Whenever I ask a client, “Whose behavior can you control?”, I always get the correct answer: “Mine.” Yet, right after she acknowledges that, I often hear how much better her life would be if so-and-so would just do such-and-such.

It’s natural for you to look outwardly in order to find solutions to your problems.  In reality,  better solutions can often be found from within. When this happens, it gives you the added benefits of obtaining a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of control over your life. Isn’t that what you really want?

Choice Theory, by Dr. William Glasser, describes seven deadly or disconnecting habits that ruin relationships. These are blaming, criticizing, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing and bribing to control. Whenever you use one of those habits, you are actually chipping away at the strength of your relationship with that person. The reason is that each of those habits is a way of trying to get someone else to do what you want or to admonish them for doing what you didn’t want. You are practicing what is known as External Control whenever you attempt to get others to change their behavior.

In order to strengthen a relationship, external control must be minimized. This is best done by replacing the disconnecting habits with connecting ones. The seven caring or connecting habits include encouraging, trusting, supporting, listening, respecting, accepting and negotiating differences. Exercise these habits throughout your day and pay attention to how much happier you feel! When you do this, you have taken responsibility for improving your relationship because you found something YOU could do to improve it.

Scenario: A woman is fixing dinner and plans to have it ready at 7:30, which is their regular time to eat and is fifteen minutes after her husband normally comes home from work. One night, the minutes tick by and the man finally shows up at 8:00. That particular evening, he had neglected to call his wife to tell her he would be late and consequently comes home to overcooked and cold food. How pleasant will their evening be? It depends….

If the wife practices external control, she may criticize her husband about not being able to say “no” to his boss and complain that he “never” calls her when he’s running late. In this situation, the woman wants to eat at 7:30 and wants her husband to be home on time. In return, the husband may be annoyed by the expectation to eat at a specific time every night and blame his wife for being too rigid about her time schedule. The husband may even add that she “always” overcooks their food anyway, so what does it matter at what time he comes home?

Does that sound familiar? When you’re angry, you just keep heaping on all the things that annoy you (by employing the disconnecting habits) and the arguments escalate. How do these types of exchanges help your relationship? It doesn’t. It just makes things worse by generating feelings of resentment and unhappiness.

If the couple practices the connecting habits, the wife may comment that it appears as though her husband had a rough day and she encourages him to tell her about it. In that situation, she is putting her needs aside in order to show concern for him. In return, her husband may apologize for not calling and keeping her waiting to eat dinner. The wife may comment that the food is overcooked and cold, but then the husband will accept that this would have been avoided had he called her. And, if the wife is like me and ate without him, the husband will understand. How does this exchange affect their relationship?

Many times when you exhibit external control, there are other factors in your life that are coming into play. The woman may have had a long day at work herself and rushed home to fix dinner only to find that her effort to get the food ready on time was for naught. This added more to her frustration and she took this out on her husband, who also had a bad day and fought back at her.

Instead of acknowledging that each partner was tired and stressed, couples will often project their anger or irritation towards the other person. As a result, the arguing drags on because both partners feel they were justified in how they handled the situation.

This is the time to stop and think about what is bringing up those negative emotions inside of you. If the other person is important to you, you can also try to understand what is going on with him. You know that you have a choice in how you respond to the situation. You can think of ways to be supportive and let him know you appreciate him. If you can change the focus from what is best for “me” to what is best for “us”, the result is a stronger relationship.

Replacing the disconnecting habits with connecting ones will result in more pleasant evenings. At first, the significant people in your life may continue to try to draw you into an argument, but after a while you will notice positive changes. Not only will you feel happier, but you will get a sense of accomplishment for having taken responsibility about how you respond to the inevitable stresses of life.