The hug system of habit breaking and forming

Abby and I came up with a very useful way of dealing with a type of conflict in marriage that seems pretty common: that of one person being annoyed by the other’s bad habit, and repeatedly, because the other person after being criticized promises to change but doesn’t.

The reason for the failure to change is not necessarily malice, of course. Just taking myself as an example, I reflected on which changes I have made during marriage and which I have not, and tried to understand why I might “forget” one thing and not another.

It turned out that the answer was usually surprisingly simple, and must reflect on human nature in general. When there is something annoying I do and Abby just goes relentlessly negative on me, I am less likely to actually correct my behavior, even if I grudgingly acknowledge that I should change it. But if she told me in a loving way, I was more likely to catch myself in the future in the relevant situation, and either do what she wanted or not do what she did not want me to do!

All I have said here also applies to the exact opposite situation when Abby annoys me and I harp on her. The more vocal I am, the more insistent, the less effective.

In retrospect, this was just as true when I was a child also. I suppose we all still have a little child inside of us.

One part of the solution

There is no silver bullet for “making people change”, but the thing is to have them want to change and make it easy, rather than demand it. We are human, not robots.

It turns out that when I get a hug, at the same time as when being told gently of something that I should do, I am more likely to remember the task, and associate it with something positive, and actually do it. It seems that when I am yelled at, the effect is to actually associate the task with a negative memory and block it out of my consciousness.

Again, you could say, this is crazy childish behavior, that “adults” should just take responsibility and do the right thing. That’s why Abby used to say and I used to say. It leads to an escalating arms race of “I’m better than you”.

The “hug system” seems to work a lot better for us, we found out to our surprise. If it works with human nature and the other way doesn’t, then theories about how we “should” know how to behave kind of don’t matter. Results matter.

I wish I had known about this earlier. Unfortunately, the authoritarian way in which I was raised led me to internalize the psychologically dubious assumption that tone doesn’t matter; reasoning and truth and right matter, and it is the purely the job of the offender to do all the work. I now totally disagree with that. Tone matters, whether or not you believe it should.

The toilet seats are always down now at home, as well as a large number of other little things I now remember to do that I mysteriously did not before. Maybe in theory I should have been able to get this all working no matter whether I was getting yelled at or not. Maybe I’m a weak, irrational husband, a sad excuse of a human being. Or maybe imperfection only needs a little bit of help to do a lot better.

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