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May 20, 2019

"Attention is a resource: a person has only so much of it… What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource?"1

And what if we better aimed this resource toward the person we say is most important in our lives? What if we made it a practice to prioritize our partner as the most important recipient of our attention?

Attention is the most basic expression of love.

If there is one obstacle these days to strong and healthy partnerships, it is arguably our inability to aim consistent attention toward our partner. In this age of technology, our attention has been hijacked by clever engineers (and their confounding algorithms) who fashion our devices — laptops, iPads, smartphones — to capture our focus and concentration — and it's not in the direction of our loved ones. As a result, we seem to have little time for each other; our attention aims elsewhere.

Research has indeed found that amid the myriad demands of our hectic days, partners have come to stop paying attention to each other.2 It's not that hard to do in marriage, which doesn't demand our attention in the ways that other parts of our lives do: work life has its requirements and deadlines; children complain and often trumpet what they need; an empty cupboard and hunger sends us to the grocery; overdue bills and late notices arrive. But our primary relationship? Rarely a whisper — until it has wilted on the vine, quietly thirsting for more than it's been given. In time, disconnection from each other breeds loneliness, discontent, and even alienation.

So many couples these days mistake brief text exchanges — even two or three throughout the day — for true and substantive attention. Don't be fooled. Texting is a fast-food substitute for true relationship nutrition, requiring nothing more than a few seconds before we turn our attention back to where it was before the dispensing and receiving of digital crumbs. True attention requires us to put aside the device and deliver eye contact with authentic presence.

"Attention is the basic food and water of a living and breathing relationship. Attention is how we nurture and feed. Attention is what we need and crave. Without attention, no relationship, no matter how strong, can survive."3

References & Citations

1Crawford, M.B., The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, (New York: 2015).

2Cordova, J.V., et al. "The marriage checkup: a randomized controlled trial of annual relationship health checkups." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2014 Aug; 82(4): 592–604. 

3Cordova, J.V. "Attention is the most basic form of love." Psychology Today blog posted May 6, 2011.