The Inattentive Spouse

It can be an annoying experience to be speaking to your spouse and then realize that he/she has not been hearing what you are saying.  While there are instances in which people simply act rudely and ignore their partner, this not generally the case.  More often then not when people fail to listen attentively it is because they are distracted or preoccupied by other stimuli.  Regardless of the reason, it is common for people to feel invalidated when they are not being heard.  This leads to frustration which can lead to conflict and problems in the marriage.  Therefore, it is important to understand the causes of inattention and learn how to handle it in a constructive way to preserve healthy communication. 

People differ greatly in their ability to do more than one thing at a time.  Some people have difficulty breaking their focus from one stimulus in order to turn their attention to another.  They may appear to be deep in thought, daydreaming, or hyper-focused on a task before them.  Such people are not choosing to deliberately ignore others who attempt to talk to them.  Rather, they truly do not hear what is being said because their attention is fixed on something else.  It is neither fair nor helpful to become agitated with one's spouse in this situation because it is beyond his/her control.

People who may not normally be susceptible to the above phenomenon may be distracted for other reasons.  Fatigue is a major cause of inattention.  When people are overexerted or have difficulty sleeping/resting it will invariably affect their ability to focus and listen attentively.  Stress is another common factor.  Stressful situations from other spheres of life (i.e. work, personal struggles, extended family) can sometimes dominate one's thoughts and negatively impact communication at home.

External factors in the home also make it difficult for couples to be attentive to one another.  Household chores, tending to children, working from home, and a host of other necessities can definitely present challenges to communication.  This is true even among the most loving and supporting of couples.  

In all cases, both partners should do their best to limit the potential frustration resulting from inattention.  Here are some important things to consider when dealing with a seemingly inattentive spouse.

(1)  For important talks, choose a good time and quiet place to initiate conversation.  Make it easier for both you and your spouse to be attentive to one another by removing the external stimuli that would otherwise distract you from productive communication.

(2)  Recognize that everyone one needs breaks from communication.  The time in which you are in the mood to share may not be the optimal time for your spouse.  If your partner had a tough day, is tired, has a lot on his/her mind, is busy with an important task, and so forth it may be better to wait for a better opportunity to talk.

(3)  Know your spouse.  Be observant and identify times in which your spouse typically may have difficulty being attentive.  Some people need to remain free from distractions when mentally preparing and organizing themselves before leaving for work.  Others need an opportunity to gather their bearings mentally and/or physically after returning home from work.  Some need to unwind and slow down mentally in order to prepare for sleep.

(4)  Be polite.  If your spouse is engaged in working on the computer, reading, or some other activity it may be rude to bother him/her at that time.  No one likes to be interrupted.  And, everyone is entitled to some personal time.  Circumstances vary and sometimes exceptions are appropriate.  But it is important that partners recognize and honor times of individual solitude.

(5)  Get your spouse's attention.  Instead of becoming upset or angry when your spouse appears to be inattentive, accept responsibility to kindly gain his/her attention.  This can often be achieved by simply saying his/her name and wait for a reply or gently placing your hand on his/her arm or shoulder.  Never begin a story or question until you have confirmation that you have your partner's attention.  And, be prepared to wait a moment if necessary.

(6)  Accept that times of inattention are a part of life.  Your spouse is an imperfect human being - just like you.  Life is too short and your marriage is too important to become unnecessarily upset and frustrated.  Becoming angry at the onset of a discussion generally only serves to make both of you feel anxious or awkward when the conversation moves forward.  A little patience and understanding makes communication much easier and more fulfilling.
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