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Natural Awakenings Boston

Transforming Damaging Relationship Habits

Nov 29, 2013 07:43PM ● By Ike Lasater

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how people can change their habits by noticing which cues trigger unconscious behaviors that become routines. For example, boredom can be a cue that prompts some people to snack or surf the Internet, or some children to start bickering with one another.

This “habit loop” also influences our relationships, which is why couples, parents and children can have the same arguments over and over again. Even when both people would prefer to avoid a fight, each one can be tripped up by ingrained conflict patterns. In such moments they may feel powerless, trapped in a rush of emotions that causes them to say or do things they later regret.

Fortunately, it is possible to change damaging relationship habits. The trick is to work patiently through the three steps of reflecting, planning and doing.

Reflecting means investigating the need that causes a particular relationship pattern. What do those who are drifting into conflict really need at that moment, and how do their un-met needs create unhelpful habit loops? Planning is imagining ways to meet these needs. Doing means putting strategies into action and making adjustments based on the results.

A recent workshop participant named Anne (not her real name) used these steps to improve her relationships with her children. Mornings were tense as Anne struggled to get her kids off to school amid lots of bickering and distractions. In response, Anne was constantly raising her voice and the kids eventually tuned her out.

One particularly time-pressed morning, Anne grabbed her son by the shoulders, shook him, and forced his arms into his coat. Another day, she slammed the refrigerator door so hard that her children went to school with tears in their eyes. Showing her anger got the kids’ attention and got them to school on time, but Anne wanted to change her habit of “losing it” and motivating the kids with force and fear. Those behaviors left everyone feeling jangled and disconnected, and they didn’t represent the care and respect that she wanted to give her children.

Here’s how Anne applied the three steps:

1. Reflecting. Anne yearned for more efficiency, teamwork and peace. Her son told her that he and his sister wanted more “slowness” in the morning, with more time for play and Anne’s company at breakfast. Anne’s shame gave way to hope. By naming everyone’s needs, she could shift into problem solving mode.

2. Planning. Anne strategized ways to create the slower mornings that the kids enjoyed, along with a predictable routine that got everyone out the door on time. The kids agreed to help “set up the day” the night before by laying out clothes and breakfast dishes. Anne, meanwhile, would get up 15 minutes earlier to feel calmer in the mornings.

3. Doing. The new strategies worked very well for the first two days. On day three, Anne snapped at the kids when they got into a shoving match over who would feed the cat. Reflecting on her children’s habit loops, she realized that they squabbled out of a need for recognition and fairness. She created a morning job chart that clarified roles and ended the bickering.

By focusing on habit cues, identifying people’s unmet needs and strategizing to meet them, Anne achieved something that is possible for everyone. Destructive relationship habits can be replaced with new patterns that build closeness and satisfaction.

Ike Lasater is the co-founder of Mediate Your Life, LLC. For more information about Mediate Your Life trainings, call 413-658-4444 or visit MediateYourLife.com.

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