“I spend ten minutes wiping down the counters then BAM he puts a dirty fork or a knife with peanut butter down right in the middle. It’s hopeless so I don’t bother mentioning it anymore.”
Having counselled many couples I have heard many situations like this where one partner feels that the issue is so small that’s it’s not even worth discussing and the other partner feels ‘well if it’s no big deal why not make an effort and change?!’
While it is always possible to take either of those routes: apathy or placating, I want to suggest a third path and that is of empathy and love.
When you can understand the complaint and the impact it has on your significant other, co-worker or friend, this becomes an opportunity for deeper connection, respect and love rather than a point of contention and conflict.
When my wife and I first moved into our new home, I was leaving the house with several lights left on. I am vulnerable to forgetfulness because I am often lost in the haze of ideas and daydreams. Details are oftentimes my Achilles heel. In my preoccupation with projects, clients and ideas, details of my environment get lost.
When I was a kid I routinely lost my keys, wallet, and textbooks. I remember people getting angry with me which trained me to use fear to remember. Unfortunately, my anxieties would only appear the moment that I had forgotten! Fear did not serve me well and I don’t believe it is a helpful tactic for others since it is a reactive emotion and doesn’t encourage problem solving or proactive thinking.
Whether you are a parent wanting to help your child remember to bring his lunch or a spouse who wants their partner to stop leaving utensils out in the middle of counters, I want to suggest that instead of fear, you try using your sense of empathy to connect with the needs of the other person as well as the needs of yourself and the environment. Considering these three elements in a thoughtful way can bring about positive habit change pretty quickly because every effort to change becomes a positive moment, an expression of love and care.
In the example where I was forgetting to turn the light off, my wife’s initial reaction was to get really upset. This upset me and I could feel the fight or flight part of me tempting me to be dismissive and potentially getting locked into an unproductive argument.
I understood for myself that the house was new to me and I was still learning where the light switches were on the walls. I took a moment to reflect on how and why this was so upsetting to my wife. We were first time homeowners and now with a giant mortgage hanging over our heads, every penny counts. The part of my wife that got upset is a deeply caretaking and protective part which I truly value and respect. Seeing the light left on brought on feelings of fear and perhaps shame about wasting money. A lesson she would have learned from her parents who worked really hard to purchase their first home.
It is important that when you’re using empathy to change or add new habits that you don’t get stuck at the level of intellectual reasoning, but that you genuinely try to understand the internal feelings of the other person. By letting myself know the feeling of upset and fear that my wife had in my guts and from a place of empathy, I was much more motivated to take action.
For me, I could understand my wife’s distress about the light. She has a strong yearning to be a good provider. She’s attuned to detail in a way that I am not so when I let myself experience what seeing the light means to her, I realize the pain or stress (however small) it causes her which then causes me pain because I care deeply for her. Combined with my own desire to save money and not miss a mortgage payment I’ve created enough fuel to make sure I don’t forget to turn off any light in the house!
I let my wife know that getting mad and reacting was not going to be helpful to me and that I was going to work on remembering though it may take some time to perfect. She did her part and managed her anger when I forget and acknowledged me when I remembered. I know I needed the acknowledgement so whenever I remembered I gave myself that appreciation as well. From time to time, I checked in with her to see if she’s noticed the change and she appreciated it greatly. Actively seeking out acknowledgement and praise is important because remembering to turn off the light is an absence of an event and can easily be overlooked. This is where couples get into fights about not noticing the effort that is made and only noticing the ‘bad’ stuff.
In just a couple of weeks we transformed a stressful situation into an opportunity to love each other. This deepened our ability to recognize each others needs and adapt to each other and ultimately deepen our bond and the harmony we aim to create in our home.
I am happy to report that I’ve mastered ‘turning out the light’ and now little exchanges of “I noticed you turned off the light’ or ‘Did you notice how good I am at that now?’ are cute little tongue in cheek moments that feel like warm hugs between us.
Taking action and moving beyond just merely understanding is the hardest part of this process. I realize this sounds like a lot of work but taking the time to create a new habit will save us thousands of upsetting interactions over the course of a lifetime not to mention the dollars saved from the hydro bill. These interactions build confidence and trust in our ability to handle future problems like this. I know we have the ability to become aware of problems, discuss them openly from both sides, empathize with each other, take action, and acknowledge and appreciate each other for the change.
Instead of being a painful or annoying thing, turning off the lights has become a powerful act of love.
What’s your experience of habit change particularly as it relates to things other people need you to do? Were the ideas in this article helpful? Let us know!
“Let there not be light.”