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When the Novelty Wears Off

When shiny object syndrome negatively affects our daily lives.

Source: Pixelvario/Shutterstock

Neal was very excited about his entering the training program to become an emergency medical technician (EMT); something he had been looking forward to ever since he decided to switch careers and finally do “what I always really wanted.” Three months into the program, his enthusiasm had “tanked,” he was “half in and half out” and began to look for other career possibilities that might “really interest me this time.”

Gwen was happy to have finally met a man with whom she had a great deal in common and felt drawn to more so than to any other man she had dated in years. Initially, in her therapy sessions, I heard about the “really great guy” who “has lots of potential,” “swept me off my feet,” and who she could not wait to see for their next encounter. Somewhere around date number five or six, Gwen reported that her new beau “had too much baggage” and was not “the same guy I met several weeks ago.” She requested my help in finding a gracious way out of the relationship.

Pauline just “loved” the flute, her flute teacher, practicing the instrument, the way it relaxed her, and more. I got “the flute report” at the beginning of each session for several weeks… until I no longer did and wondered out loud why. “Too hard,” “too boring,” and “I really don’t have the time for this sort of thing” was that session’s flute report.

So, what happened to Neal, Gwen, and Pauline? Clearly, each client’s situation is different and, as always, many forces and factors are at work, which need to be understood in order to explain phenomena like those described above. Nonetheless, each of their stories seemed to have something in common; namely, this behavior was not exceptional, but was a pattern and, therefore, evident in other areas in their lives and not just in the individual examples described above.

If this was Neal’s first change in career choice, Gwen’s first dissatisfaction with a romantic partner, or Pauline’s first “giving up” something newly tried, it might not have been treated as problematic and addressed in therapy. Each of them was initially inclined to see the “problem” as lying outside themselves and not coming from within. Neal used to think that not much interested him because not that much was interesting. He sometimes sounded as though the world was simply devoid of “good” careers or “good” jobs. Similarly, Gwen would complain about the “quality of available men,” believing that the “good ones” were all taken and besides those “good ones” were the few exceptions and not the rule in the world of men. Pauline, too, has been heard to comment that there seems to be “no suitable instrument” for her. It took her a while to begin to wonder why she cannot be satisfied no matter how many instruments (five) she has tried over the years.

When something is fun, exciting, and new, you get a temporary hit of dopamine which feels good and rewards your brain. Dopamine causes you to want, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. A person with a high level of dopamine, whether due to temperament or to a transient induced state, can be described as a sensation seeker. Dopamine is sometimes referred to as the brain’s pleasure chemical.

Perhaps this might help one of my patients, Lois, better understand what happened to what initially appeared to be the beginning of a wonderful new romantic experience with Justin that seemed to have high potential for permanence. Lois and her new beau, whom she met online shortly before the descent of the COVID-19 pandemic, had an immediate strong connection and were having a hard time conducting their new relationship via video and phone communication only. Despite these limitations, the relationship progressed and after a few months, Justin urged Lois to move in with him so they could finally be together. Highly reluctant at first, Lois eventually decided that this was a chance at relationship happiness as well as an opportunity for possible marriage and motherhood so she agreed.

Lois’ wariness about moving in with a man she had only known for a short time was understandable. A psychologically sophisticated person, Lois worried that Justin might be someone who excitedly enjoys the pleasure of pursuit more than he might appreciate the value of having obtained the object of his desire. The initial honeymoon phase was promising and seemed sustainable. It was not long, however, before Justin was pulling away with significantly reduced verbal and physical affection. Lois felt blindsided and worse, betrayed by this sudden change with a partner apparently unwilling to acknowledge that anything was different. This seemed to validate the belief that the pleasure of pursuit may have, in fact, been operative here with a subsequent decreased valuing of the prize he had so convincingly won. Presently, the two of them are actively engaged in attempting to understand what occurred and whether or not they have a chance of recovering their early experience and remaining happily together.

We have been trained to believe in the power of eternal novelty. Some of us never expect the thrill to wear off and are taken by surprise when it does. When it happens, it is a pivotal moment that needs to be embraced and seen as an opportunity to deepen our commitment and tolerate the diminished excitement of the honeymoon phase. This, to her credit, is what Lois was prepared and able to do.

Love in a deep and lasting relationship is not defined by being constantly gratified and provided with perpetual opportunities for excitement and unending pleasure. The hope is always that we know ourselves well enough to understand whether we are, or are not, capable of tolerating the long haul after the honeymoon is over.