Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Achieving Real Change, part 4

There's an old joke I've always enjoyed due to the truth it reveals: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb’s got to want to change really badly. I also enjoy the old saying “if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.” Change is more than possible, but it takes intentionality. Do you really want to change?

In the previous article, we talked about how to identify the reward for the behavior you'd like to change. This week, we'll look at identifying the cue and how to make a plan for change. Don't assume you know what triggers your behavior; be willing to continue your data collection. Your efforts at change may well come to nothing if you don't first identify the cue.

Fortunately, the cues for our habitual behaviors usually fall into 5 categories:
Location
Time
Emotional state
Other people
Immediately preceding event

So if you want to identify the cue that triggers your behavior, you need to write down five things when the urge hits. Last week Sally wanted to change her routine of interrogating Frank. Here is what her journal looked like:

Day 1:
Location: Living room
Time: 6:00 pm
Emotional state: anxious
Other People: Frank
Immediately preceding event: Cooking supper

Day 2:
Location: Car
Time: 3:30 pm
Emotional state: angry
Other people: Frank
Immediately preceding event: Driving to pick Frank up from work

Day 3:
Location: Church
Time: 7:30 pm
Emotional State: fearful
Other people Frank
Immediately preceding event: She and Frank met up at cub scouts.

In case you missed the previous article, the behavior Sally chose to focus on was her daily compulsion to interrogate Frank about his affair even though it was two years ago and she already knew all the answers. Last week she identified that simply hugging Frank for 60 seconds caused the craving to interrogate to go away. From that she concluded that her need to interrogate was really about her desire to feel connected with Frank. (His willingness to answer her questions made her feel she mattered to him.) In this example, the cue for Sally’s interrogating behavior seems to be when she sees Frank at the end of his workday. With that information Sally is now ready to come up with a plan for stopping her targeted behavior.

The Plan:
Once you’ve figured out your routine, the reward you get, and the cue that triggers the routine, you’re ready to change the behavior. The most effective way to change a habit is by planning for the cue and choosing a new behavior that delivers the same reward that you are craving, such as a sense of feeling connected in Sally’s example. To change, you now need to develop a plan.

As review, our habits (routines) are choices we deliberately made at some point, then eventually stopped thinking about, but continued doing. They are formulas our brain automatically follows. We see the cue and our brain follows the programed routine in order to get the desired reward. To change our habits we need to begin by making a different choice and research has shown the most effective way to accomplish that goal is to have a plan.

In Sally’s instance of interrogating Frank, she learned that the cue was seeing Frank at the end of his workday. She knew the old routine which was asking the exact same set of questions she had asked on the first day of discovery two years prior. She had also discovered the reward was the sense of connection she felt when he answered her questions. It had nothing to do with the answers or trouble believing him. The process of asking the questions helped her feel connected. So she wrote a plan:

When I see Frank after we’ve been apart for the day I will go up to him and hug him for 60 seconds.

To help remind her of the new behavior she shared her plan with Frank and asked if he’d be willing to ask her if he could give her a hug on those days she forgot and began asking questions. On most days she was able to remember on her own and on those days she forgot Frank would ask if she wanted a hug and usually she’d agree. The good news for Sally is that three months later when she sees Frank, her first impulse is to go up and hug him rather than begin her interrogation.

It takes work to change old habits, but it is possible if you’ll take the time. As we begin a new year I hope you’ll look at your goals and decide to attack the habits that inhibit you from having the life you want.

Finally, those of us at Affair Recovery want to wish you a happy new year.

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Comments

What if

She's has told you that all contact with the OP is done? She's told you that she is trying to find that love for me that was lost? She's told you that she cares about me and that I comfort her? But what I can see that in her eyes she is not in love with me and is heartbroken for the OP. To come sweep her off her feet on his white stallion even though he will not end his current marriage. Its been 18 months since I've found out. Its been 6 months since I found out again they were still in contact. Its been 2 months since she's promised its finally over. The relationship happened on and off for over 12 years, we have been married for 19. She gave her heart to this other man and I am afraid that I may never get it back and though I keep fighting for her love am I just fighting for an empty shell? I know she loves me but I also know she is not in love with me like those many years ago. I cant afford counseling so we seem to be alone in this. I'm afraid to live life without her because of my feelings but is there anything more I can do?

change

I used stickers on a calendar. Each day that I did not mention anything having to do with the affair I got a sticker. I loved seeing all those stickers fill up the month. That was the reward, visual evidence that I had kept my pledge to myself.

What type of affair was it?

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