Living intimately with another human being over a long period can be a challenge at times. The personal habits of the other person, when they deviate from your expectations or desires, can be frustrating or annoying.
I’m not talking about habits of addiction or habits that undermine your well-being in a concrete way. I’m talking about the small things that can get under your skin through repetition. How your spouse interrupts you when you’re talking, or leaves their clothes on the floor, or never seems to remember to wipe the counter after they make a snack.
You may have found that when you try to get your spouse or partner to change a habit, it often doesn’t work and may even make matters worse.
For example, a husband drives at a speed that makes his wife uncomfortable and she responds by criticizing his driving. You know what happens next, right? He says, “Well, if you don’t like it, then you drive!” Both of them end up feeling injured and the behavior is unlikely to change.
You may be doing your best to talk with your partner about the change you want in a rational way but if the habit doesn’t change it can lead to bottled-up resentment, indirect communication (for example, eye-rolling or sarcasm), or more vocal criticisms that come across as as nagging.
If you have enough good will and affection in your relationship then here are some tips on how to enlist your partner in a process of change.
Step one: Ask yourself, “Would everyone be bothered by this habit?” It is easy to recruit your friends to see it your way but try to be objective.
If the problem distresses you for reasons of your personal history, tendencies and preferences—then a good place to start is by owning your side of the problem.
To use the example earlier, the problem could be presented not as a problem of “driving too fast” but “driving in a way that makes me anxious”. The message has now been shifted. It isn’t that the other person is behaving badly but that the way they are behaving is triggering a reaction in you.
When you can truthfully say, “I’m sure that this wouldn’t bother everyone, but it really makes me anxious when you drive over the speed limit”, then you are off to a good start.
One reason you might find it hard to take responsibility for your emotional response to the habit trigger is that it makes you vulnerable. It feels much more powerful to say to your partner “you are the problem” rather than to admit that your reaction is part of the problem.
Step two: When you have owned that the distressing habit is based, in part, upon who you are as a person, then you can ask your partner if they would be willing to try to make a change.
The key here is that you are asking, not demanding.
Step three: If your partner buys into the idea of changing in order to reduce your distress then be prepared for the likelihood that his or her good intentions may not be enough to result in a change in behavior. Habits can be very hard to break.
You know this already—consider the habits you have that you have tried to change and how tough it is to stop.
The human mind has developed a wonderful capacity to go on autopilot so that we don’t have to bring conscious intention to every single thing we do. Acting without thinking can be very efficient.
So, don’t take it personally if the behavior doesn’t change. However, at this point what can be really helpful is if your partner is willing to give you permission to offer gentle cues when the habit makes its appearance.
You might say something like, “I know you want to change this driving habit. What should I say or do if you are driving faster than I am comfortable with?” If they don’t have any suggestions, you can ask permission to prompt them in a way that they would like to be prompted.
What sometimes works well is if the prompt is a playful one. In one couple I worked with, the wife agreed that if her husband was bothered when she was checking her cell phone then he could ask her, “Did George Clooney get back to you yet?”
Step four: If you get permission to cue your partner when they are repeating the habit then try to remind them using a tone of voice that is kind and friendly. Now that your partner has agreed to join with you in changing the behavior, let go of the criticism.
If you are unable to be friendly about it, then it may be that your upset about the habit may be a smokescreen for deeper dissatisfaction in the relationship.
In the same vein, if there is no change in the habit after a commitment has been made and there has been opportunity to change after being prompted, this may also be an indication of underlying issues that need attention.
If change happens, then try to let your partner know that you appreciate them working with you. If they are unwilling to join you in this process, or if either one of you is unable to work your side of the problem, then you might benefit from seeing a couples therapist who can help you get to the heart of the matter.