“How can I get your attention?”

Most of the crap in relationships is about the trouble we have simply getting our partner’s attention. It’s a HUGE issue.


Last time we talked about how we don’t need to fight with each other, but of course we do. Why? Well, so much of that is about trying to get the other person’s attention, and I promised I’d deal with it here. So off we go...


Here’s how the whole not-paying-attention thing works.


Attention, my attention, your attention, anyone’s attention, is the most precious commodity in the world these days. The entire world of media is a scream chamber of people trying to get each other’s attention. At work, same thing. If you deal with the public, so much of the rage there is about the feeling they can’t get your attention.


Black Lives Matter? Of course that was about a terrible set of things happening. But the rage and the demonstrations were about our frustration at not being able to get the attention of the law enforcement community when it comes to racist and inhuman treatment of black people.


That’s the ecology of attention in our lives today. Now let’s focus in on our individual lives. Let’s say you and I are in a relationship. And you want to get my attention.


I might say, Oh, I love you and I want to pay attention to anything you have to say. But in practice? Hah! In practice, I have a shitload of stuff on my mind. A ton of stuff to do. I’m incredibly involved with stuff going on in my phone, social media, et cetera. And frankly, I’m so supersaturated that I don’t want to pay attention to one more person, particularly when their demands for my attention will also involve thought and feeling and action. Oy! It’s all too much. Including you.


So you experience me as someone whose attention is hard to get.


Which brings us to the final difficulty with this: the attention-getting arms race.


With all this going on, you naturally find, like all of us, that you are more likely to be successful in getting my attention if you raise a ruckus. Now anyone who’s taken a psychology course will pick up on what’s going on here. By not giving you my attention when you use normal measures—like just talking—and by being more likely to give you my attention when you raise a ruckus, I am training you to make trouble if you want my attention.


And in most relationships we both get caught up in this dynamic.


Which means, no one pays attention to anyone without a fight and yelling and drama and threats and saying horrible things. Leading to those famous words, “Good, NOW I’ve got your attention.” Sure! Now that there’s blood and tears all over the place.


Does anyone really want to keep up this painful and destructive dynamic?


I’m sure at least some of us don’t!


And the solution is pretty straightforward.


Let’s say the couple is Amanda and Josh. Amanda says to Josh, “Honey, what do I need to do to get your undivided attention for 15 minutes?”


Three things here are crucial:


  • What do I need to do? This shows you understand that a bid for the other person’s attention is not a small thing.

  • Your undivided attention. This makes it clear what you’re asking for. Not half-assed attention. Undivided attention.

  • For 15 minutes. Here you’re setting a boundary for what the other person is in for. Meaning: yeah, it’s 15 minutes, but, hey, it’s not more than 15 minutes.


Think about how different this is from just talking at someone who’s busy scrolling on their phone or Amazon shopping on their computer. The difference is huge. With this, you are taking your need for attention seriously, and showing your partner that you also take his problems with giving attention seriously.


So. What do you do with the other person’s attention once you’ve gotten it?


1. Make it crystal clear what you want to use this attention for. “Josh, thanks for giving me 15 minutes. I’ve been going through a tough time recently, and I just need you to hear about what I’ve been going through and understand it. You don’t have to do anything. Just understand. Okay?”


Or, it could be about something more action oriented. “Josh, your snoring is starting to be a real problem for me. I know it’s not your fault. But can we talk about your going to a sleep specialist to see if we can figure out what’s going on and what we can do about it? I just want to know you’re working with me on this.”


2. Keep on track. You have the other person’s attention to deal with a certain issue. So don’t junk it up with other issues. Focus and simplicity is what will work here. The mistake is that sometimes people are so thrilled to have the other person’s attention they want to talk about everything. Don’t.


3. Whether or not you get the exact outcome you were hoping for, reward the hell out of your partner for giving you the attention you’d asked for. Because that’s the important thing! With attention, you can accomplish anything, if not now then next time. By leaving a good taste in your partner’s mouth from having given you his attention, you’re more likely to get his attention in the future.


The art of getting and giving attention is the key to staying in love for a long, long time.

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