About a year and a half ago, I learned about something called the Zeigarnik Effect. Being the curious cat that I am, I fell down a rabbit hole (happens all the time). In fact, the proverbial “rabbit hole” is caused by this psychological phenomena. Basically, The Zeigarnik Effect refers to the idea that people tend to remember things that are incomplete better than those issues that have been resolved.
What’s this got to do with sex coaching? Follow me down this path, which looks and feels an awful lot like the rabbit hole I found myself in during the summer of 2020.
What is the Zeigarnik Effect?
Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik was a Jewish psychologist and psychiatrist from Soviet Lithuania who studied memory in the 1920’s. Shoutout to female doctors of the early 20th century! She was intrigued by the way waiters at a cafe were able to remember complicated orders until they were delivered. Once the orders were paid for, they slipped out of the waiters’ memories.
She ran studies tasking folks with puzzles and activities like stringing patterns of beads onto string. Once the participants were engaged, she’d interrupt half of them and keep them from their tasks while the others were allowed to finish. After about an hour, when Zeigarnik asked all of the participants about what they worked on, she found the group who was interrupted were twice as likely to recall the task and pattern they were working on as compared to those who were allowed to finish. Zeigarnik’s initial studies were described in a paper titled “Finished and Unfinished Tasks,” published in 1927. Interesting, right? Don’t worry, we’re getting to the sex coaching connection soon…
Our minds are taking in data all the time. It records certain things for short periods of time, but it’s limited in capacity and duration. That’s short-term memory. Through active rehearsal (making a conscious effort to remember something, perhaps by repeating it over and over), the short-term memory moves into long-term memory. Zeigarnik suggested that failing to complete a task creates cognitive tension, which results in active rehearsal. We remember incomplete things because of this tension.
How the Zeigarnik Effect Affects Our Sex Coaching Clients
I always associate the word “tension” with “sexual tension” (the mind of a sex coach…). I found myself comparing cognitive tension with sexual tension. This led me to consider this question: Does the Zeigarnik Effect affect our sex lives and those of our clients?
It doesn’t sound like a relationship issue when you first hear about it: “People remember things more when they are incomplete…” except, think back to a time when you felt slighted in one of your relationships.
Perhaps you were telling a story or giving instructions to someone who was simultaneously reading an email or texting on their phone. If you weren’t sure whether your point was getting across (or if they were even paying attention) before the conversation ended, you might continue to think about it as you go about your day. “Did they understand? Why couldn’t they have put their phone down?”
When your partner does that annoying thing (or responds a certain way…or doesn’t), how do you respond? Have you experienced romantic and/or sexual cliffhangers?
Consider when a client tells you they said something to their partner in hopes that they‘d get a particular response and, of course, it goes completely over the partner’s head and your client can’t let go of the indignation they feel.
A client might report that she wanted a romantic anniversary date with her partner to play out a certain way with soft music, candles, and lots of kissing and eye gazing, but it plays out as a typical Friday night with typical, short-lived sex and none of the “special” touches she longed for. She may not verbalize her disappointment to her partner but she often considers whether her dream will ever be made real and thinks about what the date “could have been.”
Another client might be devastated when his erection becomes inconsistent. He believes he should become aroused and erect and able to be stimulated enough to achieve orgasm. If his body doesn’t respond in that order and deviates or doesn’t comply, he experiences tension (cognitive and sexual) as the moment replays in his mind over and over again.
These moments create the Zeigarnik Effect.
The perceived slights and moments of indignation create cognitive tension as they repeat in our minds. We don’t forget them. They linger in our brains and add up. Maladaptive behaviors might sneak in.
Resolving what’s incomplete can lead to greater sexual and relational satisfaction⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
We want to finish the story. We want to find resolutions. Every relationship incurs some stress and strain, but overcoming those moments together brings us closer to one another and builds trust and intimacy. The deficient and incomplete acts (big or small) interrupt the relationship cycle that we’ve all come to expect and need: connect-break-repair (repeat). It wears on the strength of the relationship if we don’t communicate to repair them.
This is how we can help our clients (and ourselves) use the Zeigarnik Effect to our benefit. When a client notes that something is on their mind, have them name it as best they can. It can be difficult to start the process, but the sheer act of naming their feelings often brings relief. It is the first step in resolving the cognitive tension created in the brain.
The next step is bringing it up with their partner. Action steps don’t need to be big to be effective. Once the client has identified the emotion associated with any dissatisfaction, voicing the complaint without criticism is necessary. Use “I” statements and express what is needed in as positive a way as possible. Hopefully, this will prevent the other partner from becoming defensive.
Clear, authentic communication is always the best course of action with issues in romantic and sexual relationships. We help our clients communicate their expectations and needs in order to find resolution to the cognitive (and sexual) tension in their lives. The action step of discussion creates a new “ending” or resolution to the expectation of any given scenario. The Zeigarnik Effect loses its potency as issues resolve.
Once we see a light at the end of the tunnel (or rabbit hole), our brain releases the tension and the events we experience slip into a healthy sense of satisfaction and comfort. And this is our shared goal as sex coaches.
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