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
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 [cases] the dad has the kids half the week and the mom has the other half of the week… and I think, ‘Isn’t it heartbreaking that they had to separate so that each person could get three 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…”
“[After divorce] they can give that time to someone else; each of those people can give three and a half days of their week to some other person who didn’t build all that with them… 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.
Our lives are becoming busier and more stressful. Dual-income couples, especially those with children, are literally working four jobs
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 shared something as they stared at their cell phone?
You ask, “What did I just say?” and they look up guiltily, having no clue what you said.
The technology in our lives is becoming an every-waking-moment activity. The constant waves of information, cat-videos, and friends posting on social media have led to us transforming our lovers into the third wheel in their own relationship.
Our devices make it difficult to focus our attention on what matters. This is because marketers have created captivating content that pulls our energy into entertainment that is only a finger tap away.
Attention fatigue = relationship fatigue
Part of what our technology is bringing to our awareness is the cost of attention fatigue. Every day we have a finite amount of focused attention. The more our attention is spent outside the relationship, the less we have for the relationship.
Two things that help us focus our attention are our values and willpower. Your values, even the subconscious ones, influence how you spend your time when you have energy. Your willpower helps you discipline and focus your attention on your values – the things that matter.
Researchers have discovered that willpower helps us focus our attention, control impulsive behaviour, delay gratification and follow through on what we say we will do 1
Thus, if you spend your willpower preventing yourself from lashing out at your co-worker who broke the printer again, or you barely slept last night because your child had a nightmare, your willpower will be depleted and 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 will 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 working four jobs. The first two are their income generating jobs, the third is raising the children, and the fourth is managing the household. This 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, 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. Esther Perel proposes a solution:
“If you need a happy couple to have an intact family, then what does the couple need to do?
“[They] need to redirect some of the energy from family and children to themselves, without [feeling] massive amounts of guilt, to do it because they… know that the survival of the family…depends on their ability to redirect… the erotic energy to the relationship.” – Ester Perel
Ester states, “[The current] generation of parents… feels more guilty when [taking] time for [themselves], can’t find babysitters because nobody is good enough, doesn’t leave the house, [takes] two years before they [have] a night away.”
Just as when investing money in your retirement, attention needs to be dedicated to your relationship to keep it thriving
The preoccupation problem
Simply, if your partner is preoccupied with another task, it [is] 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 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.
- For attention fatigue when it comes to stress, have a daily stress reducing conversation, as well as scheduling a ‘State of the Union’ meeting when both partners have enough energy to listen to each other and work together towards a solution.
- If devices are a problem, then read this article: Four Common Solvable Problems in Relationships.
- Schedule a new experience with each other. Often in relationships with kids, the children are given a variety of new activities, while the adults have the routine of daily life. Bring some childlike curiosity and playfulness into your relationship and discover new aspects of each other by trying dancing, painting, a new workout class, wine tasting, or new ways of expressing love, etc.
Love and life are difficult and challenging and it’s important to dedicate the little moments we have to the most important relationship of our lives.
This article was first published on kylebenson.net. Read the full version here.
- Book: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister Willpower ↩
- It’s 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 behaviour. I wrote about this here. ↩