What can I say about forming habits? The idea that what we do over and over again will create a change in our life, for better or worse. While we know this to be true with respect to organizing our calendars, exercising or learning a new skill, can we apply that same mindset to deepening our relationships?
As we know, good and bad habits are both formed by repeating the same behavior over time with practice. Many times when I am working with couples or families, I am their final stop before divorce court or complete disengagement in the family. I begin work with them after years of repetitive negative interactions and behaviors towards one another, habits if you will. And interestingly, they will often come in with a litany of things that have been tried and failed. One question I have recently been following-up with has been, “for how long did you try…surprising your spouse, making time to talk about what you appreciate about one another, asking them about their day…(fill in the blank).”
When disenchantment with relationships set in, instead of being in a relationship where we allow ourselves to be influenced by our unintentional habits, what if we consciously create habits that allow us to connect and feel closer to our spouse, our child, even our boss or co-workers? Could it change how we view our relationships, how connected and happy we feel in our relationships?
According to Shawn Achor, Author of the Happiness advantage, the answer is yes. In his Tedx Talk: The Happy secret to better work, he explains, “it is not necessarily reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. If we change the lens, we change the outcome…Ninety percent of your happiness is predicted by how your brain views the world.” He goes on to talk about how if you make one positive 2-minute change for 21 consecutive days, your brain actually works more positively.
While a 2-minute change in how you relate or changing a habit doesn’t sound like much, it can be a simple step to enhancing your positive feelings in your relationships. This idea is shared by Author James, in his book, Atomic Habits: tiny changes, remarkable results, he explains, “the difference a tiny improvement over time is astounding…success is the product of daily habits-not once in a lifetime transformations.” A 1% improvement isn’t much initially but with consistency and time, you will see big changes and feel more connected. A 1% investment in positive connection habits compound over time (just like money in the bank); you will be able to see marked improvements with just a little effort. So when deciding between the extravagant getaway and the daily note to say what you like about your relationship, perhaps the daily note will be a better way to impact your relationships than the grand gesture.
When we begin to make changes, it is important to stick with the habit. So many times we are seeing no change, we give up or revert back to old patterns of thinking and relating. Progress, while it is slow and steady, is often unseen. Mr. Clear describes this phenomenon as “the plateau of latent potential.” He explains this by using the example of the formation of bamboo; “Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air within six weeks.” It is important to keep at something to see change, we can’t expect that deepening connection is going to be an overnight process when it has usually taken years to lose it.
Remember, connection is a habit. It doesn’t always come easily and life can get in our way, negativity can develop into resentments. But when this happens, we have to stop and think about how we might be able to positively influence our relationships. How might we build the types of relationships that feel supportive, connected and strong? We have to work at it. We have to dedicate ourselves to the process of being better, by being committed to small change, by being consistent with that change and being patient enough to reap the long-term gains. If we do this, perhaps we can spend more time enjoying one another and less time trying to triage our relationships after the negativity is all that we can see.
Ted Talks: The Happy Secret to Better work https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work
Clear, J (2018) Atomic Habits: Tiny changes remarkable results. London: Penguin Random House UK publishers
Marriage and Family Therapist