Attention — 26 April 2009
Why is the toilet seat position a relationship issue?

Of all the areas of conflict couples may experience, why would the toilet seat position command so much annoyance and warrant the time and emotions pairs spend on it?

One may think that it may be an aspect of the gender wars, or related to entitlement of comfort, autonomy or convenience, time management, general values and courtesy, or just a frivolous argument in lieu of deeper annoyances that are harder to deal with.

Though all these may be plausible contributors, the deeper issue often uncovered during counseling has to do with the need for attention and consideration from the partner.

The initial presented argument usually begin with: “How difficult is it to put the seat up (or down)?” “Why do I have to do this for you every time? Is it such a hard task?” Responded to with, “Why are you making such a big deal about this?”

Further exploration may address the need for equality, self-responsibility and not being expected to be another’s caregiver. After more discourse one mate is likely to say: “ If you really cared about me, you would do it (put the toilet seat up or down) for me. Beneath the seemingly trivial annoyance about being slightly inconvenienced often lurks the deep desire for the care and attention each partner wishes to receive as evidence of love.

It is possible that these expectations of caring and reciprocity are related to imprinting from very early developmental stages of infants and their understanding of human interaction and caring?

Michael Tomasello
 of Emory University describes developmental research with infants in “Joint Attention: Its Origins and Role in Development”, edited by Chris Moore. In his chapter ‘Joint attention as Social Cognition’, Tomasello defines “joint attention” as when: “Two individuals know that they are attending to something in common.” Though it starts with parallel gazing, Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner found that, “The child adopts the visual attention of the other, the emotion of the other, or the instrumental or symbolic behavior of the other-or else attempts to get the adult to adopt an intention or attentional focus in line with his or her own.” In other words, infants learn that human activity is purposeful and a shared emotional experience.

These early brain cognitions may be the influential source that molds our relationship patterns for life. Adults may still associate attention to objects as the first symbolic step to evidence of affection, attention and bonding.

Whether it is the accommodation about the toilet seat location or any other seemingly insignificant disturbing conduct, the essential need behind the discontent is: “ I want you to be attentive to me and my needs at all times, without having to ask, explain, request, demand or justify them.” This universal wish for demonstrated significance is well hidden from our conscious awareness. We therefore, resort to logical expectations to justify our dismay.

• Understand that the reason for your discontent may not be as obvious as it appears to be.
• Avoid assigning ill intent to your mate due to the action or inaction you resent.
• Realize that viewing other people’s thoughts and actions solely in terms of assumed concrete intentions was part of your early developmental programming and may not be helpful to you as an adult.
• Accept that your uncomfortable feelings are about you and not about your mate.
• Do your own insight work. Ask yourself: ”why does this behavior bother me?” Dismiss any answers that have to do with your partner’s intent, social graces, morality, unfairness, or other values. Concentrate on “What am I not getting that I really need or want?” Most likely it will always boil down to needing attention, respect, validation and love.
• State what you need as a request and express your future appreciation upon receiving it. The small annoyances will resolve and your relationship will improve.

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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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