In a fast-paced world, our attention is a rare and valuable commodity. Is your marriage suffering from attention deficiency?

True confession: some evenings you’ll find us sitting on the couch with the TV playing, and us both on our laptops or other individual devices. We know — it’s not particularly noble and we have a sense of unease with it.

But truly, movies and TV simply don’t seem to hold our full attention anymore. It feels scandalously indulgent to give our exclusive attention to the box. So, while the box is playing, we’re often clearing emails, or drafting articles like this one.

And at 9 pm, somehow it feels less like work if the TV is on, even though we are not really paying that much attention to it.

Is this normal? If our observations of our adult children and friends are anything to go by: yep!

Scan the café next time you’re there, and take a count of how many people are giving their full attention to the person or people with whom they are at table. Not many. If we weren’t so conscious of making the most of our time together, we could be one of them.

A Rare Commodity

We’ve always been strict about the TV being switched off during dinner so that we could foster family time and capture the educational, emotional and social benefits of family meals. After dinner and washing up though? It’s often a free-for-all, with each member of our household dispersing to pursue individual distractions.

Whether it’s families, couples or friends, attention — the full, undivided kind — is a rare commodity.

And before we defend ourselves with a claim to having the multitasking superpower, know this: multitasking — the idea that we can do more than one thing at a time — is a fallacy. What actually happens, according to research, is that we switch back and forth between tasks in herculean mental gymnastics that are less productive and certainly more stressful.

We had one of those heart-piercing ‘mea culpa’ moments a few years ago when we read the testimony of a mother with a pre-schooler. She regularly took her child to the playground to play while she checked emails and caught up on calls.

This day, she undertook an experiment. She determined NOT to look at or use her phone, but to simply observe her child from the park bench.

In the course of an hour, her child looked up to see if she was watching over 50 times. That’s about once a minute. The child looked for, and received, the affirmation of her mother’s attention repeatedly during this period.

If the mother had followed her usual practice, we wonder how many times the child would have looked up. Would there have been over fifty occasions of a message of ‘you’re not as important as my emails/social media?’ Or would the child have simply given up after the first ten or twenty attempts?

Bids for Connection

In relationship science, these glances from the child are called a ‘bid for connection’, and we all make them in our significant relationships. A bid for connection might be verbal or non-verbal, subtle or overt.

As social animals, we are making them regularly and in multiple ways with different people, especially with those in our important belonging relationships, like our marriage and family.

When Byron reaches for Francine’s hand while he drives, it’s a bid for connection. When Francine texts “Hi” to Byron with no other agenda, it’s a bid for connection. When one of us says, “We haven’t had a date night for a while,” or lights a candle in our bedroom, it’s a bid for connection.

We’re constantly making bids, often subconsciously, seeking the reassurance of our connection. The real issue is: how do we respond to the other’s bids for connection? Do we accept and reciprocate the bid, reject it, or not even notice it?

Dr John Gottman, a relationship research specialist, claims that for a healthy marriage, the ratio of positive (i.e. turning towards) to negative bid responses (i.e. turning away or turning against) needs to exceed 5 to 1. In other words, for every failed bid for connection, we need five successful ones, just to stand still. If we want to grow our connection, we need more.

In a world where distractions abound, this is not as common as it should be.

Attention Deficiency and Disconnection

Marriage, and family life more generally, suffers from chronic, self-inflicted ADAD — Attention Deficiency And Disconnection — to play on the well-known psychological condition. Attention is the currency of connection. Without it, our relationships deteriorate, and eventually we feel like strangers to each other.

Earlier this week, we were listening to the Matt Fradd interview with Catholic philosopher Dr Peter Kreeft. At one point, their attention turned to a discussion of the time Peter had met Mother Teresa of Kolkata. Though it was only a minute or less, he recounted how time stood still in the total attention of this saintly woman.

Others have said the same thing about encounters with other saints. Something about their life of holiness enables them to be so self-forgetful that they can give their total attention to the person in front of them.

No doubt, this enigmatic quality also marked Jesus’ ministry with sinners and drew them magnetically to Him.

But is this a quality only for saints? We don’t think so. In fact, we all get a taste of this ‘time suspension’ when we enter the state of ‘flow’. This is the name given by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to the experience of being so absorbed in a task that we lose track of time. What was in truth hours, seems like mere minutes.

Being Present to the Present

When we give our full attention to someone, or something, it suspends time for us. We are so completely present to the present, it is as if there is no past or future, simply the present moment.

Our mind does not drift into the past or wander into the future, but stays suspended in the glorious present, where we are fully attentive in all our conscious awareness. To be able to give this gift to another is of immense value. It is the gift of precious personhood and is profoundly affirming and bonding.

So why do we seem to have so little of it in our relationships?

Here’s our theory: our lives are so over-stimulated, many of us don’t know how to be still in the presence of ourselves, let alone abide in the presence of each other. We’re so busy distracting ourselves from our anxiety and pain, we barely know ourselves.

To be fully present to ourselves, we have to detox from busyness; from the constant distraction of incessant activity and social approval hunger so that we can connect with our interior life. For only once we are present to ourselves can we give the gift of our undivided, total attention to our loved ones.


Originally published at SmartLoving. Photo by Pavel Danilyuk.

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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