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Habituation: Learning to Ignore the One You Love

I look forward to each Spring when I can open the bedroom window during the night. Fresh air drifting in from the garden and the sounds of the morning breeze or falling rain on the trees can be very soothing. Yes, I look forward to Springtime and saying goodbye to the musty air that has built up in my home over the cold winter.

However, a disadvantage of the ceremonial opening of my window is that the birds outside start their morning gatherings around 5:00 a.m. Because of the double pain glass, I had not been privy to these avian breakfast meetings for many months. For the first week or so, I am awakened each morning by their discussions. So I lay awake calculating the costs and benefits of my decision, weighing my need for sleep versus my desire for fresh air. Then something curious happens. After about 7-10 days, I realize I have slept through the noise and wake up refreshed at my normal time. Is it that the birds have moved on to a new meeting place, or has something happened to me?  

This scenario is similar to those described by many people, and something that happens to you every day. Someone moves into a home and for the first month or so they are aware of every little sound the house makes. After a while, they don't pay attention to these sounds anymore. When car alarms first were installed, they generated much attention. Most of the time the alarms don't mean anything important, so people have learned to not react to them. A heavy smoker walks into your office to converse with you, and the odor seems to dissipate after a few minutes. It's not until you step outside for a minute and come back that you realize the odor is still there. We habituate quickly to smells, which is why people can easily wear too much perfume. To their nose, it's not strong enough, so they apply more; however, to someone approaching, it can seem too intense at first smell. The first sight of snowfall in the Autumn brings awe, but by the 5th or 6th occasion, you barely notice the visual display. The taste of the first bite of vanilla ice cream is intense, but by the 3rd or 4th bite, the flavor has diminished. In the header photo above, the crows have learned that the scarey new object in the field is of no threat, and no longer pay it any attention, except as a perch.

In each of these situations, the brain respondeds to the novelty or newness of the experiences. Once the novelty wears off, the brain effectively learns to ignore it. Why? Because there are so many things to attend to, and something else may need more of our focus. This learning to ignore is called "Habituation" and is the most basic form of learning. Even the simplest of life forms can learn to ignore harmless events in their environment that at first caught their attention. Our brains have limited capacity to focus, and we can only pay attention to a small number of things at one time. So this kind of learning is very important to us in our complex world, and what we perceive to be most critical determines what we choose what we attend to at any moment.

Another way of expressing habituation is "taking something for granted." In order to adapt and survive, any creature needs to take things for granted, to be able to ignore non-critical things in its world. We have to adapt in order to notice change. And we tend take many things for granted, which means only "I've grown accustomed to it. I don't need to focus on that right now. Something else is more critical and needing my energies." Sadly, we also learn to ignore things that we shouldn't, like our primary partners. This process of taking for granted happens in almost all relationships. I cannot overstate how normal this is. But don't confuse normal with healthy. Taking someone for granted can be very damaging to a relationship. It's a normal process we have to be aware of and learn to overcome for a relationship to thrive.

My client Sally worked hard to win the affections of her fiancé, Glenn. She would always greet him with kisses, messaged him frequently during the day, spent time watching his favorite college team's games with him on the weekends. She had even learned to camp, something that was previously out of her comfort zone. At the time, Sally saw the relationship as critical, in need of attention. Glenn was a catch and she wanted to please him.

After being married a while, Sally would often find herself busy when Glenn returned home (the kids were demanding her attention), and the welcome home kisses came less frequently. So did the loving messages during the day (because she got a new job which needed more attention). Since she had neglected her girlfriends while dating Glenn, they became more critical for her, and hanging out with them became more important than cheering on Glenn's team. She protested camping trips, complaining that the hard ground hurt her back. Sally had reached her goal of getting married, and the relationship was at a place where she was comfortable. She no longer saw it as critical to focus on, and thus took her relationship with Glenn for granted. Other things needed her attention now because they were not where she wanted them to be.

When we get to a place that feels comfortable in one area of life, whether it's at a job, a new home, or a relationship, the normal tendency is to be content with its current status. It is no longer needing our full attention. We stop working so hard to maintain it because there are other areas of life that are now more critical. One day, Sally discovered that there was a void between her and Glenn. Unfortunately, the problems have already started. Glenn just announced to her that he is unhappy, and this change has steered her attention back in the direction of the relationship, a process called "dis-habituation." 

I hear so many times in my office that after a previous round of counseling (with a different therapist), couples find themselves going back to the same problematic patterns within 6 months. Usually one partner is feeling neglected or betrayed again, questioning whether the changes that were made through the counseling were real. Or if the neglecting partner was just pretending for a while to satisfy and end the therapy process. I argue that the changes most likely were real, but that the process of habituation is so strong and automatic (we are not even aware of it). Since the therapy seemed to "fix" the relationship, it is no longer in a critical state. There is no need to devote so much attention to it, especially when the house is in disrepair, the kids are misbehaving in school, you're trying to lose weight, and your spouse's dad is having health issues. These seem like the critical things in life now, not your marriage. So date nights start getting cancelled, you spend more time and energy talking with your dad than your spouse, babysitter money is budgeted instead for home projects, and you've forgotten to save energy for intimate connection in the evenings.

There are so many things in life that need our attention. The figure on the right shows people juggling many responsibilities. Can you spot what is missing from each person's assortment of things to worry about and take care of? That's right, neither of them is including their relationship with their partner as one of their balls to juggle. Your relationship with your primary teammate should never be neglected. This is the one ball you don't want to drop because it will affect all the others! But by continuing to foster and protect that relationship, you ensure that through those life struggles you always have a partner, someone who is on your side. Life can be much easier with a teammate to help you juggle all those balls.

And to keep that person on your side, you always have to keep the relationship critical. (click here to see my writing on Classic Cars)

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