Creating a great relationship is all about creating great relationship habits: getting into the habit of thinking of the other person’s needs; getting into the habit of really listening and being present when your partner says something; or getting into the habit of thinking of one thing you’re grateful for each day about your partner. 

Creating a great relationship is also about breaking bad habits maybe of nagging, criticizing or judging. 

The good news is that the method for changing relationship habits is the same as for changing other habits, and there’s a lot of research on how to do that. So, whether you’re here today to change your relationship, your eating or fitness or some other part of your life that’s not working, this information will help you get there!

How Long Does it Take to Change a Habit?

There’s been A LOT written and said about how long it takes to change a habit. I’ve heard everything from 13 consecutive days to six months. Why all the confusion? It’s because some “fact” gets stated in an article or blog and everyone jumps on it without really checking the origin and then we get lots of conflicting information.

The good news is that there really has been research in this area and we really do know how long it takes to change a habit. Some of the best research comes from Phillippa Lally at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team outline their investigation about just how long it actually takes to form a habit.

What they found is that it takes, on average, 66 days to make a new habit. Since this is an average, I tell people to give themselves three months to change a habit. 

What is a Habit Anyway? 

Your brain is always looking for the easiest ways of doing things so it can conserve energy. Basically, this efficiency is what you call a habit. Research shows that as many as 40% of our daily actions are based on habits, not conscious decisions.

In his book, The Power of Habits, author Charles Duhig describes habits as a three-part sequence:

    1. The External cue: something that happens in your environment (you walk in your house after a long day at work)
    2. A Routine: this is what you usually do when this particular cue presents itself (you go right to the kitchen and root around for something unhealthy to snack on or pour yourself a martini)
    3. A Reward: a feeling of success or of something you need (whew – now I can really relax)

It’s hard to kick a habit because they’re super resilient. They’re stored in the basal ganglia, a part of our brain for learning and maintaining habits. Even if your brain is injured or not functioning normally, this part of your brain will still work! 

Habits were created to help us survive. You’re reading this right now because your ancestors were excellent at maintaining habits. 

Kicking a habit is hard because you develop a craving for the reward at the end of that habit loop. The craving is what makes the habit stick! Once you become used to a cue-routine-reward habit, your brain anticipates the reward even before you get it. If you deny the reward, you probably get frustrated and grumpy. Sound familiar?

When I say “craving” here, I’m not just talking about food, sex or drugs. Craving is an intense, urgent or powerful feeling for doing, saying or having something. So, if your partner forgets to pick up after himself or asks you for the fifth time to take out the garbage, you might find yourself having an immediate, urgent desire to lash out or to make them feel as bad as you feel about something. This is really a habit loop. It’s something that’s been reinforced over time. 

I don’t think if your partner had asked you on your second date to turn off the lights on the way out of the house that you would have shouted, “I’ve got it! You don’t need to remind me about everything!” No, you wouldn’t have thought much of it. It’s the repetition that creates the issue (your partner asking this every day for the last four years), as with most things we “crave.” 

So, changing relationship habits is like changing other habits.

There are two crucial keys to changing habits:

  1. You need to substitute the routine for something else. You respond to the craving, but you substitute something healthy. So, you’re not resisting the craving, you’re just redirecting it. The cues and rewards stay the same.
  2. You need to believe in the change. You’ve got to believe in the possibility of change for yourself; this makes you stronger when stressful stuff comes up.

The mistake most people make is that they try to change the cue or the reward instead of the routine. 

Real Life Example:

Here’s an example from a couple I worked with: Morning times are super tense in the Smith household. They’ve got two kids, aged 12 and 14, and getting everyone to work and school each morning creates a ton of tension. There was almost always fighting, nagging or yelling. By the time both adults got to work, they were already feeling frustrated and annoyed. They kept trying to bribe the kids to get up on their own with promises of increased allowance or threatening to punish them. The couple were both sleeping as late as possible, as so many of my clients do in the morning, so they could get in needed sleep before dealing with their day. 

