I was trying to figure out what rules I live by…because truth be told, I am very rule-resistant. Tell me that I have to do something because someone else said so, and even though I was just about to do the exact same thing, I’m going to rebel. I’m no longer in my teens, but I still have this idea that I have a right to choose what I do and how and when.
Still, like everyone else, I live by certain rules (ouch). And of course, since I don’t like that word, I call them habits. I’ve set up my life so that I (and the kids) don’t have what I imagine would qualify as formal rules we formally follow or else…as in a list on the fridge or something. My fridge doesn’t take magnets anyway, thank the gods for small mercies. Everyone knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and that we all have an opportunity to contribute in a positive way to each other’s lives. So we try to do that.
Like for example, coming to the dinner table on time, washing hands, cleaning up, feeding pets, doing homework, watering the flowers, getting up to go to school in the morning, going to bed without a fuss, putting dishes in sink and socks in the laundry basket, saying thank you and please. Ideally we don’t yell and bicker. Ideally we don’t place popsicle sticks under the couch because there’s a new Avatar (or similar) episode, and we don’t want to miss it, and then we forget to take the popsicle stick to the trash, and then mom finds it, along with 5 others, and candy wrappers, an empty container of apple sauce, 1 and 1/2 socks, a Lego piece and a sticky quarter.
Knowing what’s expected and what’s undesirable (and will get mom to yell and nag) qualifies as a rule….I know. But, I like to think of it as a way of life, where things happen because they makes sense, and make everyone’s life more pleasant and easier. I thought for a while to try the method others suggest…to place a list for my kids somewhere in the house, so that upon arriving home from school, they would proceed to go around like little robots, doing whatever the list says in the proper sequence. I tried it for like a week, and hated it. Besides the fact that it didn’t work, and turned my kids into resentful brats.
So how do we set rules without setting rules? I can tell you no child would volunteer to pick up dog poop in the yard on a regular basis just because they want to contribute! Ok, so I did spell out some rules. And have been reminding the kids over and over and over again, asking them do things while explaining why it makes life better (yes, picking up dog poop makes life better), and keeping my fingers crossed that in the absence of a list, with humor and daily reminders, eventually these boys will get it, make a habit out of what seems an imposition at first, and then start doing things because it will come naturally to them.
I still have the pleasure of getting annoyed when there’s a mess, or when I have to ask for something to be done 10 times before a grumpy child shows up to do it. But I’d much rather see the kids do things or abstaining from certain behaviors because they know they’re contributing something positive to our life, because they made a habit of it rather than for the sake of earning ‘fun tokens’ or trying to avoid punishment.
And you know what? It’s kinda starting to work very well. But that’s just with the kids. They’re good kids.
Time to tackle the adults.
All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, follow (because we must) a whole list of rules. Ok, maybe not really rules, but they’re certainly ‘must do-s’ like work, bills, laundry, food shopping, dinner, more bills, cleaning, showering, brushing teeth, etc. We do these things day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Oy, this is getting depressing. We complain about them, and some of the more unpleasant ones never really become ‘happy habits’.
So I was thinking, since we do a million things that we’d rather avoid or delegate if we could, what if we could sneak a few ‘rules’ in there based on romance and pleasure, things we could at first make ourselves do, and eventually not even think about, and do automatically. Like for example, how we talk to each other, how we handle difficult moments and cranky moods…or, something like ‘thou shalt be cheerful and loving and express tenderness for at least 1 minute a day’.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried suggesting such things, but the experimenter in me couldn’t resist. Care to guess the reaction? How could anyone think to set rules for love! It’s unthinkable, it’s like putting rusty shackles on doves or butterflies! Even I shuddered at the thought.
As much as I dislike rules, I still believe in conditioning good habits. And by no means am I insulting human intelligence, freedom or ingenuity here. Everything we do on a consistent basis does condition us to certain habits we often are no longer even aware of. If you don’t believe me, try putting your car keys in a totally different spot than you usually do, and see where you’ll go to when you want to pick up the keys. It’s going to be to the old spot, and it will take a while, even though you know they’re not there, and can see they’re not there, until you develop the habit to reach for the keys somewhere else. So much for spontaneity!
So I’m thinking, why not condition some habits that can make us happier, get along better, and ultimately, make life more fun and romantic? Not just habits like paying the electric bill or taking out the trash. If we start out with a bit of an effort, one ‘rule’ or a few, in no time they’ll become part of what we just do. And so we might find ourselves picking up a fun card for our lover, writing a little poem, buying a little gift on a random day, expressing love and tenderness even when we feel like crap. And it will not be because of some list on the fridge or in expectation of ‘fun tokens’, or to avoid being scolded…but because we felt like it.
Like my teenager now feels like watering the plants in the morning, letting the dogs out and feeding the cats twice a day (!), changing their water, and asking his mother if she needs help or just a hug. It started with some rules…and now it’s just something he does. And with a smile (on most days, let’s not go overboard here.)
So again, I’m thinking if it’s working with a teenager who inherited his mother’s resistance to rules AND her moodiness, it’s gotta work for anyone. Good habit conditioning…based on a few good rules.
PS. Some suggestions for couples:
1. Express love and tenderness for at least 1 minute every day (or like 30 mins)
2. Do something romantic for your partner at least once a week no matter how many household appliances stopped working, or unexpected bills arrived, or annoying pedestrians you almost ran over but couldn’t because of the police car on the corner
3. Write a love letter…ok, a love note…ok, one sentence that describes your passion and adoration…let’s see, once every two weeks or so? Maybe mix it up…do two in a row, and then break for 5-10 days.
4. When you have an argument, surprise your partner with a call or a virtual card…do the unexpected. They expect you not to call, to be grumpy and distant. So do the exact opposite. Remember the ‘pigs fly’ post? If not, go back and read it.
5. Make a habit out of creating some sort of surprise…on a regular basis. Just because it’s regular, doesn’t mean the surprise is ruined or expected. It’s still a surprise. Duh!
6. Do something to make your partner laugh once a day…costume and nudity optional
7. Pretend you are your partner once a week…and then respond to one of his/her complaints, rants, lectures, etc. according to what he/she would like/need to hear (minus the sarcasm)
8. Think of what your partner could do to make you happy on a given day…and then do it for them (spare me the smart-ass ideas here…lol)
9. Identify and eliminate one thing you do/say that you know makes your partner sad, upset, insecure, etc. for a week. Repeat weekly.
10. Break a rule…put fun and time together ahead of a ‘must do’ at random times…like always