Neal was very excited about 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 he 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,” who had “swept me off my feet,” and whom 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.

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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 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 instead a pattern and therefore evident in other areas in their lives.

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 rather than 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, had commented that there seemed to be “no suitable instrument” for her. It took her awhile to begin to wonder why she could not be satisfied no matter how many instruments (five) she had tried over the years.

When something was fun, exciting, and new, these clients got a temporary hit of dopamine, which felt good and stimulated their brains’ reward center. Dopamine initially contributed to their desire to seek out novelty. This presence of this “pleasure chemical” increased their general level of arousal and goal-directed behavior. However, when the wave of chemical pleasure receded, each of these clients was left standing at the shoreline of boredom, wondering where the thrill had gone and questioning their initial vocational, relational, and recreational choices.

Perhaps this knowledge might help Lois, one of my current patients, to better understand what happened at 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 solely via video and phone communication. 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’s wariness about moving in with a man she had only known for a short time was understandable. A psychologically sophisticated person, she worried that Justin might be someone who excitedly enjoyed 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, taking his verbal and physical affection with him. Lois felt blindsided and, worse, betrayed by this sudden change with a partner who was apparently unwilling to acknowledge that anything was different. Presently, Lois and Justin are actively engaged in attempting to understand what occurred and whether they have a chance of recovering their early experience and remaining happily together.

I have found that my clients believe in the power of novelty and pursue it passionately...until they don’t. Some never expect the thrill to wear off and are taken by surprise when it does. When the shiny object loses its luster, whether that object is a pastime, vocation or relationship, I have taken the opportunity with my clients to embrace the experience as an opportunity to deepen their commitment while tolerating the diminished excitement of the honeymoon phase. To her credit, Lois was prepared to do the therapeutic work of strengthening the relationship with Justin, for whom the luster of the new relationship had worn off. Time and hard therapeutic work will tell.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections