When my marriage to my late husband Jim was in jeopardy, at some level I knew that my sarcastic put-downs and yelling were not helping resolve our conflict. But it wasn’t until a great coach began to teach us some basic communication and anger management skills that I saw hope for the future.
Even then, it was like pulling teeth to make myself turn a sarcastic put-down into an “I statement,” (I think, I feel, I’m concerned about…) When my anger was triggered, it required massive self-control to call a “time out” on myself and go vent in my journal or pull weeds until I calmed down and could speak to Jim respectfully.
Now that I had learned better communication skills, why was it such a struggle to use them? Especially when I could immediately notice more receptivity in Jim to hear my message when “I messages” were used instead of yelling at him?
Because a two-year-old lives inside me that just wants to do it her way and the consequences be d**med! My two-year-old thought Jim should just overlook the delivery method (sarcasm, yelling) and understand the superiority of my opinion about how to resolve our issues!
Blaming him for not “getting it” and expecting him to agree with my position is so much more satisfying to a two-year-old! Two-year-olds just want their own way! And will do almost anything to mold the world to suit their desires. I had to strengthen the adult me who understood that I needed to change in order for the marriage to improve. It was like strengthening a weak muscle by repetition.
(Please understand that I was a responsible grownup in other areas. This just happened to be a very immature, undeveloped part of me that was wonderfully exposed by conflict in our marriage!)
I’ve noticed that whenever I begin a big change, my two-year-old is activated. I’ve been carrying some extra weight around for a long time. It’s affecting my knees and energy level and ultimately limiting my quality and perhaps length of life. So recently I thought, “OK, I’m ready to take action to lose the weight.” When a few days go by and I’ve only dropped a pound or two, my two-year-old wants to quit. She’s disappointed that the excess weight isn’t just magically melting off! I decided didn’t I? Why isn’t that enough?
And my two-year-old doesn’t like giving up or limiting anything I love…like sweets. What do I mean that I must do something else to soothe myself other than eating more cookies! Why can’t I indulge in all the carrot cake I want? Bummer. In this example regaining a healthy weight requires the sacrifice of eating everything I want in any quantity.
Two-year-olds aren’t good at follow through or sacrifice. I’ve discovered that the “follow through” part of change is most likely to be engaged when I am in enough pain to take control away from the two-year-old! KNOWING I need to change is not enough. I must be ready to COMMIT to changed behaviors!
It’s helpful at this point to understand the nature of habit in the brain. The brain is designed to LOVE habits, nurture habits, and maintain habits. Habits mean that I don’t have to relearn daily tasks like brushing my teeth, or tying my shoe laces, or safely boiling water. Habits make efficient use of my energy. Most tasks can be on auto pilot so I have energy to deal with my job, or learn new skills.
The problem comes when I want to change a habit…such as using “I messages” rather than sarcasm. Or doing deep breathing to calm myself down rather than eating a handful of chocolate chip cookies.
Each habit creates a particular pattern of firing neurons that, the longer the habit has been operating, attracts a rich supply of blood. This is like a well-worn path through the forest. Very clear and obvious.
When I want to replace an old habit with a new one, it’s like hacking my way through the forest with a machete. It is purposeful. It requires energy, conscious effort and strong commitment to making a new path through the brain. It can be tiring. It’s so easy to slide back into the old habit, the old path through the brain, to do what I’ve done for so long.
So the commitment to change…to the new habit…has to be chosen over and over again.
UNTIL, the new habit has been practiced long enough that the blood supply moves from the old pattern of firing neurons to the new pattern! THEN the new behavior has truly become a habit. There’s no guarantee that you’ll never resort to sarcasm or eating too many cookies again, but when you do, it will feel uncomfortable. You’ll be eager to resume the new habit and reap the rewards of the new consequences!
That happened in our marriage. For three to four months it took so much effort to make all my communication respectful. It felt like I was wearing a communication straight-jacket! Before opening my mouth I had to ask myself: “How can I respectfully say what I need to say? What is my tone of voice? How loud will it sound to Jim? Do I need a time out?”
But then it got easier…and easier. Finally, it became actually hard to think of sarcastic put-downs!
To Jim’s credit, he was making the same kinds of changes. The fighting stopped. On the rare occasions when we had an upset, we engaged our great skills immediately and resolved the problem within a few minutes.
We enjoyed seventeen years of blissful, disrespect-free years of loving marriage before he passed away. I am deeply grateful for the hard work I did to exchange some very poor communication habits for habits that served my goal of a happy, loving marriage.
I’m looking forward to the time when the changes I’m making in my food choices have become new habits that give me the quality of physicality that I desire! I know it’s coming. My two-year-old is no longer in control of food choices…at least, not all of the time!
If you’d like a brief phone conversation with Nancy, click here: https://meetme.so/SpeakWithNancy
Nancy Landrum has been helping couples achieve the lasting, loving marriage of their dreams for twenty-five years. Visit her website to see how her Millionaire Marriage Club and Stepping TwoGether: Building a Strong Stepfamily courses or her coaching can support the changes you want to make. www.NancyLandrum.com