Men don't pay attention because of an archaic self-protection instinct. Put it to work for you.
Yeah, I know, the word “Male” in the title is redundant. Relationship Attention Deficit is a guy thing. Men don’t pay attention in relationships they way women do. We’re silent partners, inattentive to birthdays and anniversaries, clueless about what to give for gifts, uncommunicative to a fault. There are exceptions, sure, but not many.
Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman claims that 85% of “stonewallers” in marriages are male. They’ve tuned out, and there are evolutionary reasons for that. Arguments happen, but when they do, a very primitive alarm system overtakes the male psyche. It shuts down his ability to process information or pay attention to what his significant honey is saying. He gets overwhelmed. Men have evolved this way over millennia. They deal with conflict as hunters, fight or flight. This part of a man’s psyche can’t really tell the difference between a saber-tooth tiger and his honey being contemptuous because he forgot to put down the toilet seat. The more overwhelmed a guy gets, the less he can pay attention. It is a biological fact that men are more easily overwhelmed emotionally by conflict than their wives are, though they probably show it much less.
Guys, you can see the pattern in your early history. Think back to the time before puberty, way back when you thought girls were gross or had cooties. You didn’t play at homemaking. You built forts, with couch cushions, toy bricks or cardboard boxes, or the biggest snow pile you could make before your fingers went numb. Then you amassed weapons; walls and weapons–your most basic primal instinct. Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, Batman had the Bat Cave, and how you wanted one of your own.
This doesn’t change, but you can use fortress-building instinct to strengthen your relationship. Here’s how: create a Protective Information Barrier between you and your significant honey. Use information, lots of information, defensively. Think of a channel of data flowing between you and her as the walls of your fortress. Write down everything she says she needs done. Don’t trust any of this information to your memory. Start to list and learn her likes, her pet peeves. Anything of significance to her, turn into to a brick in your information wall.
You’ve tried to reform before, usually out of a sense of shame. It doesn’t work. The shame just enrages your inner guard dog. “You’ve let a lioness into the cave!!” it barks at you, and the shutdown intensifies. Instead, protect yourself with information. Protect against what? Against feeling flooded (Gottman again), overwhelmed by your spouse’s negativity. Make information a weapon of domestic peace.
Think of it this way: you are New Orleans; you live below sea level behind some flimsy levees. Your significant honey is Katrina, whipped into Cat 5 fury by your stonewalling. Stop sandbagging! Start seeding the winds with information, tons of information, enough to quiet the storm surge. Your inner guard dog is hyper-vigilant. He can pay attention even if you can’t. Just make sure your guard dog has not mastered you. Your Katrina honey feels like she’s outside your walls, yelling for your attention because she can’t get past your guard dog so she can come in and speak with you. Master your guard dog. Make him work for you. Keep up the Protective Information Barrier! It requires constant tending, but over time it can build a ring of safety around you and your relationship.