In the classic scenario of life around the house, one partner always replaces the toothpaste cap while the other consistently tosses it aside. Little differences in lifestyle habits such as these are perhaps unavoidable. Over time, partners either learn to accept each other’s irksome quirks or are continuously infuriated by them.
As important to a relationship’s health as we know these differences can be, there is surprisingly little research on the topic. In a study my doctoral student Joyce Ebmeyer and I conducted on long-term marriages, we found that these everyday household behaviors can contribute significantly to a couple’s overall intimacy. Interestingly, partners tended to interpret each other’s behaviors through the lens of their general feelings about the relationship. If they felt true intimacy—defined as closeness, communication, and commitment—they tended to give their partner a pass when it came to annoying habits. If the relationship was only barely holding together, these tiny infractions snowballed into much larger issues that could threaten the relationship to its core.
If you are, or have been in, a close long-term relationship, you can probably identify at least one, if not 10 or 15, annoying habits of your partner. Leaving the dishes in the sink, forgetting to put the toilet lid down, throwing dirty laundry on the floor, or keeping the lights on in empty rooms are only a few of the habits that may infuriate you. Conversely, when you’re the one committing these acts, being called out for what you regard as minor offenses can irritate you just as much. In either case, such seemingly small problems can escalate into destructive patterns of conflict resolution.
You know the drill: You find the toothpaste cap missing—again!—mutter under your breath about what a slob your partner is, and ask yourself why he or she can’t just take that one tiny step to maintain domestic harmony. Instead of saying something, though, you silently and resentfully replace the cap. Later in the day, you and your partner are trying to discuss a more serious problem which is starting to raise your blood pressure and anxiety ever so slightly. The image of the toothpaste cap reappears in your mind’s eye, and now, all rationality flies off. Everything that’s ever bothered you about your partner now becomes fodder for your rage. Within minutes, both of you are questioning why you’re even together and, worse, someone threatens to leave.
Fortunately, though research on habit change within couples is rather minimal, there is plenty to guide us about habit change in general. I find one of the best sources to be Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, in which he argues that to change our habits, we need to change the cues that maintain them. Breaking the cycle between stimulus and response can help you overcome some of the habitual but troublesome behaviors—overeating, overspending, too much online gaming—that are interfering with your own happiness and adjustment.
Applying this principle to your relationship, to change your partner’s bad habits, you need to bring in a little reinforcement for the behaviors you want to strengthen but also remove the cues that trigger the annoying behavior in the first place. You also have to build in some stimulus and response psychology into your own reactions.
Let’s start with breaking the bad habit cycle in your partner’s behavior. When your partner consistently fails to enact what, to you, is important behavior, you can provide cues to stimulate him or her to engage in that behavior. First, though, agree with your partner that this is a desirable goal. Discuss—and not in the heat of the moment—why it bothers you that the dirty dishes are constantly in the sink. Decide on cues that might best prompt your partner to wash the dishes. Would it be a brightly colored sponge? A post-it note with a little heart? Then, let’s hope that your partner actually does those dishes, at least once. Now it’s time for you to provide some reinforcement. Don’t go overboard, but a kiss on the cheek might be enough to motivate your partner to engage in the behavior again next time.
The most important feature of this attempt at behavior change is that you’re treating the situation in a constructive manner—no one is yelling, and you’re not letting things get out of control. In the past, by losing your cool or turning things into a bitter argument, you’ve only taught your partner to associate doing the dishes with unpleasant consequences. This use of positive reinforcement can break that cycle.
Part two of changing your partner’s habits is changing your own reactions to the situation. In the past, when you’ve seen these behaviors that irritate you, they may have simmered under the surface, only to erupt during an entirely different situation. To change your reaction, you might need more of a cognitive intervention. You may be interpreting your partner’s failure to do a household task as a sign that he or she doesn’t really love you: “If he loved me, he’d leave the lid down.”
So instead of interpreting your partner’s behaviors as indicators of some deeper problem, reframe the way you think about them: Your partner has simply gotten into a bad habit but it's not with the intention of hurting you. It’s not a reflection on your relationship that your partner isn’t as attentive as you’d like to these details of household life. However, it is possible that by reacting with anger to these incidents, you’ve made yourself what’s called an aversive stimulus. By strategically building positive reinforcement into the scenario, not only will your partner feel more motivated to change, but you’ll also feel better about yourself.
In my study with Ebmeyer, we found that people in long-term committed relationships wanted to view themselves in a positive light. None of us likes to feel that we’re an aversive stimulus. We prefer to think of ourselves as loving, kind, and good. What may infuriate you the most about getting angry at your partner is precisely the fact that you’re getting so angry at someone you love.
Here again, some cognitive interventions can help relieve the situation. Take an honest look at your own behavior. How often do you engage in habits that bother your partner? Nobody can be completely perfect—you may be turning a blind eye to your own tendency to leave the shower a soapy mess even as you complain about your partner’s sloppiness with the toothpaste. When you approach your partner about changing his or her behavior, ask in turn what behaviors of yours create constant annoyances and irritation.
Helping your partner change is a two-way street. By changing your reactions, some of your own annoying tendencies, and the reinforcements for your partner’s behavior, you will be working toward building a stronger relationship, one small habit at a time.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014