- Interest is stimulated by novelty but sustained by depth.
- Diminished interest can feel like diminished love.
- The negative bias of emotions and memory means that in love we’re prone to ignore the good.
- A sense of personal power may well depend on the skill to activate and sustain interest.
When I suggest to couples in my practice that they need to create interest in each other, they initially hear it as a death knell for love. After all, the beloved at one time was a source of intense interest, excitement, and joy. Have we fallen so low that we now have to try to be interested?
The reasons that partners in long-term relationships must consciously activate interest in each other are far more mundane than the loss of love. They have more to do with the way the brain processes information.
Interest is activated by novelty. Over time the familiarity of experiencing the same good thing, again and again, will diminish interest in it. The very familiarity that makes us feel secure in love relationships reduces novelty and interest. We tend to notice loved ones when they do something different or when we look at them differently.
To make matters worse, the brain naturally filters out familiar sounds and voices. This innocent, little quirk of auditory processing has been the misunderstood source of numerous fights about:
"You never listen to me!"
Altering tone or inflection of voice draws attention. Try altering your tone of voice ever so slightly, going either up or down in volume or intensity but without resentment. Make eye contact, and touch if possible.
A Secure Base or Taken for Granted?
John Bowlby used the term, "secure base," to describe a primary psychological function of attachment relationships. Emotional responsiveness to loved ones provides the security, comfort, nurturing, and revitalization necessary to help us go out and face the world another day.
So long as they fulfill the secure base function, the brain sees little reason to devote conscious attention to loved ones. (Conscious attention is metabolically expensive and routinely conserved.) Rather, we tend to direct conscious attention to loved ones when they depart from their function as a secure base.
This makes it seem as if we attend to love relationships only when jeopardized, when, for instance, one partner threatens abandonment because he or she is "taken for granted." The “secure base” of attachment relationships virtually guarantees a feeling of being “taken for granted,” as the brain relentlessly filters out the familiar.
Feeling Without Listening
Even when not consciously attending to loved ones, we never stop feeling them. Quite unconsciously, we attune our emotions to loved ones, for better or worse. That's how you can be in one mood on the way home from work, but when you get near your partner who is in a different mood, a switch goes off in your head.
Without warning, you’ve taken on your partner’s mood. When she is in a blissful mood by virtue of your mere presence, as was the case at the beginning of the relationship, this attunement of feelings works wonderfully.
Alas, there is a severe negative bias to emotional attunement. Anger, resentment, contempt, distress, fear, and disgust demand conscious attention more readily than interest and enjoyment, simply due to the density of neural activity involved.
Because these emotions carry survival significance, the attunement process causes a negative re-activity. We're likely to get angry when our partners are angry, distressed when they are, and so on. Over time, the brain will tend to filter out all but the more virulent affect displayed by those closest to us. Within our closest relationships, we're naturally prone to ignore the good and focus on the bad.
Because emotions develop much faster than cognition and reality-testing, conditioned emotional responses form early in life. If interest frequently leads to reward, we're likely to be curious persons with high levels of interest and enjoyment.
On the other hand, if expectations of interest have led to frequent disappointment, not to say shame and pain, we tend to be less curious, less easily interested, and less prone to enjoyment. We may funnel all our interest into limited arenas in which we expect to control outcomes.
Or we may require intense interest-excitement, even thrill-seeking, to sustain any interest at all. Once again, the degree of interest occurring by default, without conscious attention directing it, will depend on the individual's past experience with interest, whether rewarding and enjoyable or disappointing and painful.
Deliberately Activating Interest
Fortunately, we can deliberately activate interest at any time. Deliberate activation of interest keeps us from functioning as mere responders to the environment, from becoming utter "reactaholics." A sense of personal power may well depend on the skill to activate and sustain one's interest.
For instance, who is more powerful, the person who sulks or suffers boredom in a court-ordered driver-safety program, or the one who finds something in the curriculum to stimulate interest? Who is more in control of personal experience?
Each individual in committed relationships bears a responsibility to create interest while being receptive to the interest of loved ones.
- look for something new, no matter how trivial, to appreciate about your partner (hairstyle, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language)
- look at something familiar in a new way or from a different perspective—take your partner’s perspective
Though novelty stimulates interest, depth sustains it. A unique characteristic of love relationships is the opportunity to know someone on the deepest human level.
- appreciate the depth of your partner’s thoughts and emotions
- appreciate your partner’s acts of compassion and kindness as expressions of core value
- appreciate what you would do for each other in crises or illness
Alex took one of our seminars after his wife had given him an ultimatum. She could no longer allow him to ignore her. Alex states:
At first I blamed her for not being interesting. Naturally, that made for a lot of anger and resentment. We started bickering every day. Then I learned in the class that you can develop the skill to focus conscious attention and work to upgrade your own interest. When you do that, you control it. And I was practicing doing that for a while, for quite a while, before it really worked. And one night I just noticed her sitting with her legs up on the sofa. She was thinking something. Not really deep in thought, sort of bouncing around in her thoughts.
'You look lost in thought,' I said.
'Do I?' she said, kind of surprised that I noticed. 'My mind's just wandering,' she said with a little shrug.
It sounds funny, but after all those years, I saw her in a new light. There was something more to her than just sitting on the sofa like she always did. She was thinking, she was feeling, there was a whole world underneath the surface, that I guess I knew was there, but that I'd tuned out over the years. I realized that I can notice stuff about her anytime I want to. And when I started noticing more and more about her, it's like I'm not living on the surface of things anymore. There are always new ways of looking at things and always deeper things to see. And it's funny, but it makes you look at life a lot different. There's more to this living business than I used to think.
Note: Alex's "realization" was of nothing extraordinary. One day he simply decided to find something interesting about his wife. The ensuing ripple effect of directed interest put more positive feelings in his life and in the lives of his family. He stopped living on the surface and appreciated the inner world of his wife. Directed interest can be that simple; simply deciding to notice.
Maintaining a deeper level of interest requires self-reward, such as repeatedly saying to yourself:
As I value my partner, I value myself.