I once had a patient, we’ll call her Betty, tell me that every night she would cook her spouse a gourmet dinner. At first, it didn’t look like she was unhappy in a relationship. After dinner, she would ask, “How was your dinner?”
The response was always the same: “So, so.”
Every night, she would find herself angry, unhappy, and resentful. She would focus on how hopeless her situation was. After all, she told herself that all she wanted was to please her partner and to get a little appreciation for her efforts. This woman was definitely unhappy in a relationship.
What is an Unhappiness Ritual?
An unhappiness ritual is a repeated, unsatisfying, cyclical behavior that leads us to unhappiness. There is always a beginning to our unhappiness rituals. Entrance to them is usually initiated by the person who maintains the ritual. As long as we keep our unhappiness rituals going, there is no end to the hopelessness, disappointment, resentment, guilt, and anger that comes as a result.
Over time, unhappiness rituals become automatic. They become habits. We unconsciously include them. The unhappy feelings, which is the outcome of our unhappiness rituals can evolve into a state of chronic discontent and bitterness. Depression often awaits us as we endure with predictable outcomes.
How do unhappiness rituals begin?
Let’s review the patient above.
Her unhappiness ritual with cooking dinner began because she unknowingly needed some kindness, appreciation, and validation from her husband. She didn’t put those needs into words. It was rather a wordless longing inside her.
Then, the idea came to her that cooking nightly gourmet dinners would certainly invite conversation and expressed appreciation from her husband. When her solution didn’t give her the outcome she wanted, she kept on cooking, hoping things would change. She initially became disappointed.
Then, she became sad. Anger and resentment took over. She became stuck in a repetitive unhappiness cycle.
Here is the equation for the inception of unhappiness rituals:
- We have an unarticulated, unmet want that is surrounded by a discontent about our need not being met.
- We try to get our needs met by creating a solution.
- The solution doesn’t work. Our needs are not met. We get stuck in the solution, hoping that one day our needs will be met.
Why do we stay stuck?
Think back to when you learned to drive a car. If you were like most, you paid attention to how you pulled away from the curb. You always put on your turn signal and you checked the speedometer to make sure you were not going too fast. You were aware of what you were doing and what other drivers were doing.
Compare that to how you drive a car now.
After years of driving, isn’t all that you do on the highways and byways automatic? Do you consciously think about how you drive? Probably not, because your driving is now habituated. You do it without even thinking about what you are doing.
We get stuck in unhappiness rituals the exact same way.
We practice them over and over and without knowing, they become automatic. Like Betty, she no longer was aware that every evening around 4:00 she would begin thinking about what she would cook for her husband.
She would comb Gourmet magazine or her recipe books for new and delicious-sounding recipes. Around 5:00, Betty would have selected a meal and she would begin preparing it. Her mantra was, “maybe this time my husband will love the dinner.”
She reported that she was “always hurt when I got the same “so-so” response, night after night.
We become unconsciously and habitually stuck in our unhappiness rituals. Inexplicably, in our stuckness, we expect others to change their responses. It is our fervent hope that others will “get it” and we will be acknowledged, appreciated or feel loved because someone else changed their behaviors.
How to stop being unhappy in a relationship
After some therapy and planning, here’s what Betty did:
She stopped putting so much energy into meal preparation and she stopped asking her husband how he liked his dinner! Does that sound too simple?
It took Betty some time to gather the courage to sort out the needs and feelings that were related to her unhappiness ritual. She took quite some time for her to embrace the idea of stepping out of her automatic behaviors. It took creating new ways of interacting and connecting.
How to get out of your unhappiness rituals:
- Identify what is causing unhappiness for you. What is it that you repeatedly do that leads to your unhappy feelings?
- Name your feelings. Instead of just saying you feel unhappy, name exactly what the feelings are. Are you resentful or in an unhappiness ritual because of guilt? Are you accustomed to being a victim in your life and therefore being in an unhappiness ritual feels comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time? Exploration of your feelings is more easily done with a neutral third party involved.
- Learn what you are needing. We enter unhappiness rituals through a desire to get some response usually from another person.
- Dissect your ritual. When does it begin? What thoughts go through your mind? What do you tell yourself? Is guilt, retribution, anger, revenge, manipulation or setting yourself up for victimization a driving force? Write it down. Look at it.
- Clearly state what it is about your unhappiness ritual that you want to stop.
Change is very difficult as our automatic behaviors are hardwired into our brains. It takes consciousness and perseverance to depart from our unhappiness rituals, especially when they have become entrenched through years of practice.
Betty made a step-by-step plan. She took action!
She identified that around 4:00 pm, she would start planning the evening meal. Her first exodus step was to create activities for herself at that hour.
After some time, Betty decided that she and her neighbor would either play tennis at the local community center or hike with their dogs. In inclement weather, Betty worked out at the gym.
Unhappiness rituals usually fall apart after we intervene on our first step into the ritual.
Next, Betty stopped her subscription to Gourmet Magazine and she boxed up her cookbooks and the recipes that she had collected from newspapers over the years. She put them in the guest room closet.
Then, she considered what types of meals she would make for dinner. Betty decided on some frozen, pre-prepared meals and fresh salads. She had advised her husband.
It went like this:
Honey, I have changed my schedule so I won’t be dedicating so much time to preparing dinner. Just wanted you to know. I’ve got to go right now. I’m going to the gym. If you have any questions, we can discuss it later.
Notice that Betty was brief and respectful. She simply told her husband that she was making a change and then, she exited. No justifications and no explanations. No processing of feelings and no making her husband wrong for not fulfilling her unspoken needs.
To exit an unhappiness ritual:
- Write down a plan. Get feedback from an impartial party.
- Tell the person/people involved what the change is going to be. Discussing the reason for the change is not necessary and usually leads to a diatribe about our unhappiness because someone else is not meeting our needs (which usually translates into blaming them for our feelings and for making a change necessary).
- Plan activities you can do before you enter your unhappiness ritual.
- Stick to your change. Practice the change you have selected. Do the change.
- Remember, the more you practice your new behavior, the more quickly it becomes automatic.
Finally, get yourself out of your unhappiness rituals. If you follow the steps, you will alleviate emotional pain and find yourself happier and more satisfied with your life.
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Author: Dr. Ann Schiebert
Dr. Ann Schiebert teaches about relationship challenges at the medical center of one of the country’s most respected major HMO’s. She is currently a psychologist in the Emergency Department. She also works in the medical center’s Chemical Dependency Department where she treats patients challenged by trauma, chemical dependency, codependency and dual diagnosis. Find out more about Dr. Schiebert at www.drannschiebert.com