Rules that Guide Good
Habit Formation in Marriage
By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
Almost everything we do is repeated over and over. That's because we're creatures of habit. While it may seem to us that we're making creative decisions about what we do throughout the day, we actually tend to be on auto-pilot most of the time. As long as our behavior is useful to ourselves, and not objected to by others, we're fairly predictable.
But if our behavior becomes a problem to others, we're encouraged to change. And change is not easy. It takes effort. In some cases, it takes tremendous effort.
My basic approach to helping a couple create a mutually satisfying marriage is to focus on the effect that their habits have on each other. I help spouses eliminate habits that cause unhappiness and create habits that cause happiness. It not only leads to a mutually satisfying marriage, but it also creates and sustains romantic love.
Most people see the sense in spouses learning how to make Love Bank deposits and avoiding their withdrawal. But as I've noted so many times before, knowing what's right and doing it are two entirely different issues, especially when it involves doing something new. So in this newsletter article, I address the topic of how to create new habits because they make or break marriages. Let me begin with a very brief review of how habits are formed. Then I'll explain how rules can guide motivation to create good habits.
Habits are formed through repetition. The more often you do something, the stronger the habit becomes. If you want to meet an important emotional need that you have been failing to meet, you should practice the behavior that meets that need until it becomes almost effortless.
An example of this principle is affection. If your wife (or husband) feels that her need for affection is not being met by you, ask her to make a list of behaviors that meet that need for her. Then, practice each behavior on that list every day until they all become habits. At first, while learning the new habits, your effort and awkwardness may diminish the effect somewhat. But eventually, your habits of affection will become smooth and expressed from the heart. When that happens, making massive Love Bank deposits will become almost effortless.
While it's repetition that creates habits, it takes motivation for a person to repeat a new behavior long enough for it to becomes a habit. My greatest problem in helping couples restore love to their marriage is motivating them to do what they know would work. It's a problem because I am greatly limited in my ability to provide what's known to be the most effective ways to motivate people.
The most effective motivation to repeat a new behavior is the enjoyment of the new behavior itself. The more enjoyable the behavior, the more likely you'll repeat the behavior. For example, you may never have gone fishing until a friend invites you to join him. On that one outing, you may find fishing to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life. If that's the case, even though you've not yet developed the habit of fishing, you will take every opportunity to repeat the experience. Eventually, fishing will be a habit. I call this motivator MR1 because it's usually the best way to motivate a person to repeat behavior.
Another effective motivation to repeat new behavior is to experience enjoyment after you behave in a new way. For example, if you have a need for sexual fulfillment, and your wife agrees to make love to you whenever you help her with the dishes after dinner, chances are good that you'll get into the habit of helping with the dishes. This motivator is MR2 because it's usually less effective than MR1.
A third motivator, MR3, is punishment. If you suffer pain when you fail to repeat a behavior, you will tend to repeat that behavior until it becomes a habit. When we punish our children for failing to clean up their rooms, they will get into the habit of room-cleaning if the punishment is far worse than the pain they experience making their bed and putting their clothes away. I call this MR3 because it's usually less effective than either MR1 or MR2. Those of us who tried to use punishment to motivate our children to keep their rooms picked up can attest to punishment's limited usefulness as a motivator.
Rules That Create Romantic Love
As a counselor helping couples create romantic love, I try to use MR1 and MR2, and avoid MR3, whenever possible. And rules help me do it.
The Policy of Joint Agreement -- never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse -- helps spouses work together to try to make new behavior enjoyable (MR1). This policy rules out MR3 because punishment would never be agreed to enthusiastically. In the case of affection, for example, I encourage the spouse trying to meet that need to discover the most enjoyable ways to do it. If he enjoys practicing affectionate behavior, he'll develop the habit of being an affectionate husband in no time.
The Policy of Undivided Attention is a rule that helps create MR2. Give your spouse your undivided attention a minimum of fifteen hours each week, using the time to meet the emotional needs of affection, sexual fulfillment, intimate conversation, and recreational companionship. By meeting all four emotional needs, the effort of one spouse is rewarded by having their own needs met. That's why I encourage couples to spend 15 hours together each week: It takes that long to meet all four emotional needs adequately.
If a rule to guide habit formation doesn't address motivational issues, it won't work. But when it requires couples to implement the most powerful motivators available, it always works. All you need to know to create a very successful and romantic relationship is these two rules, the POJA and the POUA. When you follow them, your marriage will be everything you could have ever dreamed it would be.
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