Taking the Wheel Vs. Destroying Our Marriages on Autopilot

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The word ‘habits’—at least for me—conjures images of working out or smoking or biting my fingernails.

People talk about developing good study habits or good work habits as a means of succeeding in school or in their career pursuits.

I never thought about habits as having any bearing on my marriage or any of my interpersonal relationships.

But is has occurred to me recently—as I continue to work on myself, and as I continue to work with people trying to rebuild trust in their relationships and communicate more effectively with their partners—that habits more or less affect everything that I do. Everything that all of us do.

The word ‘habits’ isn’t reserved for the things I think about whenever I read or hear it being used.

Habits are simply everything that we do on autopilot.

Tying our shoes. Getting in and out of our vehicles. The way we squeeze toothpaste and brush our teeth.

We don’t notice our habits because they’re all of the things that happen while we’re not paying attention. They don’t require our focus or intentionality. They don’t require any extra-effort. They just happen.

“A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic,” writes author James Clear, in Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

Newsflash: If you’re in a relationship strained by conflict, mistrust, and what you perceive to be a lot of miscommunication or misunderstandings, then it’s a pretty safe bet that your habitual thoughts and actions—the ones you never think about or even notice—are the thoughts and actions fueling the relationship dysfunction.

The alternative is to believe that the two of you are intentionally sabotaging one another and the relationship.

And if you believe that either you or your partner is mindfully trying to destroy your relationship or cause suffering, then I’ll sleep okay at night encouraging you to GTFO ASAP.

Maybe Thinking About Habits Can Help Us Show Up More Effectively in Our Relationships

I love the way Clear explains habits, and I love the way he breaks down simply the science of behavior change—the science of turning behavior that we DO have to concentrate on and grind through into autopilot actions that we do without having to think about them.

What if we can identify beliefs and quick-trigger reactions we are having on autopilot that are harming our relationships, and what if we can replace them with new autopilot behaviors that actually do some good?

One of those habits, which helped destroy my marriage, and which is currently destroying others is a nasty little habit that seems particularly difficult for people to get a grip on, and that’s because it’s NOT a ‘bad’ habit in the vast majority of our human relationships. This isn’t a behavior that universally damages human relationships. It’s simply a behavior that commonly damages long-term monogamous relationships.

And that habit is:

When our partner shares their feelings with us, instead of responding in a way that acknowledges and respects their stated emotional experience, we dedicate our focus to evaluating whether we believe they SHOULD feel that way.

This is not a specifically male trait, but in my experience it most commonly shows up with the guys in heterosexual relationships, just as it did in mine.

Most guys admit to me that they don’t respond to their wife or girlfriend’s expressed feelings, but instead invest their energy in one of three invalidating ways that pretty much always destroy relationships:

  1. They dispute the facts of the story their partner just told, thus their partner’s feelings are invalid.
  2. They agree with the facts of the story, but believe their partner is overreacting or being too sensitive about it. Her feelings are wrong. Thus, invalid.
  3. If the thing that upset his partner was the result of something she says that he did, he defends his actions by explaining why he did it. He justifies what happened because he had good reason to do it, he says. Thus, his partner’s feelings are invalid.

No matter what, his partner’s feelings aren’t important. They never win. They never are treated with value or respect. They’re never factors for him in what he does next.

And THAT will end your relationship after it happens enough times.

But in our friendships and professional relationships no one else complains about us doing this.

So when we are called out for lack of respect or care from our significant other, we treat them as if they are the ones with the problem.

“Literally zero other people have a problem with who I am. Just you. Just the person I love and to whom I committed the rest of my life. Would you PLEASE chill the F out? You’d be doing us both a favor.”

I want people to notice themselves doing this.

I want people to notice how instead of someone we love saying “I’m hurt,” and then us reacting with the requisite amount of love, concern, and support one might expect when someone is injured or grieving or otherwise suffering, we instead prioritize EVALUATING whether their emotional response is, in our opinion, appropriate.

People get divorced.

People lose grandparents.

People’s pets die.

Maybe we show up for others when those things happen to them. Maybe we don’t.

People stress about an upcoming test at school or a pending job interview.

People feel hurt because they perceive their in-laws to mistreat them at family gatherings.

People are afraid of being diagnosed with an illness or disease.

Maybe we show up for others when those things happen to them. Maybe we don’t.

Who are you? Who am I?

In many ways, we’re the sum of our habits.

“Your identity emerges out of your habits,” Clear writes. “Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

It’s not so much about what we do as it is about who we are. Though, what we do defines who we are. And who we are will influence what we do.

