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How to Change Relationship-Damaging Behaviors

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistDecember 18, 2019

Do you explode in anger? Isolate yourself from friends? Or act in some other way that causes problems? Like many other people, you may not know why or how to change. A common technique called functional analysis (also called chain analysis or behavioral analysis) may help.

The purpose of functional analysis is to help you discover the purpose (or function) of your behavior. By analyzing the chain of behaviors leading up to the problem behavior, you can learn more about the function of that problem behavior. You can then consider whether there might be other, healthier behaviors that might be able to serve that same function.

The best way to understand this technique is to read through the following steps and then practice doing them:

What behavior do you want to change? Identify a behavior that is causing you problems.

Example: Nancy struggles with feeling jealous. When her girlfriend Stacy goes out with colleagues after work, she texts her every few minutes as she anxiously awaits her return home.

What happened as a result of this behavior? Identify what problems that behavior causes.

Example: In response to the constant texting, Stacy turns off her phone while she’s out, and then they inevitably fight about the situation when she gets home.

Think about your experiences just prior to the problematic behavior. What sensations were you aware of in your body? What were you thinking? What were you feeling? What were you doing? What was the situation you were in?

Example: In considering this issue, Nancy was aware that she was extremely tense as she thought about Stacy out with other people, probably enjoying their company more than hers and possibly even flirting with someone. She was aware of becoming increasingly anxious and jealous until she felt like she couldn’t take it anymore – which was when she began texting.

What did those experiences make you want to do? What was the function of your behavior? Consider what you were trying to accomplish by engaging in the problem behavior.

Example: As Nancy considered the chain of experiences that led to her texting, she realized that she was texting as a way to reassure herself that she was still important to Stacy. The longer Stacy stayed out, the stronger Nancy’s jealousy grew, and the angrier her texts became (essentially punishing Stacy for rejecting her).

What might have made you more vulnerable to the problem behavior? People struggle with certain situations for various reasons, such as internal feelings or beliefs, past experiences, or certain aspects of their situation.

Example: Nancy knew that being cheated on in her previous relationship left her distrustful, even though Stacy never gave her reason to suspect infidelity. She also realized that she had been planning a quiet evening home together, which made this situation more difficult.

What are some ways that you could address similar situations differently, getting what you really want? Think about each step along the way, considering how you might have responded differently.

Example: After Nancy calmed down, she thought about how what she really wanted was to know that she was important to Stacy and that Stacy would remain faithful. She talked with Stacy about this, and they agreed to communicate better about plans. Also, Nancy agreed to communicate her struggles more clearly at the time so that Stacy could reassure her.

Completing a functional analysis takes effort. If you find that you are unable to gain clarity on why you repeat certain behaviors or you cannot make changes, you might want to ask someone you trust to help. Or, you might want to seek out therapy. However you do it, increasing your awareness of the function of your behavior is an important step toward choosing a healthier path.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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