One of the most challenging parts of making long-term change in an established relationship is changing the patterns that two people have in how they interact with and treat one another. These are usually known as relationship habits, and they can be extremely hard to break. Most often people put forth a valiant effort up front to “be different,” only to find that a week or two later the intended change has petered out back into the old pattern again.
Relationship habits, like every other habit, are like rivers. They start out as small streams of behavior, carving their path through the terrain of our brains. Imagine a pile of dirt with a steady drip of water hitting the top. At first the water can go down the hill any number of ways. But over time the water cuts it’s way from a small channel to a deep canal, and it’s (usually) only at this point that couples realize that the behavior needs to change. But changing the flow of an established river is much harder than the flow of a tiny trickle, and often takes more than just a good intention.
To make real change in your relationship habits, you have to approach your old river with something akin to a concrete dam. You have to find a way to block your old habits from emerging while you redirect the flow down your newly desired path. There are many ways to do this too. Some people wear a physical reminder, something that they see or feel against their skin, which helps them remember to channel their thoughts and actions in a new direction, such as a ring, bracelet, necklace. Some even set up electronic reminders. Some create rewards for themselves (with the help of their spouse) to reinforce their desired behavior. Try out a few of these and see which works best for you. Know that your intention alone is almost always insufficient to break the pattern of a long-term, undesired habit.
Of course some water will leak around the edges of your dam, and sometimes cracks will form. Be gentle and patient with yourself and with each other as you continue to reinforce your new behaviors and ways of relating. Making big change takes time, but you can do it.
Eventually your need for the dam will become less and less, and hopefully your pattern of creating positive reinforcement for the patterns you like about yourself and each other will stick, so that you can continue to grow closer and closer together.
There’s no such thing as a pattern that cannot be changed. And people who say, “That’s just the way I am,” are using a cop-out to avoid making a real investment in themselves and their spouse. “That’s just the way I am,” is simply another way of saying, “Either you or I are worth it to me.” If you’re finding it hard to commit to changing your pattern, it can be useful to get in touch with why you’re in this relationship to begin with. Spend some time remembering why you fell in love in the first place. Remember the good times, the fun times, the happy times. Use that positive energy to help yourself commit to changing your relationship patterns. Your love is worth it.
Imagine how wonderful your love life will be once those new rivers are flowing all on their own.
What relationship patterns do you plan on changing, and how do you plan on making them stick? Comment below!