“Never before has it been so easy to stay in touch with so many people electronically, but rarely has it seemed so difficult to maintain genuine human closeness.” Hallowell and Hallowell
The paradox of our current times is that the technological convenience to stay connected does not seem to improve the quality of important personal relationships. While creating and maintaining intimacy has never been easy, today’s digital world with the relentless flow of email, text messages, social media poses more challenges than couples have ever had to face. What began as a tremendous convenience to improve communications and connectivity has the often left us feeling more insulated and lonely. Our cell phone, iPhone or Blackberry makes us more accessible but also makes it more challenging to get away from work and protect ourselves and our most important relationships from intrusions, interruptions and distractions.
According to Edward Hallowell and Sue George Hallowell, in their book Married to Distraction, there are five steps to create and sustain love: attention, time, empathy, connection, and play. In the absence of adequate attention to each other, love will falter. In this the age of interruption, as they call it, our many distractions can erode relationships.
Like most couples therapists, I am often interested in what attracted each person to the other. What was it about him/her that caught your attention? What is the spark that started the fire of romance? Love begins when two people catch each other’s attention. This is the mysterious birth of love. Once you have each other’s attention, the next step is how to sustain it over time. How do you keep the fires of love burning? Giving and getting attention over time is an important way we keep love growing. With time this attention to the other person, the opportunity to wonder and ponder about them leads to greater interest and greater empathy for the other. Mutual empathy is another really important step to nurturing love. (See The Power of Empathy for more about this.) Genuine empathy creates connection the next step to creating and sustaining love. When we feel truly connected, when we can risk being vulnerable, then we can play. Play is the fifth step to create and sustain love. By play we mean to be light-hearted, to have fun, to be funny, to laugh readily, to use imagination and to celebrate.
How to Keep Paying Attention
1. Make and Protect Couple TimeEmotional and physical intimacy requires uninterrupted, undivided attention and a commitment to forgo diversions.
- Insist on extended time with your partner who you love
- Learn how to say no to competing desirable offers from others for your time
- Become wise about the people and activities that are thieves of your time
- When you make your loving relationship a priority, you will become more determined to devote time together.
2. Attack the Forces of Distraction. The forces of distraction are like a dangerous invisible odourless gas. What are the forces of distraction in your life? When are there interruptions? Ask your partner. Name the problems and when they occur.
- Since the forces of distraction are like a dangerous odourless gas, how will you detect them? Take personal responsibility for becoming more self aware of the diversion of your attention.
- Turn off your electronic device. It’s that simple. This is not impossible. Difficult maybe.
- Rediscover that talking is relaxing, fun and essential to each feeling cared about. Talking is foreplay. Without meaningful conversations, relationships wither.
- Create boundaries around the 24/7/365 workday.
- Learn to say no to good ideas, good people, good projects to that do not fit your relationship priorities.
3. Make Emotional Connections Daily
Once you make time together like a date night, spend money on the baby sitter, pay for parking and an expensive dinner, some couples find the evening unsatisfying because they have little to talk about. Often the conversations are superficial, or are all about their kids. Having meaningful conversation usually involves not just telling about events of your day, but talking about how you felt about the events. It is the sharing of your feelings that makes couple conversations meaningful and connecting.
a) To create a deeper emotional connection, try spending the first ten or fifteen minutes of the day just cuddling in bed and talking. If you are morning people in the morning and night people try it before you go to sleep. If one of you is a morning person and one a night person alternate. Whatever works, just try cuddling and chatting. With time meaningful conversations will begin to flourish.
4. Strengthen Cooperation
In most couples one person tends to be more easily distracted and allow interruptions and the other more focused, organized and resistant to intrusions. These traits tend to be genetically determined. It is really important to understand the distractibility and organizational traits of each other. It is important to recognize that paying attention is not always about effort and will power. Acceptance of your partner and their traits can help you and work each other not against each other.
a) Identify who is more easily distracted and who is more focused or organized under what situations.
b) Discuss how you would like to handle the annoying interruptions and work on a plan together.
c) How will the inevitable slip ups or mistakes be handled and the plans revised?
5. Fortify Empathy
Empathy is the ability to be aware of, to understand and to appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. Empathy is ‘tuning in’ or being sensitive to what, how and why people feel and think the way they do. Empathy is the ability to ‘emotionally read’ people. Empathy tells others you care about them. It is a critical ability for successful and satisfying relationships. Empathy can be strengthened by practice.
Find a time when you will not be interrupted. Ask your partner how they feel about any given topic – something like a recent film you both saw, or an event you both participated in.
a) Before doing so, prepare by thinking about what you expect them to say.
b) Hold back your own feelings and opinions. Listen carefully.
c) Focus on them, make eye contact, and pay attention to facial expressions and body language.
d) Check your interpretations of what is happening by saying: “Are you saying that….?”
e) Let the conversation go on for a few minutes.
f) Describe in the form of a summary your version of what they think or feel.
g) Listen to their feedback about whether you were correct in your understanding of their views, feelings and opinions.
Many marriages are busy, overloaded with things to do and interrupted moments. The fortification of your relationship can come from deliberately combating the forces of distraction by paying attention. You can create and sustain your love by paying attention to each other, making time to be together, being empathic, feeling connected, and playing and having fun together.