Conflicts — 28 February 2007
How to change your annoying habits

During courtship most couples accept each other as they are, but this state of contentment does not last. With time most mates accumulate small annoyances about each other’s ways. How couples handle these lightweight frustrations impacts the strength and comfort of their union.

Individual perceptions and habits, whether innate or learned, feel to their owner as the only options. Any other way is unfamiliar and thus “wrong”. “If you are not like me you are weird”. Observing another person’s ways may engender bewilderment, frustration, criticism and even negative judgments.

He regularly brought his new wife a fresh cup of instant coffee in the morning. She became annoyed when she saw him pour the coffee into a cup full of boiling water. “That’s not the way you make coffee. First you put the coffee, then you pour the water.” He hesitated and then asked: “have you detected a difference between my coffee and yours?” She embarrassingly had to admit she didn’t.

From small acts to major undertaking, the partners’ style is likely to be different. Sometimes it matters, but more often than not it is WHAT the person does rather than HOW it is done – that matters. An appreciation for the act, rather than criticism for the method used, is the preferred response.

Some personal ways are annoying not because they are different, but because they are burdensome. Routinely tracking mud into the house may lead to repeated argument that is not only about the extra work, but about the ascribed insensitivity and uncaring attitude. An assumption may be made that the forgetful removal of muddy shoes represents disrespect, non-caring and callousness.

Other behaviors may be irritating because they are associated with unpleasant early life experiences or events. A certain cough may trigger agitation associated with memories of the sound made by a disliked uncle’s hacking. Often these types of associations may even be out of the awareness of the irritated person.

Sometimes the aggravating style is associated with certain values or beliefs: “this is vulgar music”, “being loud is unfeminine” “using foul language is a sign of poor upbringing”. The person who sees himself as refined, appealing and well bred may be irritated by being associated with an individual whose behavior negatively reflects this self-view.

It is important for couples to share with each other the source of their frustration. Understanding what and why a conduct is disturbing often improves the listener’s compassion and increases the motivation for change by the owner of the habit. This is not always possible since oftentimes the causation of the habit eludes the doer and the source of agitation may be unclear for the annoyed mate. In the absence of explanation, the mere knowledge that the behavior is irritating should serve as a sufficient basis for altered conduct.

Yet, even with the best intentions behavior change is difficult and can easily revert back even after conscious efforts to sustain it. Dr. Ann Graybiel, an MIT neuroscientist recently explained that neural activity patterns in our brain are responsible for habit formation and reversal. She states: “”It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back. This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.”

As difficult as habit changes may be, they are achievable.

The habit owner:

• Accept that though most habits are not intended to annoy the partner your mate’s irritation is a sufficient incentive for change.
• Question the source of your partner’s frustration and treat it respectfully even when the reasons are inexplicable.
• Develop an alternative plan for the ‘bad habit’. For example: substitute a similar, yet inoffensive word for expletives uttered in frustration.

The upset partner:

• Realize that ways that are different than yours are not necessarily bad, wrong or foolish.
• Disconnect the attribution of negative emotions from childhood to your partner’s current habits. Your partner is NOT your disliked uncle, even when s/he engages in similar habits.
• Difficulties in habit change are not a measure of your partner’s love for you.

For both partners:

• Understand that change takes a long time to be ingrained and periodic failures are expected.
• Use patience, kindness, and appreciations to help each other alter displeasing habits and create greater relationship harmony.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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