In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg (2012) describes how habits, or patterns of automatic behaviour, are created. A three step loop begins with a cue, a trigger telling the brain to go into automatic mode and also which pattern to use. Second, a routine (physical, mental, or emotional) is created. The third step is a reward—the payoff which helps the brain decide that the loop is worth remembering for the future. Cue, routine, and reward become automatic. The process of repetitive behaviour becoming automatic routine is called “chunking,” and allows us to perform activities efficiently. Chunking allows us to brush our teeth without having to learn how to do it again each time. When a habit emerges, the brain stops working so hard; in effect, we stop fully participating in decision making. The area of the brain responsible for turning repetitive behaviours into habits is the basal ganglia. It cannot distinguish between good habits and bad ones; it simply shifts us into an automatic behaviour pattern in order to save energy. The brain powers down and lets the habit take control, kind of like a computer when the screen saver goes on—we cannot see what the computer is doing but is still working, with less energy expended.

Once you learn the habit loop, it becomes easier to change. Change requires using the same cue and reward (these cannot be changed) but a different routine. The key is to pick the right pattern to change, the keystone habit (Duhigg), a specific pattern which, when changed, transforms other habits. Motivation to change is also an essential element. This is linked to an emotional charge which breaks the hold of the automatic pattern. In my counselling practice, I find that awareness or mindfulness helps set the stage for change. In the moment, when a cue occurs, however, emotions overpower reasoning and it takes the involvement of a stronger emotion to effect change. Duhigg relates the story of a smoker who tried to light a pen in the dark and realized what she was doing—creating an emotional reaction strong enough to become aware of her automatic pattern. She then began to replace the routine of smoking with other routines, like exercise and healthy eating, getting similar reward.

In psychotherapy, the emotional moment is often a powerful “aha” awareness, an experiential knowledge that things can be done differently. In couples counselling, communication skills go out the window in an argument because entrenched patterns are stronger than a skill set. What does make a difference is an emotional moment of change, which creates space to see stuck patterns and a desire to do things differently. The following narrative illustrates how a couple I worked with found a catalyst for change and transformed how they interacted with each other.

Robbie and Kelly were stuck in a pattern of frustration and withdrawal, both harboring resentment over not feeling understood. Rob worked two jobs so that Kelly could stay home with their two young children. He was very critical of how he found the home from the moment he walked in the door. Kelly was busy with two high energy toddlers and wanted a break in the evening. The result was two tired, frustrated people. Their interactions were toxic, both becoming silent and upset for days. In counselling, we explored that both were concerned about the relationship but how they expressed that concern (through frustration) reinforced the very pattern which was damaging the relationship. I worked with Rob and Kelly in learning to hear each other’s emotional needs and responding to those. This helped slow down the reaction but did not change the pattern, especially when something stressful happened. They felt the only way out of the negative loop was to separate.

Habits are not destiny, Duhigg writes. They can be changed if the right combination of timing, new routine, and emotional awareness are found. A few weeks later, Robbie and Kelly came into the room beaming. Rob described an “aha” moment: “I was sitting on the floor in the living room, reading stories to the kids before bed, and I could hear Kelly at the sink. She was mumbling something, obviously upset. It was out of character for her to grumble like that. Even though she wasn’t complaining about me, that she was mumbling really struck me; I could hear myself in each time I walked in the door, like I was reading a script. I wasn’t even looking for an answer, just a rant; like I was on auto-pilot. I knew then that I didn’t have to do this anymore.”

We did other important work in counselling, and of course change was not Rob’s responsibility alone, but this was a key moment because it allowed them to truly feel change was possible. Learning different ways of dealing with stress, including emotional check-ins, became the new pattern which, with momentum, eventually became automatic and was stronger than the negative loop. As Rob said, “We didn’t need to blow up anymore to feel heard.”

The following exercise is one way to develop the skill of listening to yourself in a relationship: Sit comfortably. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nostrils, to the bottom of your lungs, out through your nose. Breathe again a second time, hold your breath as you count to five and then release the air through your mouth. Listen to the sounds around you—traffic, an airplane, a bird overhead, the wind moving the trees. Note how your body responds as you listen. As you continue to breathe, see a recent interaction with your partner, one you want to change. Listen to the tone of your voice as you hear yourself speaking; look for the emotional charge beneath your words. What need are you trying to meet? If you find yourself caught up in thoughts of what to say back, mind-reading what you think your partner is feeling, or becoming upset, bring your attention back to the sounds of the road, birds, the clock. Once you have a sense of the pattern, take a few minutes to write it down.

Try this exercise a few times, as it may take several tries before you can hear the emotional tone beneath your interactions and then discuss this with your partner. The goal is to identify the emotion and the routine. When you have a deep sense of resonance, an “aha” moment, you know you have it. The work of self-hearing can create a pause in an automatic pattern and room for a new interaction. It may just be a catalyst for change.