Attention — 10 November 2003
How to be more attentive to your partner

Paying close attention to your partner is a curious behavior. Curious because the need for it is so profound and the giving of it is sometimes difficult.

As social animals, humans must get supportive recognition to feel valued. The basic unit of recognition is attention. It involves eye contact, listening, verbal exchange and ideally – some affirmation.

Our earliest experience with attention is in infancy. Our mothers’ attentive gaze, cuddling, human warmth, sweet sounds and feeding conditioned us to associate attention with survival. It also affirmed our worth to be loved unconditionally. Those are the yearnings of all human beings. Though with time our expectations for love may be altered, the necessity of being listened to stays constant as a basic measure of our significance.

Parents get furious when their children do not listen to them. “How many times to I have to tell you to do this?” “Why are you not listening to me?” Teachers frown upon students who speak in class, are distracted and do not pay attention. Employers will rate poorly employees who have to be instructed repeatedly and do not seem to be attentive enough to their supervisors.

These authority figures expect attention as evidence of respect for their knowledge, seniority and wisdom. When they do not receive it, authority figures feel discounted and angry.

Since partners in love relationship are equal, the need for attention springs from the desire to feel loved and valued. Mates also get angry when they feel ignored. Not being responded to, listened to, or acknowledged, feels painful. It is as though the partner is not valued enough to be acknowledged.

“She never listens to me.” “I talk to him and he doesn’t even look at me, he keeps reading the paper and ignores me, I feel infuriated.” The indignancy is about not mattering enough to be graced with minimal attention. The anger that ensues masks the fear of isolation that feels life threatening.

The content of the discourse is immaterial. Some people just chatter to have a listening audience. The message may be insignificant in and of itself. Older people and children tell stories, adults do the same, albeit, in a less obvious manner. “I am thinking of something important I had to tell you, but I can’t think of what it was”. This is an example of a sentence that serves only to hold the attention of another for a few seconds longer. It is often said at a time of parting, at the anticipation of loss of connection and attention.

In couple relationship the loss of attention creates anger that covers the fear of not being loved. A common punishment of partners is the state of severed attention. After fights, some people cease to look at or speak to their partners. The “silent treatment”, actually feels like solitary confinement, where no attention, not even negative one is available.

Isolation is the harshest punishment in our culture. Being shunned by a community not responded to or ignored is a harsh deterrent. Acting out prisoners are secluded from others with no human contact as punishment for grave misconduct.

If being ignored is so painful, why would loving partners be inattentive to their mates? Why would they stop talking, stonewall (not respond) or refrain from any comment for long periods? There are many reasons for this conduct: punishment, the need to re-group after being wounded, fearing escalation of hostility, being at a loss for words, feeling overwhelmed by emotions, to name a few. With time, the emotions subside and the connection between the partners is gradually restored. Attention is renewed and homeostasis re-occurs.

Some partners complain that their mates are “too needy of attention”. It is hard for the giving partners to provide sufficient concentration and positive comments to satisfy their “needy” counterparts. “She talks and talks all day, I simply can not stay tuned for that long” “He is so wrapped up with himself that he is never available to listen to me.” This couple presents an exaggerated view of each other’s behavior. They also help each other get further entrenched in their position. She will not reduce her demands for his attention, until he responds to her. He will not respond until the demand is moderated.

Both parties in this scenario end up feeling unattended to. Their extreme posture deprives them of an authentic connection. Attention can only be given willingly. It can not be coerced. The best way is for each partner to offer his or her availability by stating their willingness to listen and elicit questions to be responded to lovingly.

To become more attentive to your partner:

n Realize that attention seeking is normal and attention giving is an expression of respect and love.
n The need for attention varies for people, as do all other needs. No judgement is advisable about your mate’ s need level.
n Offer your presence, your listening ability and affirming language to your mate daily, your intimacy will improve.
n The content of the message is not important, the speaker is. Help him or her know it.
n Fights may occur more often when one or both partners lack sufficient positive attention.
n Be present to not only listen to your partner, but to help your mate feel heard.
n Receiving attention and being heard strengthens the individual and creates a more intimate relationship.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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