Why the gift of attention is important to a happy marriage

Does Latin grab your attention? It does my husband’s. I don’t know anybody who loves Latin and Greek more than he does. He memorizes Latin poetry in the shower and scours eBay for rare books while eating his breakfast. Classical languages are his passion, and he plans to study them more deeply when he returns to graduate school this fall.

During dinner, he’ll share observations from his reading. While I used to love this, I’ll be honest: Now that we’ve lived together for a while, paying attention to what he’s explaining has become more difficult, especially when it’s a subject that requires prior knowledge. Lately I’ve been zoning out when Latin comes up at dinner, lost in my own thoughts until he asks me a question and I answer with something vague. You can guess how that discussion ends.

Now, I understand that conversations require effort from both of us, and my husband could try to make his Latin explanations more concise. But I could also do better at mealtime to listen more attentively. The more I reflect on it, the more I notice myself spacing at other points in my day, too: at work, during Mass, while driving. I’ll find myself a hundred miles away from where I am until suddenly life breaks back in like a slap on the wrist. Mealtime is only a symptom of a much larger problem.

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At the dinner table, I’m tempted to laugh at myself and move on. But my humor rings hollow because I know it’s an excuse. So does my husband. By trying to laugh it off, I ignore the real, damaging effect of my inattention on our relationship. In isolated moments it may be harmless enough, but over time it cheapens the connection between spouses and can even compromise one’s spiritual life.

Rooted in selfishness

Inattention is not endearing. It’s a form of selfishness that presumes the present moment unworthy of consideration or effort. In his book “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Catholicism,” Father Alban McCoy points to inattention as a product of sloth, which, he writes, is “precisely the sin of self-centered disengagement in which we are turned in on ourselves and cut off from every other consideration.” This type of disengagement is indeed selfish. It leads us toward a perilous double standard: We expect people to listen when we talk because we deserve respect but tune others out if we decide their concerns aren’t worth our time.

Much like pride, inattention is absurdly narrow. Like pride — which asserts that I am the measure of all things and assumes that I, sickly and finite creature that I am, developed my virtues all on my own — inattention claims that I am as interesting as it gets.

We know this isn’t true. Others are interesting. God himself is infinitely interesting. If we find ourselves bored with our spouse or our creator, the fault must lie in our own perception. Though many of us are predisposed to a self-centered outlook, we can counteract it by giving others the gift of our attention. True attentiveness forces us to do away with preconceptions and demands our total openness to the reality of another being. It’s a self-effacing activity that takes us outside of ourselves because it says to the other, “Not me and my ideas, but you and who you are.” It asks permission to know the other rather than telling them about themselves. And this type of committed openness is what makes a marriage work. It leads us back to the promise we made to our spouse on our wedding day: “I take you — you and all your virtues, all your flaws, all your aspirations, impressions, loves, and vices — to be my husband.”

Working the muscle

But sincere attention is not easy. In her essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” French philosopher Simone Weil asserts that “something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue.” Well, seeing as I can barely make it through a 20-minute HIIT workout without taking a break, my attention span must really be pitiful. But attention is like a muscle. Think of an activity you love. There is probably a point during that activity when you’re so deeply involved that, without noticing, you stop thinking about yourself and concentrate solely upon the task at hand. It’s a rare and incredible feeling.

Practice achieving this level of engagement a little each day, starting with the activities you enjoy and building up toward the more daunting tasks. Weil explains how this can be done at school: by truly concentrating on their schoolwork, students will learn to contemplate God better in prayer — which is, in her words, “the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”

So, ask yourself: How can I pay sincere attention to my spouse today? (Or, if you are not married — and even if you are, this applies to all relationships — ask how you can pay better attention to those you encounter every day: roommates, friends, co-workers, even the cashier at the grocery store.) Maybe it’s listening at mealtime, as in my case. Or maybe it’s cultivating a deeper sense of empathy. With every effort of attention toward our spouse, we destroy some of the seeds of selfish sloth that lie scattered in our hearts. We curb our indifference and nurture our ability to love.

In the end, true attention trains us in love — love of our spouse, certainly, but finally love of our creator, the lasting refuge for our restless hearts.

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