outdated gender expectations can free up the initiating partner to take a back seat, comfortably. And for the other partner who is then free to take the risk to ask for sex. In doing so, they both shake off an invisible layer of assumptions about the way in which the relationship is “supposed to work”. 

Patterns that become traditions can be enjoyable and confirming but getting stuck in ideas of right/wrong ways to do things or doing things the way they have always been done gets in the way of a more harmonious and satisfying relationship.

Even when we are diligent and conscious, things can become mechanical. Maybe your activist values associated with making the world a better place, acting in peaceful ways and engaging in activities that are softer on the earth brought you and your partner together philosophically. Yet now you find yourselves acting with rigidity or from a dogmatic stance when it comes to how you communicate. Maybe an ideal on challenging the status quo of gender expectations and being committed to living in an equality relationship is a shared value. But it has become a tired regimen where everything split 50/50 down the middle has become a burden that doesn’t suit life with your partner. Take stock of your relationship and try to notice where you may be acting out of habit or in a mechanical fashion. The result of changing some of these areas can produce results you may not have thought possible. 

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Notice when you feel isolated in the relationship. What has transpired to make you feel this way?

2. Catch yourself saying canned phrases or speaking your usual complaint. What are you are really asking for? What part can you take responsibility for shifting?

3. Plan to sit down with your partner and examine some of the pieces of the relationship that are not working. Do you have hidden assumptions you or your partner is unaware of?

4. Think about other times in your relationship. Have you let go of some of the aspects you enjoyed? Talk about what it would take to you bring forward into a new dynamic.

5. Inject some freshness and take a risk in doing something differently. You may be surprised in what you discover about your partner. Or yourself.

[image: via Jenny Ondioline on flickr]

About the Author:

Leslie Malchy

Leslie Malchy is a Relationship psychotherapist working in private practice, Soft Landing Therapy, in Downtown Vancouver, BC, Canada. She is an experiential therapist working from a bio-psycho-social-spiritual and strengths based framework of change. She holds a Master of Science degree in Psychiatry from McGill University and a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy from Antioch University Seattle. When Leslie is not working, she is busy writing creative and literary fiction, tending to and growing kale in her community garden plot or jogging along Vancouver’s gorgeous Stanley Park seawall.


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