Why Your Partner Takes You for Granted: It’s All about Habituation

By Nancy D. Young, PhD

You know how it is when you’re in a long term relationship, no matter how much you love each other, there comes a time when you look at each other and say “Wow, I don’t feel much appreciated” and when that happens, it’s often because of “habituation.”

Habituation: If we didn't have it, we would all be mesmerized (without the help of hallucinogens) by tying our shoes or by the taste of toast. We would get nothing done. EVERYTHING would be all new, all the time and it would all be equally significant. Granted, "beginner's mind" may be an enviable state, but without the ability to habituate or grow accustomed to repeated stimuli, we would be focused on every little detail of our environment—unable to distinguish what should be foreground from what can be background. So over all, our ability to come to ignore irrelevant stuff (i.e., at the most basic level, that which is not life threatening) is a great gift.

Definition: Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations. For example, a novel sound in your environment, such as a new ring tone, may initially draw your attention or even become distracting. After you become accustomed to this sound, you pay less attention to the noise and your response to the sound will diminish. This diminished response is habituation (http://psychology.about.com/od/hindex/g/def_habituation.htm).  

However, it is just this habituation experience that makes it really hard to keep the impact of positive statements strong over time in a relationship.  Hearing statements like "I love you" or "Gosh, you're so wonderful," though positive, ultimately become pretty meaningless after we've heard them more than a handful of times, and that is a big enemy of long term love because current research shows you need a minimum ratio of five positives to every negative to keep a relationship in good health (see, for example: Gottman & Silver, 2000).  The first time you hear “I love you,” your eyes light up, your pupils dilate, your nose runs, and your ears start to flash colored lights.  It’s pretty exciting.  Perhaps you’ve been waiting to hear that for months, or years (or, in some cases, maybe only hours, but in that case, you might want to slow down your fantasy life).  Finally, s/he says those three little words! You walk around on a cloud with a goofy smile stuck on your face for days. You are sure everybody can see total joy bursting forth from your entire being.   

Fast forward to the second year of the relationship, after dopamine has dropped and oxytocin and vasopressin have taken over (okay, topics for a different blog post), and you have heard “I love you” five hundred or more times.  Do you even hear those words anymore?  It’s more likely you might notice when you don’t hear them than when you do (and then it is not pretty).  

Thus, there is a serious necessity for us to get better and better at 1) noticing our partners when they do things we like and 2) making statements of appreciation about those things with a great deal of specificity.

So, in other words, "Wow. You're just super!" is much less impactful than "When you made dinner tonight, I got a few minutes after work to just sit still without having to think about anything which helped me relax and I felt really taken care of!"  “Thanks for dinner” fades into the background if you’ve been together awhile and you’ve said it before, but “I love that you thought of taking me out to dinner tonight.  When we get just that extra couple of hours to talk together, by ourselves, I feel like I understand you better and can picture how your day went and then I feel closer to you” is much more likely to make an impression. 

It must be near dinnertime, as I write this, because it seems like all I can think of are examples about food.  Okay, let me try another subject: “When you just called my attention to that article about the neurobiology of trauma in the magazine you’re reading, it made me feel like you really know me and that you keep me in mind, and that makes me feel especially connected to you” would always trump just a “Hey thanks!”  

In other words, try to tell your partner what they did that made you happy; what was it about that particular thing that made you happy; how you feel about her/him because of it.  Try to find as many things as possible to tell her/him about every day.  Truly, as “unnatural” as this may feel at first, trust me, it’ll be worth every unit of energy you use to do it and it’ll get easier and easier!



Nancy D. Young has a Ph.D. in Social-Personality Psychology from the University of California, Riverside, a M.A. Social-Personality Psychology from the University of California, Riverside, and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Denver, Colorado. Dr. Young has over thirty years of experience specializing in therapy with adult individuals, couples, and groups, and, for 20 years, she was an Adjunct Professor at Chapman University, teaching such classes as: Intro to Psychology, Interpersonal Attraction & Romantic Love, Human Sexuality, Sexual Disorders & Treatment, and Chemical Dependency Treatment.

 If you feel that you are stuck in the mode of habituation, contact Nancy to make an appointment. Contact: 714-432-9856 ext. 2 or via email: DrNancy@pathways2wellness.com