We are good spouses—loving and supportive partners—when we behave as loving and supportive spouses do.

Each time we show up in a way that communicates: You matter. I love you. You, and our marriage, matter more than my opinions or my comfort at any given time, and now my actions demonstrate that I believe that… we are voting for the kind of person we want to be.

When we repeat the process of being the kind of person we want to be enough times, a ‘habit’ forms.

On autopilot, we are showing up for the people we love.

And then it’s no longer about trying to change or about trying to be someone or something we don’t currently believe that we are.

A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.

“The real reasons habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that),” Clear says, “but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.”

9 thoughts on “Taking the Wheel Vs. Destroying Our Marriages on Autopilot”

  1. I can totally relate to this one! I do marriage coaching and found that our old marriage was filled with dysfunctional habits. It took us a long time to rewire our habits.

  2. This article is so right on in describing one of the factors that broke up our 19 year old marriage. We were together for 23 years. We are currently separated (6 months) and in a divorcing mode.

    I created great anxiety and pain for her by treating her differently than my friends. I was completely un aware that I was doing this. Your writing this piece made me realize that I had used each one of the three invalidating methods over the years to more or less negate her feelings. I think it made her feel like I really didn’t care. My lack of commitment to her feelings made her feel unloved. My inability to treat her as I would my best friend made her feel disrespected. Over the course of many years and many instances I think I made her think she was the problem. Even though I loved her dearly I was blind to how I was hurting her.

    Husbands get in the habit of truly listening to your wife when she reaches out to you. Treat her feelings with more compassion and commitment than you would your best friends. Change before it’s too late.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Bob. Seriously.

      Thank you for sharing this.

      This is my story, exactly. I was so busy blindly filtering my wife’s emotions through my own biases and opinions, that I never actually addressed the bad things she was feeling.

      I was always focused on why she shouldn’t feel that way.

      Such a little thing.

      Yet, after hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, a person will stop wanting to share a life with you when you do that.

      I wasn’t trying to tell my wife that her feelings didn’t matter. But I understand today how my actions communicated otherwise.

  3. Thank you for your honest approach to marriage and relationships in general. I spent almost 10 years working on myself in the hopes of saving my marriage. When I discovered this site a little more than a year ago, I was hopeful that it could be the tool to bring my husband and I together again. He never believed in counseling and he never read anything I recommended. I thought your blog would be well received because it describes our relationship so perfectly and I was hoping he would see us in your writing. Sadly I don’t think he ever read it. So, after 20 years of marriage we are splitting up. It took me so long to realize that it was never going to work unless we were both in. I’m sad that my marriage is ending because I didn’t really want that but I was left with no other choice. However, I am thankful for finding this site and realizing that my feelings are important and it’s not unreasonable to expect them to be important to those around me. So, thank you.

    1. I’m so sorry this is happening to you, your family, and your friends.

      Yes. Your health — of which your feelings are a significant component — are worthy of love and respect. Thank you for treating them as such. I hope he understands some day.

      People who don’t understand what they could have done differently are doomed to repeat those behaviors. I wish that on no one.

      Thank you for bravely sharing your sad news. Please take care of yourself during this stressful transition.

      1. “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” -Carl Jung
        My favorite of his quotes, although it’s hard to pick, he has so many gems!

  4. So Incredibly Sad

    ? my husband of 25 years has destroyed our marriage. Even now as I showed him this blog he refuses to see the damage. No understanding, no empathy. Is is stubbornness, defiance, immaturity?. I feel I have put in 200% towards our marriage; yet he still demonstrates his mean ways towards just me. Yes he is a nice guy. People love him. He’s sweet and kind….& Oh so kind and generous….TO THOSE HE WANTS TO. From the outside people will be gobsmacked when we part ways. Why is he so mean? I look after him, love him, care for him. Love our family our home. I have supported him through every decision weather I agree or not. I have moved interstate for him. Everyday I find different ways that I think will help us and “make” him respect and value me. YET here I am writing in this fucking blog (albeit a really good one). Your words in this blog are written as if I was married to you. It’s exact except swap the video games and sport for work and reading! My marriage & my family has always been my priority. Maybe I have been doing it wrong all these years and given too much. Accepted too much. Accepted to many apologies. Now what?

    1. It sounds as though you’ve given WAYYY too much and have been “efforting” to make your husband respect you. It’s not always easy to change your habit, but now YOU are no 1. Make your self care your priority, whether you’re married or not.

  5. Pingback: The Two Reoccurring Moments That Destroy Trust in Relationships | Must Be This Tall To Ride

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Matt Fray

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