When couples present for therapy they typically come following chronic disruptions in respective and mutual attention. The problems they bring into the consulting room, or to telehealth, as the case may be now in our post-covid times, are the result of depleted attention, fractured attention, or diverted attention.
Attention is a superpower of human beings. Susan Sontag has written, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” Stay eager indeed. Stay present. Be intentional. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, a lyrical heroine of mine, wrote, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Attention is work. Attention is endless work. And it is our proper work. She also said that “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Attention is power. Simone Weil, wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She is also saying that attention is a power and a gift.
Attention helps us to carry out the most basic of tasks, say, dressing and getting to work on time, self-monitoring thoughts and emotions, and decision-making on where to allocate our internal energies for effective outcomes in work, love, and play, and when our attentional processes are depleted, fractured, or diverted, we experience, chaos, suffering, addiction, and relational distress.
Attention can be sapped, neglected, or fractured with the causes of these impairments being myriad. To help our clients, we introduce our couples to mindfulness practices. And we begin by exploring aspects of attention, and why it’s so important to our capacities for love, meaning, and connection.
Children. Chores. Bills. Jobs. The whole enchilada. Or, the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek calls it. These common daily duties wear us down. These can drain our energy. All conspiring to deplete our energies including our attentional energies. As goes our respective backstories we also have to account for individual biological factors such as depression, deficits of dopamine production and facilitation, or other neurodivergence that can impair cognitive-emotional regulation.
Commonly, marriages suffer when one or both partners succumb to depletion that results from chronic overwhelm, and healthy renewing activities are abandoned. Rather than going to church, yoga, or a family outing, there is a retreat into binge-watching streaming programs, doom scrolling, overconsumption of alcohol, or overeating. This automatic turning inward makes sense as a strategy to conserve energy, however, turning inward too often and too long becomes implosion. This conservation implosion is corrosive to our well-being and is corrosive to our relationships as being turned excessively means being turned away from others.
Depleted attention leaves us in a pall of ignorance, blinding us to opportunities to connect with ourselves, our spouses, and even our children. Depleted attention impedes even our willingness to try to muster our minimal reserves of attention to seek ways to energize our attention through the simple acts of walking with our beloved while holding their precious hand.
Unmitigated depletion can breed more depletion, and a lonely partner feeling neglected may become desperate in their natural desire to connect. They make demands of us, perhaps they try to complain their way into our awareness from a desire to connect. This more often than not triggers either a deepening of our inverted attention or irruption of defensiveness and counterattack. And soon a couple finds they are in the polarizing process of co-escalation to the point of exhaustion that leads to avoidance that leads to parallel lives that lead to the dissolution and death of the relationship.
Every day we are enveloped by a deluge of noise and information that drowns our attentional powers with more data and stimuli than can be effectively processed. Our news feeds are relentless, our social media is sleepless, and email and text messages brutally barrage our attention compelling us to attempt simultaneous responses to divergent needs and responsibilities.
We’re all ushered into the information mosh pit on the daily. This is a profound challenge, taxing the attentional processes of even neurotypical persons. Imagine the attentional hell this presents to neurodivergent persons with biological impediments to executive functions that help regulate attentional processes.
It’s difficult for fractured attention to hold space for another person, another important conversation, or another remembrance to initiate validation or a word of love. All of these deficits indicate diminished presence. Most of us are holding a swarm of thoughts within our awareness. We simply cannot attend to each individual thought within the swarm without becoming flighty ourselves, our attention flitting to and fro with dizzying effort.
Unmitigated, the swarm feeds on our attention, leaving us disintegrated and disconnected living like ghosts moving aimlessly near one another rather than living integrated and intentionally to/for/with one another.
In marital therapy, it’s common for one or both of the spouses to suffer from diverted attention. Whether ensnared by work, hobbies, substances, friends, or affairs diverting attention away from the relationship. These competing interests redirect cognitive-emotional energies outside of the marriage. Let’s state it this way: when your attention is not at home, you’re not at home.
Competing interests can compel our attention away from our marriage. With these competitors, our attention can be diverted so much so they render us absent from our spouses. We simply can’t be present to them. We can surmise that the more fundamental problem is that our diversions block us from being at home within ourselves, our full personal being, within the bodies that we live. If we are not present to ourselves we cannot be present to others.
