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

How to Change, Part Three

The third step in changing our response patterns (habits) is experimenting with the rewards. Most habits are developed and carried on with little or no thought as to their effectiveness. Why do we continue in patterns that no longer provided the desired outcome?

If we know sarcasm creates a rift in our marriage why do we continue to use sarcasm? If bringing up our mate's past failures keeps us stuck in the past why do we continue to bring them up? If threats of divorce never end well and it's not even what we really want why do we still drop the D-bomb? If your affair almost destroyed the life you truly want why do you still feel a draw to return to an affair or porn? And our marital habits are even more vexing. Couples have a way of continuing in the same destructive patterns year after year regardless of their attempts to change. Are we destined to repeat the same destructive routines for the rest of our lives?

As I read last week’s newsletter, I realized I'm not making my point. The example I used of watching too much TV is way too tame. Those of us in the AR community have much more desperate habits which we need to address. Last week, the goal was to identify a routine you need to change. I was hoping it would be a routine that limits your ability to experience a full life. If you haven't identified that routine yet please do so. You might ask yourself which of your patterns are contrary to love. What ways do you respond to others that are not consistent with the ways you want to be?

Once we identify a response pattern or habit, the next step is identifying the reward associated with our old pattern. Once we understand what’s driving our habit, we'll be able to isolate the cue and develop a plan to replace that response pattern or routine.

For example: Frank's affair was over two years ago, yet each night when he comes home Sally still asks the exact same questions she did during the first month after discovery. She begins by questioning whether or not he talked with his affair partner that day, if he’s thought of her, or if she’s contacted him. It's not how she wants to begin the evening nor is it conducive to a good night together, but the more she tried to refrain from saying anything, the stronger the urge until she finally gives in and starts her interrogation.

Here's another example. For the past six months, every time Jan got into the car to drive to work she would text her affair partner "Good morning, how was your night?" before pulling out of her drive. Now that she's broken off the relationship she is scared to death that she's going to relapse because every morning when leaving for work she catches herself picking up the phone to text even though she has no desire to continue in the relationship.

People don't repeat these routines because they want to; they repeat them because they've become a habit loop. There's a cue (Frank comes home), a routine (Sally begins asking questions about the day), and a reward. Once these interactions become habits they occur over and over with no thought. It's as predictable as how you brush your teeth or ride a bike. Our brain, in its attempt to be efficient, continues to follow the same routine even if it's not what we want. In fact, if you try to stop you’ll find the urge grows stronger. When Sally tries to stop questioning Frank when he walks through the door, she finds the pressure to question grows until she finally gives in and begins her evening interrogation. This is caused by the cravings associated with habits. We crave the reward that we miss when we avoid the behavior. This is why identifying the reward is crucial if you want to alter your response patterns.

We want to identify the craving driving our particular habit. To do that, you need to experiment with different rewards and see if that new behavior will cause the craving to cease. As you begin, don’t feel any real pressure to change, just imagine yourself as a researcher who’s trying to solve a problem. As with all experiments we’ll begin with the data collection stage.

On day one of your experiment, when you’re tempted to do your identified behavior adjust your routine so it delivers a different reward. For example, when Frank comes home and Sally’s tempted to begin repeating her question routine, she might instead go up to him and hug him for sixty seconds. Then next day she might want to ask questions about his favorite foods and then the next day she might try checking his cell phone and email when he comes home. The next day maybe Frank could begin by telling her about his day and whether he had contact with his AP before she has a chance to ask questions.

It’s not what you choose to do that’s important. Our goal is to test different hypothesis to determine what craving is driving the routine. In Sally’s case, is it the questions themselves? If so, asking about his favorite foods should work as well. Or is it because she craves intimacy and connection with Frank, in which case the 60 second hug should do the trick? Or does it have to do with needing to feel safe? If that’s the case then checking his cell phone and email could serve the same purpose. Does it have to do with needing assurance from Frank that everything is okay? Frank telling her he had no contact with his AP that day should help with this craving.

In Jan’s case there are several hypotheses that need to be tested to determine the reward. Is it the act of texting that is driving the behavior? If that’s the case then she might try sending a text saying “Good morning, how was your night" to a friend before puling out of the drive. Is the reward the response she got from her AP after she sent the text? If that’s the case then having her friend respond to the text with care and concern might scratch the itch from the craving. If it’s just a need to do something on the phone before she backs out of the drive then playing a short game of solitaire on the phone will take away the craving.

As you test each new reward you want to look for patterns. A simple way to accomplish this is by writing down the first three things that come to mind after trying each experiment. You can record random thoughts, feelings, or just three words that pop into your head such as Peaceful, Movie and Music.

Next set an alarm for fifteen minutes. When the alarm goes off ask yourself if you still feel the urge to do your old routine. In Sally’s case, when the alarm goes off she’d ask herself if she still feels the need to ask Frank the questions.

The importance of writing three things at the end of your experiment is it causes a momentary awareness of what your thinking or feeling at then end of the routine. It also helps you later recall what you were thinking at that moment. After you’ve completed your experiment it will help you recall what you were thinking or feeling at that precise moment when you go back and review your notes.

The 15 minutes is important because the goal of this process is to determine the reward that you’re carving. If Sally is still motivated to ask questions after she asks a new set of questions to Frank, we know it’s not driven by the process of asking questions. If she still feels the urge to ask the questions after checking his cell phone and email then we’ll assume it’s not about safety. If however at the end of 15 minutes she no longer feels a need to ask the questions after the hug we can assume the reward she’s craving is based on intimacy.

Being able to determine what you’re actually craving is essential if you want to change a habit. Once you’ve identified the routine and the reward, all that’s left is isolating the cue. Next week, I’ll wrap up how we can begin to change the habits that are robbing us of life. As I said earlier in this series, what’s important to me is that you not only recover, but that you use this crisis as a catalyst to help you find new life.

One last comment on habit change: Research shows that groups are important when it comes to change. Somehow being with others who are like us and are addressing the same issues as us allows us to suspend disbelief. They allow us to not only believe change is possible, but to see and experience that change. If you’re not in some sort of group, I strongly encourage you to find others addressing the same issues and work together toward a common goal.

Those of us at AR wish you a Merry Christmas.



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Add New Comment:



My husband is avoiding the necessary steps to help me move forward after his PA. New behavior? Change old behavior? As we go through Xmas once again he thinks buying me things will make it better or quilt me into forgiving him. I will remain stuck in my anger and hurt forever after this holiday.

My habit or craving I am

My habit or craving I am trying to break after 3 years of not talking to my affair partner.  We would all day long say I Love You to each other, etc before hanging up phone, or simply in conversation.  Now, I find my self still after all this time saying I love you, as if I am talking to him.  This must stop.  but, I dont no how? 

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