One of the things I remember fondly about my marriage was when Hannah (or occasionally, I) would say "Pay attention to meeeeeee..."
I'm being serious, here. It was funny, it was honest, it was clear, it was non-accusatory, it was endearing.
One of the things we need from the people we love is attention, reassurance that our life and our concerns are still important to them. Which brings me to my conversation with Samantha last week:
Me: Sam! When I'm working on the computer you have no right to shout at me to get my attention.
Sam: But if I don't, you won't respond.
And she's basically right; I have a strong ability to concentrate on what I’m doing and shut out everything else. But AFAIC, it's unreasonable and self-centered to expect people we love to always drop what they're doing and immediately give us their full and undivided attention just because it suddenly occurred to us to ask them about, say, lip gloss or what color we want to paint our bedroom. In my world, we should ask the other person gently for their attention, and be willing to wait if the only urgency is in our own mind.
It reminded me of other situations where Hannah and I didn't communicate nearly as well. From conversations with other married people, I think this scenario may not be uncommon...
PersonA is reading the newspaper. PersonB, who wants to talk, sits down nearby.
Talker: Honey, what do you think we should do about X?
Reader: [no response]
Reader: Huh? What?
Talker: I’m talking to you. What do you think we should do about X?
Reader: Um, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.
Talker: Well, I think we should do Y.
[Period of silence. Reader resumes reading newspaper.]
Talker: But if we do that, what about Z?
Reader: [no response]
Talker: What about Z?
Reader: I don’t know! Do whatever you want!
By this time, both parties are frustrated and annoyed, and little communication has taken place.
Talker feels insulted and ignored, that his/her concerns are not important to Reader, that the newspaper is more interesting than they are, etc.
From the Reader’s POV, Talker is expecting him/her to drop the activity they were in the middle of, wait while Talker thinks through something, basically just sitting there with hands in lap in case Talker should want to address him/her, as if they had no other function or interests of their own, but were merely there as a sounding board for Talker.
On the occasions when I was Reader (okay, it was most of the time) I wanted to say something like
I’m reading the newspaper right now. I really need a few minutes of peace and quiet and mental relaxation because I’ve been solving problems all day. And when problem-solving I usually do this talking part internally, so your way (ie, talking things through out loud) is frustrating for me and makes me tired. But if this problem really must be solved right this minute, rather than just interrupting my reading as if my activities are of secondary importance to yours, why don’t you say “Honey, do you have time to talk about X right now?” and I’ll put down my paper and we’ll solve the problem. But half the time you don’t want me to fix it anyway, you just want to talk about it and come to your own decision, and you want me to listen. Which I can also do. But when you pause for a long time, sometimes I think we’re done, which clearly we weren’t, I realize that now, that was stupid of me. But I feel I’m not really needed here anyway – my job is kind of just to go “Uh-huh” at the right time, which I mistakenly thought I could do while continuing to read the paper. If you’re asking me to put the paper down and just sit here staring at you as you think through this, that feels a bit like my needs are of no importance to you, that whatever I was doing is irrelevant just because you feel the need to talk.
Or something like that.
Of course, in hindsight I realize that sometimes it wasn’t about the problem, it was about connecting, which is why “pay attention to meeee” was so effective. When it’s that direct, we get it, and there’s happiness all around. Maybe it seems odd to some people (ie, women), but when you bring up a problem, we (men) think the issue at hand is the problem you just brought up (especially when we’re young, we are not perceptive creatures.)
And if we don’t feel we have anything to contribute to the problem, or that our opinion won’t matter anyway, or if the problem doesn’t seem too urgent or important, or if the outcome isn’t anything we care about one way or the other, or if we’re not ready to attack that particular problem right now, we’re not going to talk. We’ll be all “Whatever, hon” and we’ll think we’re great husbands for not being controlling and you’ll think we don’t care about you.
And being older and less stupid now, I know enough to build in time to listen. Camila chatters on about her day, what happened at her job, what haircut she wants to get, what her girlfriend did, how her nails look chipped, etc etc and I know there may not be any action items for me coming out of this conversation – I’m just there to listen.
And if she happens to complain in a way that I feel reflects on me, I just tell her. But rather than getting defensive, I simply tell her how it makes me feel (eg, “When you say that, it feels like you’re saying you’re unhappy because I haven’t done a good job at X.”) Without fail, she says “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. You’re wonderful.”
My old way was to either tell Hannah she was too negative, or to say nothing and feel unappreciated and resentful. I like the new way better.