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More Ways Couples Misunderstand Each Other III

We need to create interest in love relationships.

The idea of having to create interest in loved ones incorrectly sounds a kind of funeral knell to love for many people. 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 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.

To make matters worse, the brain naturally filters out familiar sounds and voices. This innocent quirk of auditory processing has been the misunderstood source of numerous fights about, "You never listen to me!" The results of psychological experiments suggest that altering inflection or tone of voice draws attention. When you have to tell your spouse or children a particular time and place to do something important, alter your tone of voice, going either up or down in volume or intensity.

A Secure Base or Taken for Granted?

John Bowlby uses the term, secure base, to describe a primary psychological function of attachment relationships. Emotional responsiveness to loved ones provide 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 modulate our emotions to match those of loved ones. 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 he/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 because 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 displays from those closest to us. Within our closest relationships, we're naturally prone to ignore the good and focus on the bad.

Deliberately Activating Interest

As happens with all emotions, our experience with interest over time develops into what psychologist, Silvan Tomkins, calls, scripts. For instance, if interest frequently leads to reward, particularly early in life, 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.

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?

Every individual in committed relationships bears responsibility to create interest, while supporting, or at least not impeding, the interest of loved ones. We are each responsible to find interesting things about loved ones. Here are a few ways to go about it:

  • look for something new to appreciate about your partner
  • look at something familiar in a new way or from a different perspective
  • appreciate the depth of your partner’s thoughts and emotions.

For example, Alex took one of our seminars after his wife had given him an ultimatum. She could no longer allow him to ignore her.

"At first I blamed her for not being interesting. Naturally, that made for a lot of anger and resentment. We started fighting every time we looked at each other. Eventually, I sort of realized that we fought because I was blaming her. So I stopped doing that and went to pretty much ignoring her. Then I guess I just hoped that interest would come out of the blue, that something, sooner or later, would happen to make me more interested in her. I felt this big void in my life. I felt powerless and frustrated, like I wasn't at all in control of how I felt, and I wasn't.

“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, but 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's 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 feeling in his life and in the lives of his family. He stopped living on the surface and appreciated an inner world of his wife. Directed interest can be that simple; simply deciding to notice.

Assessing the Effects of Interest in Your Life

Once I allow myself to be interested in my partner, I usually feel:

  • Increasing interest
  • Excitement
  • Enjoyment
  • Disappointment
  • Rejection
  • Anger
  • Resentment
  • Valuable
  • Trusting
  • Trustworthy
  • Loving
  • Lovable

Exercising Interest

To raise novelty to a higher level of interest requires self-reward, such as repeatedly saying to yourself: I'M DOING WELL AT RAISING MY INTEREST LEVEL AND INCREASING MY STORE OF KNOWLEDGE. AS I VALUE MY PARTNER, I VALUE MYSELF.


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