I was in a horrible relationship for 5 years. We fought, yelled, cussed, and as a result, I created horrible communication habits. I am finding that these habits are translating to my new relationship. I have been in this new relationship for a year and have never felt a love like this. I have been out of the other relationship for about 3 years. But how can I shake those old, bad, communication habits—especially when I'm angry—and keep them from spoiling my wonderful new relationship?
--Trying to Clear Old Habits
Yelling, cursing, fighting, and disrespecting your partner may make for great television drama, but it is absolutely devastating in real relationships. When communication reaches the level of yelling and cursing (and God knows what else) you're no longer attacking the problem, you're trying to hurt the other person. It's no longer about resolving the problem, it's about bullying and demeaning your partner.
It's a wonder that the new relationship you're in has survived for a year if losing your temper and tongue-lashing your partner is the way you handle conflict. I can tell you this, however: if you don't learn some new ways of communicating with the new love of your life, you're going to soon find yourself loveless.
At least you know already that even though the old toxic relationship ended three years ago, the bad communication habits you formed in that relationship continue to plague you in this new relationship. You also correctly identify what you picked up from your old relationship as poor communication habits. If you practice any behavior long enough, it becomes second nature.
You don't say in your letter, but I'll bet that one of the reasons you're reaching out for help right now is because your new relationship is already beginning to show signs of deterioration because of the way you handle conflict. As you can see, love is not enough. Lovers need skills to be able to work through their differences and to build a healthy, long-lasting relationship. One of the most important skills needed is the ability to sit down and talk about and talk through your differences.
Communication is a skill, and it's key in a relationship. You can survive nearly any disappointment or difficulty that comes up if you know how to talk to each other. When a couple lacks the communication skills necessary to resolve their problems, then even the smallest problems will become insurmountable.
But there's another thing that's clear to me from your letter: you have a problem managing your anger. If arguments send you completely out of control and unable to get a grip on reason and your emotions, then it's best you seek professional help as soon as possible (Beliefnet just launched a Therapist Finder that might be helpful to you). Bad communication habits are not the sole problem in your relationships, but old, deep-seated, unexamined resentments are also following you.
The good news is that habits can be broken. Start by sitting down and admitting to your partner that you've brought some nasty communication skills into your new relationship, habits you know will only lead to resentment and distance. Ask your partner to be patient with you as you figure out together new ways of talking through your disagreements.
Then, immediately put a few new habits in place, and practice them religiously. Agree that when emotions escalate, it will be a good idea for one of you to call for a break. It makes good sense to wait and revisit the issue later when you've calmed down and can have a more productive conversation. Come up with a phrase or gesture between you that will be a sign that things are escalating and that communication is breaking down. When your partner gives the sign you agree to back off and take a break and come back to the topic when you're calmer.
"Death and life are in the power of the tongue" says the writer of Proverbs (18:21). The things we say in a moment of anger cannot be unspoken and cannot be forgotten. It's this simple: Continue with your bad habits in the way you handle conflict, and you'll destroy this new chance you have to find love. Learn and practice new communication habits, ones that encourage openness, trust, respect, resolution, and love, and you increase the chances of creating a new life with your new love. Like I said before: If you practice a (good) behavior long enough, it becomes second nature.