Is your relationship just another habit?
By The Good Men Project — Last updated on May 30, 2023
Photo: Getty Images
By Kara Post-Kennedy
Popular psychology has suggested that it takes humans an average of 66 days to make (or break) a new habit. That means if you want to take up jogging or give up smoking, you have got to consciously keep at it for more than two months before it starts to feel like second nature.
It recently occurred to me that this general time frame is similar to the fabled “90-Day Rule” — in theory, that is how long it takes for hormones to settle down so that you can make reasonable decisions about whether or not to move forward with a new relationship.
But, let’s face it: most of us, when we meet someone new who fills our stomach with butterflies and turns our knees to jelly, do not dutifully start crossing off days on the calendar to meet that standard.
We go over the cliff instead because, as the song goes, “falling feels like flying…for a little while.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to building a strong, healthy relationship, slow and steady generally speaking DOES win the race after all; it is akin to forming a healthy habit in that it takes time and diligence.
We all have literally hundreds of habitual behaviors that we give very little thought to unless they are causing us some kind of difficulty, embarrassment, or pain. A habit can be as innocuous as doing a daily crossword puzzle or as dangerous as an addiction. Most of our long-term relationships are riddled with habits — as in, we always do this or that this way or that way.
But what happens when the relationship itself becomes habitual? Do we recognize the warning signs like we would if a nightly drink became two or three? Or do we mindlessly trudge on, mistaking habit for comfort?
My parents were happily married for 50 years before my father’s death and I can honestly say that in observing them I saw not so much “habits” as “rituals.” They understood the importance of creating a sacred space for their relationship and not allowing the daily grind to interfere with that.
Whether it was their morning coffee together, a walk around the neighborhood after supper, or date night, they made these behaviors a priority because they made each other a priority.
Obviously, no marriage is perfect, but the highest compliment I can pay to my folks is that I never once saw either one of them engage in any behavior that suggested they took the other for granted, never once. In fact, as I got older and started spending more time in other homes observing other marriages, that was my biggest takeaway; so many couples seemed to lack the reverence and appreciation my parents had for each other. I remember as a kid rolling my eyes when my Dad would wax rhapsodic about how my Mom always kept the larder fully stocked, so to speak, so that we never ran out of toilet paper or light bulbs, for example.
No, really. He did that. Unbelievable, I know.
But now that I have been married close to 19 years myself I understand what a powerful reinforcement that must have been for my mother. It was one of the many ways he told her “I see you. I see all you do for us and I appreciate every single thing.” For something to become a habit, it has to be mindless behavior; my parents were never mindless with each other, not even about toilet paper.
To me, that is love. Never mindless, always appreciating. Always present.
The advent of social media combined with what tend to be over-stuffed, over-obligated schedules has made it admittedly more difficult to meet such a standard for most of us. Life is so much more distracting than it used to be, and modern-day parenting now legally requires a hyper-vigilance people of my folks’ generation fell grossly short of (we raised ourselves in the wild by comparison to kids today).
We are all on the run so much of the time that at the end of the day, we often find ourselves mindlessly (habitually) scrolling through our Facebook feed instead of taking an after-dinner stroll around the block to catch up on the day, as my parents once did.
Our attention spans have grown measurably shorter since the advent of the smartphone and the national average length of marriages in the U.S. is 8.2 years (although our divorce rate is 41% rather than the mythic 50%).
Is it any wonder we are not taking the time to build the slow-and-steady relationships that are in it for the long haul? Are we really shocked to know that statistics indicate infidelity touches 1 in 5 marriages at some point?
When our relationships become habitual, they are mindless. We all have friendships like that — people we have known forever that we would most likely NOT choose to be friends with if we met today. But like an old pair of stained sweatpants, we can’t quite bear to part with, we keep them around.
Of course, for the most part, these are not people we live with or even see every day; they are part of the larger mosaic of our lives and remind us of how far we have come.
But what if the relationship I just described is your marriage? Are you staying with your spouse out of habit or out of a genuine desire to be together? Is your partner the person who inspires you to be more and go for it, or are they that sad old pair of stained sweatpants that signals to the world, “I have just given up”?
If that question makes you feel defensive in the least, I’m pretty sure the answer is door number two.
Look, very few of us are going to be climbing Mount Everest anytime soon, but if your relationship with your husband or wife no longer motivates or inspires you, you have to consider that it may have just become a habit.
And even habits that are not in our best interests (smoking for example) bring us comfort on some level — otherwise, we would be more motivated to break them. But again, looking at that larger mosaic of our lives, do we really want what is theoretically the most important relationship in our life to be on autopilot?
So if it takes 66 days to form (or break) a new habit, that could be the challenge you take on in making your relationship more mindful and present.
Can you commit to 66 days of walks around the neighborhood instead of FB after dinner?
Can you commit to 66 days of being grateful for the little things (like fully stocked toilet paper)?
Can you commit to 66 days of making your spouse your priority?
If not, then not only is your relationship just a habit, it’s a bad one at that.
So can you commit yourself to 66 days apart to see if you can’t live without those stained sweatpants after all? We all have many different kinds of relationships in our life, but we only get one life as far as we know; let’s try not to spend it mindlessly.
More for You:
Zodiac Signs That Are Terrible At Relationships (And Why)20 Little Things Women Do That Guys *Secretly* LoveThe Perfect Age To Get Married, According To Science5 Little Ways Men Wish They Could Be Loved — Every Single Day
Kara Post-Kennedy is an executive editor and columnist at The Good Men Project, and a blogger at Your New Best Friend.