Have you ever found yourself feeling dissatisfied in a relationship? The person you thought was so great when you first met is starting to show flaws. Why does he always talk about sports? Why can’t she cook like my mother? Small things can become bigger and bigger until they feel like a fingernail on a chalkboard every time he or she does that super annoying thing. Now you are starting to notice other things they do that annoy you too. He never puts the toilet seat down, she leaves her make-up all over the bathroom counter. How did Mr. Perfect become so Mr. Wrong? Is it time to dust off your dating profile and start looking for someone with less annoying traits? OK, wait—not so fast.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that what they are seeing has to do with where they are looking, and whatever they look at starts to get bigger in their mind. The brain has limited attentional capacity, which means it can only focus on a certain number of things at one time. Once your brain is occupied with something, you start to lose awareness of what else is happening around you. As far back as the 1890s, William James wrote extensively about the relationship between selective attention and experience, making the profound observation that “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” Modern cognitive psychologists have demonstrated through research that we are active participants in our process of perception, confirming that what we think and feel is determined by what we pay attention to.
So what does all of this have to do with Mr. (or Ms.) Wrong? Well, they didn’t start off that way, did they? At one point, you were very enamored with all of their good qualities. That’s because you were focused on them, and because your focus was on everything that was great, you didn’t really notice the things that irritate you now. This happens because attention works on an activation/inhibition model: When you give attention to negative things, it literally inhibits your ability to see positive things, and vice versa. The more you start to give your attention to things that you like about your partner over time, the more you will start to see that person you first fell for, and you will find yourself noticing fewer of the things that are bothering you now. Here is a simple exercise that will help you:
These don’t have to be big things, like he is a kind person, they can be simple, such as I like that he held the door open for the neighbor in the elevator, or I like that he didn’t lose his temper today.
So how will this exercise really improve your relationship?
The more time you spend thinking about something, the more active it becomes in your mental space—and the easier it becomes to access. When you think of your partner, the first thing that comes to mind won’t be his annoying habits, because you are now consciously choosing to focus your attention on his positive traits, so those are more active in your mind. Your attention is directly tied to what you feel. As you make the conscious effort to pay attention to the good qualities in your partner, your feelings about him/her are likely to change for the positive, bringing back those feelings that made you fall for him in the first place.
1. James, W. The Priniciples of Psychology, Volume 1. Holt and Company: New York. 1890.
2. Kanwisher, N. and P. Downing, Separating the wheat from the chaff. Science, 1998. 282(5386): p. 57-8.
3. Pribram, K.H. and D. McGuinness, Arousal, activation, and effort in the control of attention. Psychol Rev, 1975. 82(2): p. 116-49.