The issue was them trying to do something different with the reward. The kids weren’t biting. Once I taught them this system, they decided to look at their routine. Now, there are LOTS of places to deal with the routine here. We tried a few things and what ultimately worked was both parents waking up just 15 minutes earlier. This gave them time to get themselves together completely before waking their boys. They also started waking the boys five minutes earlier than needed. Then, each parent took a kid and just sat on the bed with them for a few minutes, rubbing their back a little (teens are way more amenable to some snuggling and touching when they’re tired), speaking to them some and just gently being there. No yelling threats from the kitchen to get out of bed, no bribes offered. They just sat with them and cajoled them until they actually got out of bed. By the way, they also changed some of their routines at night so that the mornings could be easier (such as checking that backpacks were totally ready to go and any athletic gear or other needs was found at night instead of a mad dash in the morning). 

They saw such improvement that they eventually moved their wake-up time to 30 minutes earlier and sometimes even had sex in the morning (now there’s a way to start the day in a good mood)! They also noticed that the boys were in much better moods in the morning, almost immediately, as all the tension and crazy rushing was gone 

This is not to say that mornings were perfect and there was never a last minute homework assignment forgotten or cleats left at home. But, overall, the mornings became completely different experiences and the rewards actually became better. 

There’s a last area I want to talk about to help you create new healthy relationship habits. It’s all about using Action Triggers to help make new habit creation easier. 

Action Triggers

Dr. Peter Gollwitzer of NYU is a pioneer in action triggers. Basically, action triggers can be broken down into “If this… Then that….” So, you would say to yourself, “Today, after I finish my 11:00 meeting, I’m going to go to the gym.” Gollwitzer says, “You’ve made the decision to execute a certain action (working out) when you encounter a certain situational trigger (completing you 11:00 meeting).  By preloading the decision, we conserve our allotment of willpower or self-control.” Action triggers help protect goals and new habits from distractions and competing (aka: bad) behaviors. 

The key is that your action triggers need to be specific enough and visible enough to interrupt your normal thinking.

You can see how truly powerful action triggers are when you look at all the unhealthy habits you’ve created with action triggers. I remember when I quit smoking, I also had to quit drinking coffee because the two just went together in my head.  

You’ve probably got your own: maybe you only smoke cigarettes when you drink or go straight to the refrigerator whenever they walk in the house after work. Action triggers basically create instant habits, which turn into behavioral autopilot, for better or for worse.  

Action triggers can be incredibly successful in helping you reach your goals, especially when you’re trying to tackle a really hard one. Gollwitzer’s research shows that with easy goals, using action triggers only slightly increased success, from 78 to 84 percent.  But with difficult goals, action triggers almost tripled the chance of success, with goal completion jumping from 22 to 62 percent!

Even better than that, a meta study analyzing over 8000 individuals across 85 studies found that those who set action triggers did better than 74% of people on the same task who didn’t set one.

Start to think about what action triggers you can put into your relationship for positive results. What two things could you consciously and consistently put together?

Some examples from my clients are:

  • Set an intention before I walk in the house, every day
  • After I drop off the kids at school, I go right to the gym
  • When I walk in the house I go straight to my partner and greet them before I do anything else
  • When I’m brushing my teeth I look in the mirror and tell myself all the things I’m grateful for about my partner
  • When my alarm goes off, I get up, put my feet on the floor and set intention for the day before I get out of bed
  • I drive to work, sit in my car, and meditate for five minutes before going into work 
  • Anytime I eat anything, I pray first
  • My wife and I have “happy half-hour” every weekday from 5:30-6:00. We sit on our balcony and have a drink together or some special snack and just hang out and bond for a little while. The kids know it’s sacred and don’t bother us.

The bottom line is this: you’re absolutely going to form relationship habits; the key is to create them intentionally so they help you build a connected and happy relationship.