Habits can be hard to break, especially when they’ve developed over the course of a long-term relationship. You know when your relationship is suffering from the effects of bad habits when you feel like something is off, or missing, in your time with your partner. You can’t quite put your finger on it, and there may be no one really to blame, but you know that things have changed.
A bad relationship habit is one that continues to occur even though it causes you or your partner distress. It may develop independent of the personalities, beliefs, or values of each individual, or it may reflect good intentions gone wrong in the way you two interact. You want to be positive, you want to be loving, but you can’t quite seem to pull it off. When alone, you build up your resolve to change, but when you’re back with your partner, that resolve melts and you’re back where you started.
Not all relationship habits are bad. The good ones allow you and your partner to function more effectively as a twosome or as part of a larger family or group. Just as your personal habits allow you to get out of bed and start your day with a minimum of mental effort, these habits being stability and predictability to your life. Knowing that your partner hates purple, for example, means that you don’t have to stop and ponder whether to buy a purple shirt you see on sale. And knowing your partner’s habits is itself a good relationship habit. It signifies that you have a pretty good understanding of your partner, even if you don’t agree with all those preferences. (And sometimes you may wish to change those habits if they’re detracting from your partner’s well-being, but that’s a different story.)
Bad relationship habits, by contrast, work against your relationship—and if they’re bad enough, they can destroy it. Here are six to watch out for, along with suggestions for counteracting each one:
1. Wait for your partner to initiate shows of affection.
The tendency to believe that you need to be approached first by your partner in displays of affection is more prevalent in women, as shown by research on who is more likely to initiate a relationship. If you hold to this belief, though, it will lead you to the habit of always waiting to be approached by your partner even after your relationship is well-established. Not only can this habit keep you from fulfilling your own needs (whether in a new or long-term relationship) but it can send the wrong signals to your partner that you’re “just not that into” him or her.
To counteract this bad habit, do what researchers do to prompt subjects to feel more in control of their destinies: Recall times when you were in control and the outcome was positive. This doesn’t have to involve relationships; it can be any time that you took action and the result benefited you. This can be enough to prompt you to feel that it’s OK to exercise control in your relationship as well. The results will probably surprise you in that your partner may very well be delighted that you’re willing to start the romantic ball rolling.
2. Argue about the same things all the time.
It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in arguments, especially ones that keep repeating. You might be able to predict, with depressing accuracy, the result of a disagreement with your partner over one or another weekly chore or duty. Before you slide into the routine set of complaints about having to clean the bathroom yet again, try to find a time when you can both talk calmly about the recurring problem and come up with a plan to end it. As is true for changing your own bad habits (such as giving into a daily craving for a donut), you can set up a schedule of small change comparable to going for one day, then two days, etc. without the donut. If you both decide this is fair, it will eventually produce a desired outcome of making those arguments go away.
Of course, if your partner uses the occasion to bring up a habit of yours that’s been a source of contention, be ready to make similar changes in return. Increasing your sense of personal control has the added benefit of making it easier for you to change your own bad habits. A review of six studies involving nearly 2,300 people (Galla & Duckworth, 2015) showed that people who feel a greater sense of self-control have a variety of beneficial life outcomes, including being able to overcome bad habits.
3. Take your partner for granted.
This is a very easy habit to slide into if you’ve been in a relationship for a long time. In a way, taking your partner for granted is a good sign because it shows that you and your partner feel you can rely on each other. It’s nice to know, in a way, that your partner will be able to tolerate your occasional bursts of anger or irritation, and that you can dress however you feel like around the house when no one else is there. It’s also comforting to feel that your partner will help you when you get into a jam. On the other hand, taking someone for granted also includes maybe not saying “thank you” as much as you should because you’ve come to expect favorable treatment. Take the time to recognize what your partner contributes to your life and let him or her know how much it means to you.
4. Be too serious.
You may find that you laugh with friends or colleagues outside the home more than you do when you’re with your partner. The preoccupation of having a home and family can lead people to forget that sometimes things happen that are just plain funny. You might see a Facebook post or text that makes you laugh, but when you’re in the middle of your habitual routine, you may feel that you don’t have the time to spare to take a break. However, research shows that having a laugh together may be just the boost your relationship needs. If all else fails, go to a romantic comedy together just to be able to share some silly time.
5. Not have a meal together.
The fast pace of life, particularly when we have to balance home and work roles, can lead couples to get into the habit of catching their meals on the go. Daily schedules being what they are, you and your partner may just barely see each other as you pass in the hallway. If you’re not living with your partner, it may seem impossible to schedule a time to go out or cook a meal together. Yet, having that meal together may remedy some of the other bad habits, such as taking each other for granted or being too serious. To break this habit, commit to at least one shared meal per week, or on whatever regular basis you can arrange. During that meal, get rid of your phone, play some relaxing music, and enjoy each other’s company. If your partner has cooked the meal, be sure to say “thank you,” and express that you liked it.
6. Spend too much time plugged into your devices.
MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation (link is external) argues that we’re losing the ability to talk to each other in a face-to-face setting. Being on your devices while you’re apart may be a way of maintaining connection through texts and status updates, but when you’re with your partner, the devices offer nothing but distraction. That you can’t get through a meal without having your phone next to you may be a symptom of a larger problem in your relationship and if that’s the case, the other suggestions above (laughing together, avoiding repeat arguments, showing affection) can be vital ways to turn things around.
Galla, B. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015). More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 109(3), 508-525. doi:10.1037/pspp0000026