Does Your Husband Tune You Out?

Who do you think should be more offended from this recent tv ad for Klondike Bars? Men or women? I have to admit it made me chuckle the first time. But then I realized that this is making fun of a serious problem that a lot of couples have. Take away the ridiculous punch line about winning a treat and having dancing cheerleaders come parading into your living room with ticker-tape and you have a scene that I would bet is happening several times over each night on your block--maybe in your house.

The "problem" this couple has is probably very familiar to you; there's a guy that can't stand listening to his wife talk and tunes her out. I'm hoping you don't do this to you partner nearly as dramatically. But who hasn't seen a couple like this? Maybe you have a couple like this in your family? And, I know, this hasn't been, no.
It's true, some guys lapse easily into complaining about their wives or girlfriends talking too much. I've heard variations of something that goes like this: "It's constant from the minute I get home. She doesn't just want to talk, she wants to T-A-L-K. And I'm like, 'I just wanna relax.' But if we're having a "talk" it's not my idea of relaxing!"
If you find yourself nodding your head in recognition about the scenario I described, read on. If you're a guy that wants your wife to get it about how you feel assaulted by her when she's conveying something important, read on. And if you're a woman that wants to be respected in conversations and not dismissed or treated as unimportant, read on.


The 3 Ways to Stop Being Ignored 

1. Tell him you want to have his attention for one topic and stick to one topic.
You have to do this consistently to behaviorally teach him that listening to you attentively does not have to interfere with other parts of life he enjoys, like watching the Washington Nationals vanish from post-season baseball in the blink of an eye. Especially if he gives you full attention, don't be tempted to slide into topics two, three and twelve. Surprise him with not having any more to say. And if he doesn't believe you (maybe he can read your body language or just suspects you are stopping short), tell him there's more you could say but you'd rather let it marinate and get back to him if there's something really worthwhile that percolates to the top of the pile. What will this do? It will shock him, but in a good sort of way that means you have his full attention now.
2. Respect him if he says "now's not a good time."
If you have a habit of pushing through or ignoring his subtle cues that are trying to tell you he can't or doesn't want to give you full attention, let him know you'd like to try to not do that anymore. The upside for him is that you will become a trustworthy and safe female that isn't demeaning toward or unaware of how a man's brain, especially, is wired to single-track his attention during or following stressful events--or in some cases just out of habit in case there could be a stressful event lurking in the next moment. In other words, reframe your thinking about his avoidance of you. Instead of reading his cues as rejection that you need to challenge or else risk more rejection, be open to understanding it as a normal male biological response to stress feelings that are at work to help him tamp down excess aggressive energy.
3. Trust him to come back to you when he's ready to give you more attention.
If you want to build real trust in how you communicate with your husband, you can't engineer how he going to trust you. It won't be perfect by your standards and his early efforts to do this possibly brand-new-for-you-and-him maneuver might even seem ridiculously flawed. Let him know that, for a change, you're going to try to let him approach you about the (only) one topic that you want his attention for and that you're laying down arms and won't criticize his attempt, or the attempt he forgot to make. If, out of habit, he totally misses his chance to prove that you don't need to nag him be a good listener, let him feel bad about it (he really will) without telling him he needs to feel bad! This is a great example of "good guilt," something I'll address more in future posts.
Only Half of the Equation
Now, if I stopped here and said, "That's it. Problem solved." I would get lots of emails from some of the ladies, pointing out how the above advice isn't totally fair. I will save this for another post, because, well, it deserves its own post. We have to address the jerk in the Klondike ad...I mean the dude ...that is sweating bullets when asked to make eye contact with his wife and act interested in her. And no, I don't really think he's a jerk. I am this guy a lot more times than I like to admit and I have been trained as a therapist, upside down blindfolded with hands tied and spun backwards, how to listen attentively and be "in the moment" and "fully present." Even for this guy that can't stand to listen to his wife, there is a way out of his "misery" that is not all that difficult to attempt.
Here's a resource for understanding a man's fight or flight response when the woman he cares for is distressed:
"What we now know is that women are more likely to seek out social support and engage in care giving when stressed whereas men are more likely to engage the fight or flight response. You can start to see that what women and men start out with biologically might be a source of misunderstanding when couples are under stress."