How Habit Discontinuity Can Make Relationships Stronger
Whether you realize it or not, your life is comprised of many, many habits. Some you're probably aware of, and some you're not; some work to quietly help you meet particular goals, while others have outlived their usefulness but keep operating, throwing you off track.
Big life events like moving or starting a new job or relationship are an opportunity to declutter our habit selves, freeing them up so that we can consciously establish new, more productive habits. But a big life shift isn't necessary—even just becoming aware of how habits work in our lives is a chance to reevaluate priorities and make sure our habits are in line with our aspirations. And that can mean ditching once good habits that have lost their appeal.
Maybe you go out for drinks and dinner every Friday with friends from work. It was fun at first, a stress release you looked forward to. But lately you've noticed that the conversation circles around the same few topics. You can't bear to hear, yet again, your friend's stories about her son, or the usual complaining about office politics. You've even started ordering the same things week after week because you've tried everything else on the menu. What began as a welcome start to the weekend now feels like a duty.
Or perhaps you love watching the sunset over the lake by your house. You decide that it's a wonderful way to end each day. So you make a habit of sitting on the deck every evening to watch. But as time has worn on, that sunset has become slightly less enthralling. Eventually, your habit starts to feel constraining. Your partner has stopped joining you, and you now spend your time thinking of other things you could be doing instead. Sunset-watching has begun to feel like an obligation. Even good habits can turn into ruts.
The little-known 19th-century French philosopher Félix Ravaisson was able to put this concept into concrete terms. He called it the double law of habit. Basically it means this: Repetition strengthens our tendency to act, but it also weakens our sensation of that act. Doing something again and again means we will keep doing it but also that we will feel its effects less. In other words, we habituate.
It's a deceptively complex process, and one that has power to sap force and meaning from our lives. We tend to keep doing things long after they have lost meaning for us.
Habituation is one reason we lose interest in the material stuff we buy (thinking those things will finally make us happy). Certainly, you enjoyed sitting on your new couch the day it was delivered. And you got to show it off to your friends the next time they visited. But after that? You probably don't notice it much now. It just got folded into the rest of your evening habits. It's literally part of the furniture of your life. You plop down on it to watch TV or surf the web.
What was regrettable but acceptable with regard to your new couch (owning it quickly lost its luster) can become untenable in your relationship. It’s not OK to simply settle into your spouse’s presence.
Habituation also occurs in relationships. You regularly exchange greetings with people at work, pick your kids up from school and ask about their day, and perhaps even call or text your parents at specific times. You establish behavioral interdependencies in which other people are a cue for your action, and you, in turn, cue their response. "How was your weekend?" "Great, and yours?" or "How was school?" "Fine, Mom."
Over time, you come to think about these exchanges less and less, and they rarely offer meaningful interactions. You just do what you've always done.
Long-term marriages are marked by such stable interactions. As spouses repeatedly do the same things with each other, they start to think less about what they are doing. They get up together, eat together, and do chores for each other without putting in much thought. They don't have to wonder what their spouse will do. They just know from experience. Over time, their emotions start to wane1 as Ravaisson's double law takes hold. Spouses are likely to find that they no longer feel the passion that marked the beginning of their relationship. As actions become more automated, couples have less need to think, and their emotion subsides.
What was regrettable but acceptable with regard to your new couch (owning it quickly lost its luster) can become untenable in your relationship. It's not OK to simply settle into your spouse's presence.
In happy marriages, discontinuities can work some magic by reintroducing the romantic intimacy hidden by time. A brief physical separation is a temporary discontinuity. Maybe you travel for work or take a trip to visit parents. Brief conflicts or arguments are also examples of discontinuities, assuming they are not unresolvable. These changes spur partners to share their feelings and act in new ways. Spouses start to think about their loved one and relationship anew. This, in turn, makes them reflect on the basic motivation for their partnership—what led them into this arrangement in the first place. For most of us, that means love. Adding to this experience, couples often express additional affection for each other when reuniting or making up after a conflict—affection that is experienced all the more strongly because it is atypical.
Even those of us in happy relationships can benefit from this insight. We can create minor discontinuities with new experiences (sailing lessons? bridge? a reading group?) that spark us to do new things with our partners, share our feelings, and heighten our experience of romantic intimacy. Arguments might trigger the same dynamic, but why not skip the bad feelings and, instead, go to a cooking class together?
In unhappy marriages, however, discontinuities don't have such positive effects. Unhappy spouses habitually engage in destructive cycles that continue automatically even when they intend to do otherwise. Couples stuck in such unfulfilling relationships may recognize the damaging patterns but feel helpless to change. People also habituate to the emotions in these marriages and may not experience intense distress and heartache from seemingly toxic interactions. Perhaps you have watched couples who respond to each other with apparent spite and anger, all the while seeming to experience little of the emotion that typically goes with such exchanges. They have simply become habituated over time. Discontinuity, such as a physical separation, brief conflict, or new experience, could spin such couples in multiple directions. It could free them up to address problematic relationship patterns, or it could lead them to split up for good.
Habit discontinuity gets us out of ruts by exposing us to the underlying reality of why we do what we do. Life is a more intense experience once we're no longer on autopilot. But it's also less predictable. Our conscious self is now in charge, as we think and weigh options. Discontinuity removes old patterns in our lives and, by making us think, offers us the opportunity to best meet our current goals.
Wendy Wood, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, researcher, and Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, where she also served as Vice Dean of Social Sciences. She's devoted the last 30 years to researching how habits work and has published over 100 scientific articles.
Wood completed her graduate degree in psychology at the University of Massachusetts. She went on to be the James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. She's received numerous awards for her research and teaching, and for the past 30 years, her research has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the Templeton Foundation. A 2008 Radcliffe Institute Fellow and 2018 Distinguished Chair of Behavioral Science at the Sorbonne/INSEAD in Paris, Wendy has advised the World Bank, the Centers for Disease Control, and industries such as Proctor & Gamble and Lever Bros.
Her new book, GOOD HABITS, BAD HABITS: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick, came out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux October 1, 2019.