Some cases present with a husband losing himself in hours of gaming upon returning home from work, for the sake of winding down, leaving his wife bereft of his company. She entertains this pattern for a time, not wishing to avoid coming off as “needy,” and she certainly doesn’t want to resort to nagging. But eventually, her patience hits a threshold and maxes her forbearance.
Initially, she makes a gentle request for time together, perhaps for dinner and/or a show they can watch together. He agrees, reflexively, without true attention and without intention. He continues his wind down with gaming as per usual. Later, she more assertively asks that he play less, maybe two hours instead of four. Again, he agrees without attention or intention so he forgets his promise, and he misses the opportunity to connect with his spouse at the moment of her asking and continues to game for four or more hours.
Eventually, she resorts to making demands that he stop gaming and that he spends time with her, which elicits defensiveness on his part. And now the couple finds themselves co-escalating (Warden, 2019) into a dance of dysregulation and their respective chaotic emotions are driving impulsivity and both are speaking and behaving in ways that they never dreamt they would. And now it’s off to therapy for help. Or we can hope.
1. Start with willingness.
At any moment, we can simply stop what we’re doing and pay attention to how we’re not paying attention. We can decide to say yes to our lives such as they are, with a willingness to do otherwise than what we have been doing. As we listen to our experience and the experience of our spouse, and learn how to pay attention and how to cultivate our presence to/for/with our marriages.
We need to fortify ourselves with patience for our progress to not be daunted by the difficulties in paying attention, especially if we haven’t ever truly tried to pay attention on purpose and if we contend with any neurodivergence, mood disorders, and emotional vulnerabilities. Still, it is possible.
Willingness is a key disposition for you to adopt in becoming present and receptive to your spouse’s emotional bids for connection which can be expressed by putting down the game controller and turning toward them with your gaze, ears, and heart. Letting go of reactive thoughts and emotions allows us to be present to/for/with our spouse. Presence emerging from engaged attention will help us establish patterns of validation and connection.
2. Learn about attention.
The science of neuroplasticity gives us two important principles to keep in mind as we learn about attention:
How we pay attention, and to what we pay attention, influence the physiological structures of our brains. We can develop efficient neural pathways for gaming, alcohol, or even catastrophizing. The more we do something, to more we increase the efficiency of neural pathways that increase these behaviors will persist.
Attention is embodied, through episodes of intense focus, such as studying for an exam, or working a table saw. These are vivid examples of when we are very present. And it entails general awareness of your body, what your senses are telling you even just being aware of distractions. Remember, attention is a gift that we can offer to those who are precious to us.
Fasting from certain activities can help us cultivate our intentional attention. A dopamine detox can help by relinquishing, activities that keep our dopamine factories in high production. We can avoid online gambling, the company of interlopers who inappropriately seek our affection or the consumption of pornography. To name a few examples.
3. Mindfulness: How to Cultivate Attention
Mindfulness is paying attention to attention. These practices help us learn to cultivate attention and awareness both of which help us to cultivate presence. We can learn how to pay attention from DBT Skills Training content, developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. which is a simple and concrete format that facilitates learning mindfulness. To practice mindfulness, we can use DBT core mindfulness Whats and Hows:
- What Skills: Observe, Describe, Participate
- How Skills: One-mindfully, Nonjudgmentally, Focus on effectiveness.
We will unpack these core mindfulness whats and hows in more detail in subsequent entries. Later, we will continue to explore attentional correctives that can help us cultivate wise marriages.
With more purposeful attention we can indeed show up more frequently and more fully. Once again, we can befriend the life in which we’re embedded. We can discover abilities to resist the wiles of the thieves and vandals of our attention. And with continued practice, we can live more fully in our lives and become navigators rather than reactors; Charting and guiding the course of our lives and marriages.
Until we meet again in the next entry, let’s not succumb to the thieves and vandals of attention. Rather, let’s heed the words of wisdom with which we opened. Let’s be eager, alert, and truly alive as we practice bringing attention to our spouses as acts of generosity. That is, let’s bring our presence to them. And let’s work at it with relentless compassion and love to fulfill this most important and proper work.
More to come.