The Breaking Bad Habits in Relationships Series — (Part 6)

I had a session with a couple last week where we were able to dive deep into their dynamics using recent examples of conflicts and real-time examples that came up during our session.

Jenny* started off the session reflecting on a routine interaction that she and her husband Bill had the week before. She became aware during their interaction that she was acting in a contemptuous way and that it wasn’t fair. She explained the roles that they both played in this habitual dynamic and how she was able to own her aggression and frustration and apologize to him for how she reacted.

This is the kind of thing that makes a therapist giddy. I applauded her and validated how difficult it can be to take a step back and observe one’s own reactions and then to apologize for them.What was profound for her was how often little interactions like this happen and go unaddressed, where one person is in a position of power because they hold the information or knowledge about a given subject. The other person needs that information and the holder of the information withholds in a passive aggressive expression of anger, resentment and punishment.

I gave them an example of how this kind of insidious interaction gets played out in my own relationship with Deb:

I am more tech-savvy than Deb, which has led to a habit of her relying on me for any question or issue related to phones and computers. Sometimes when she asks me how to do something, I feel a reflexive anger bubbling up inside. If I had to put words to it, it would say: “What’s wrong with you? How could you not know that by now? Look it up yourself.”

There have been many instances where I have expressed those exact sentiments, often leading to a fight.

When I shared this with my couple, I told them I wanted to share it because these types of interactions are universal and common and we agreed that it’s the kind of thing people never speak about.

I didn’t want them to sit with the shame and isolation of feeling like there was something uniquely wrong with them for having interactions like this.

Then we spoke about using this as an example to refer back to. I emphasized that it’s not about trying to be perfect. It’s about paying attention when things like this happen and addressing them as they do, versus sweeping them under the rug.

The challenge is to pay attention on a consistent basis and not to let things accumulate.

It was an intense and challenging session. They are working hard and a lot of their old patterns and roadblocks are coming up in the process. It’s so easy to let the old beliefs and behaviors take over, but couples like Jenny and Bill are the reason why I do what I do. I know in my heart that habits and patterns like these can be broken and changed just as they were created in the first place.

Exercise:

  1. My challenge to you is take a few minutes to identify a power struggle like this in your own relationship.
  2. Think about your role in the interaction.
  3. How do you usually respond?
  4. How could you respond differently?
  5. Even if you respond like you normally do the next time it happens, try not to let it go unaddressed.

Good luck! Remember, where there’s love, there’s hope.

*Names and information have been changed to maintain anonymity.

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David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.


Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on July 13, 2017.

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