The quality and quantity of attention each romantic partner gives their relationship influences the satisfaction both partners feel in the relationship.
“One of the most important things people get is attention. Attention, interest in you…curiosity about… who are you, the stuff that couples neglect in their relationships.” – Esther Perel, an interview on The Armchair Expert.
Imagine that each day you wake up with an allowance of attention to dedicate to people or things in your life. On the days when you’ve had a good night’s rest, you may have more. On the days when you worked 10 to 14 hours the day before, you may have less.
How you budget this attention matters. If there is too little attention directed at your romantic relationship then the flames of love fade. Poor quality of attention, such as barely listening because you are focused on social media, also costs the relationship
Today more than ever we are inundated with constant and captivating messages, posts, and videos that, while sometimes valuable, can distract us from the most important relationship in our life.
“Here’s what I find to be so heartbreaking about divorce…in many of these cases with my friends, the dad has the kids half the week and the mom has the other half of the week, and I look at that, and I think, ‘Isn’t it heartbreaking that they had to separate so that each person could get 3 and a half days of their own life back, and that they couldn’t have just said, ‘We’ve got to figure out how to get a day or two of our life back within this…”
“[And after divorce] Now they can give that time to someone else; each of those people can give 3 and a half days of their week to some other person that didn’t build all that with them, and that person receives that, yet their poor partner, that was never an option.” – Dax Shepard, the Armchair Expert Host
Just as when investing money in your retirement, attention needs to be dedicated to your relationship to keep it thriving. Here are some of the common problems that create a lack of attention.
The Not-Paying-Attention Problem
Have you ever had your partner “uh-huh” you when you were sharing something as they stared at their cell phone?
Then you ask, “What did I just say?” and they look up in guilt, having no clue what you said.
Currently, the technology in our lives is becoming an every-waking-moment activity. The constant waves of information, cats-jumping-in-fear-of-cucumber videos, and friends posting on social media have led to our devices transforming our lovers into the third wheel in their own relationship.
In the current attention economy, our brains are being primed to addictively check our devices to monitor our email, social media accounts, and various apps. Sadly, while writing this very paragraph, I caught myself reaching for my phone three times.
Our devices make it difficult to focus our attention on what matters. This is because marketers have created captivating content that pulls us into a void of spending our energy on entertainment that is only a finger tap away.
If electronic devices are a problem in your relationship, visit here.
In Wired for Love Stan Tatkin states that “partners should prevent each other from being a third wheel when relating to [devices].”
If your partner thinks it is a problem and you don’t, then it’s a problem and something you need to take seriously. Read why here: Two Experiences in a Relationship
Attention Fatigue = Relationship Fatigue
Part of what our technology is bringing to our awareness is the cost of attention fatigue. Every day you and I have a finite amount of focused attention. The more our attention is spent outside of the relationship, the less we have for our relationship.
The two things that help us focus our attention are our values and our willpower. Your values, even the ones you are not aware of, influence how you spend your time when you have energy. Your willpower helps you live out your values by disciplining and focusing your attention on the things that matter.
Researchers have discovered that willpower helps us focus our attention, control our impulsive behaviors, delay gratification, and follow through on what we say we will do 1
What this means is if you spend your willpower preventing yourself from lashing out at your co-worker Ted who, yet again, broke the printer, or you barely slept last night because your child had a terrible nightmare and sought you out for comfort, your willpower will be depleted and as a result you will have less energy to pay quality attention to your partner 2.
Another way to put this is if you have a stressful day or are under a lot of stress, such as fear of losing your job, you’re going to have less energy to be present with your partner.
The Romantic Cost of Busyness
Our lives are becoming busier and more stressful. Dual-income couples, especially those with children, are literally working four jobs. The first two are their own jobs, the third is raising the kids, and the fourth is managing the household. This often leaves little time for the emotional connection required to strengthen the relationship over time.
In one research study, dual-income couples only spent 10% of their time at home with each other and without their children. And guess what they did during that time?
Talked about chores.
The more stressed you are about things in your life, the less energy you will have to create positive moments of connection in your relationship.
This is especially apparent with parents. And Esther Perel proposes a solution:
“If you need a happy couple to have an intact family, then what does the couple need to do?
It really needs to redirect some of the energy away from family and children to themselves, and to do it without massive amounts of guilt, to do it because they actually know that the survival of the family will depend on their ability to redirect, what I call the erotic energy to the relationship.” – Ester Perel
Ester states, “At this moment, you have never seen a generation of parents that feels more guilty when it takes time for itself, can’t find babysitters because nobody is good enough, doesn’t leave the house, has taken 2 years before they ever had a night away.”
The Preoccupation Problem
On a simpler note, if your partner is preoccupied with another task, it makes it difficult for them to listen to you. If one of your kids is crying, the TV is on, or music is playing, it’s going to be difficult to hear you.
“Couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs out of mindlessness, not malice.” – Dr. John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
After all, it’s hard for you to be heard when your partner is distracted.
Solutions for the Lack of Attention to Your Relationship:
- When communicating with your partner, make sure you have your partner’s full attention. This means not assuming your partner is listening just because you’re talking. Instead, check in: “Is this a good time to talk about…?” Especially if it is something that is meaningful to you or the relationship. If you as the listener are focused on something and your partner begins talking, you can pause and say, “I really want to hear what you’re saying and I’m focused/distracted by this. Can I finish this up really quick and then talk to you about this? I want to give you my full attention and I ‘m distracted right now.” FYI, if you make an agreement like this but don’t follow through, your significant other won’t trust your word. So follow through. Remember, both the speaker and listener have responsibilities in keeping the conversation clean and clear.
- If your relationship is consumed by busyness, sit down with your partner and explore how your time is spent. See if there are tiny opportunities to make time for emotional connection. I have suggested some rituals here: 7 Daily Rituals Intentional Couples Use to Cultivate Lasting Love
- For attention fatigue when it comes to stress, I would recommend having a daily stress reducing conversation, as well as scheduling a State of the Union meeting when both partners have energy so you can listen to each other and work together to come up with a solution.
- If devices are a problem, then read this article: Four Common Solvable Problems in Relationships. Devices have become a big problem in my life. For this reason, I read Digital Minimalism and went through an attention diet. Knowing that my attention is limited, I want to make sure I focus it on what matters most in my life.
- Schedule a new experience with each other. Often in relationships with kids, the children get all kinds of new activities, while the adults get the routine of daily life. Bring in the childlike curiosity and playfulness into your relationship. Explore new parts of each other when you try dancing, painting, a new workout class, wine tasting, or even new ways of expressing love, etc.
Love and life are difficult and challenging. And for this reason, it’s important to dedicate the little moments we have to the most important relationship of our lives.
- Book: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister Willpower ↩
- It’s also important to note that when your willpower is lower, you have a lower tolerance towards other people, including your partner. This means, you will more quickly jump to snap judgments, criticism, and negative thinking, including harsher behaviors. I wrote about this here. ↩
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