What’s a habit? It’s something you do regularly, something that becomes, after a while, almost unconscious.
Think about some of the habits you already have:
for example, your morning routine. You get out of bed and proceed through
a series of mindless tasks: make your bed, use the bathroom, brush your teeth,
take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast. These are habits you learned, many
of them when you were a child, some of them later in life. By sheer practice,
they’ve become automatic. They help get your day off to the right start.
It’s quite possible as well that you’ve got some bad habits. For instance,
maybe you check your e-mails first thing in the morning rather than take a
moment to center yourself. Or perhaps you eat a pastry every morning rather
than a nutritious breakfast.
The habits for a healthy, happy marriage aren’t fundamentally different from
other kinds of habits. They’ve got to be learned and practiced. Sometimes, in
doing that, you’ve got to break bad habits that are injuring your relationship.
A Foundation of Healthy Habits
Habits—whether healthy or otherwise—create neural pathways or “grooves”
in your brain. You want a brain grooved for emotional safety, compassion,
and joyful connection. Repetitive healthy habits are the way to get this. Love
might be the reason you got married, but a brain wired for intimacy is what
will sustain your marriage over the long haul.
Can small moments of daily intimacy really make that much of a difference? Yes!
While traditionally recommended intimacy activities—such
as weekends away, vacations, weekly sex, and hobbies together—are good for
the health of your relationship, they are not enough. Without healthy habits
practiced every single day, your relationship will suffer.
3 Sample Habits
Prompt: When you’re at work, during a coffee break
Habit: Look at a photograph of your beloved (on your desk, on your computer, on
your phone, in your wallet). As you look at the picture, place your right hand over your
heart and breathe deeply. Notice the details and recall the circumstances involved
in the photograph: the event, the sweater, the mood, the weather. Remember the
love that you have for this special person. Hold this loving feeling in your heart for
up to twenty seconds, letting the feeling expand within you.
Purpose: When you intentionally summon a positive feeling into your awareness
and then heighten and expand that feeling, you begin to create new neural
pathways in the brain. Research shows that heightening a feeling for twenty or
more seconds turns explicit memory (the recollection of an event) into implicit
memory (a felt sense rooted in brain structure).
Prompt: When you reunite at the end of the day
Habit: Greet each other with enthusiasm. Be excited and grateful that your beloved
has come home. Stop what you’re doing, engage in a full body hug (stomach to
stomach), and hold the pose for twenty or more seconds. Feel your bodies relax
into each other and say, “I’m so glad you’re home.” (Feel free to use whatever
words and phrases best express your love.) If you’re the one coming home, go up
to your spouse, engage in the extended hug and say, “I’m so glad to be home.”
Purpose: This reunion hug will feel unusually long at first. However, it takes twenty
seconds to stimulate the flow of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When you activate
the release of this hormone, you start to feel closer and more connected right
Thanks for the Memories
Prompt: When you’re getting ready for bed
Habit: Mentally review your day and then thank your beloved for some action,
word, or experience. If you’re getting ready together, tell her or him in that moment.
If you’re the first to bed, tell your partner before you retire, along with a goodnight
kiss. If you’re the last to bed, write it down for your spouse to find in the morning.
Purpose: We all have a negativity bias. This means that we naturally tend to
notice what’s going wrong in our world. This was selectively advantageous for
much of human history. Our ability to scan for problems allowed us to avoid mortal
danger—say, saber-toothed tigers lurking outside our cave—and thus pass on our
genes. Our anxious ancestors avoided the tigers, whereas the blissed out navelgazers
became lunch, thus leaving no descendants!
We may be wired to survive but that doesn’t mean we’re wired to be happy. While developing a habit of appreciation might not have kept you alive on the plains of prehistoric Africa, today it will make you more happily coupled.
Habitually demonstrating gratitude for your mate’s recent behavior does
several things. First, your partner feels appreciated. And when your partner feels
appreciated, he or she opens up to love and warmth. Second, as you focus on
what in your world is going well, you begin to see more and more circumstances,
actions, and sweet moments for which to be grateful.
Dealing with life’s challenges is largely a matter of where you direct your
attention. When you shine a flashlight on problems, often you will see more
problems. But when you shine the flashlight on all the things you appreciate about
your partner, you increase your own satisfaction with the relationship.
Gratitude is habit forming.
Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in couples therapy, grief counseling, and trauma recovery. She has written six self-help books including “75 Habits for a Happy Marriage.” Ashley felt a calling early on in her life to help people live richer, deeper, more fulfilled lives. Her work for the past 25 years –both as a therapist and as a writer – is designed to inspire others toward whole-hearted living. Read more about Ashley on her website.