After much experience as a marriage therapist, I believe that most, if not all, problems in a relationship are because of attention. Attention is a significant need, and not just for children. When our emotional needs are met, we can look quite mature; however, when they are not, it’s often a different story. When our need for attention is not perceived to be met adequately, we can begin to feel desperate and act out.
A good friend of mine and fellow marriage therapist, Brandon Arbuckle, LMFT, used to say that to give attention to someone simply means “to attend to their need.” With this understanding of attention, it is easy to see why the lack of attention can be so damaging in relationship. The opposite of giving attention would mean to ignore the need of the other. Of course, we all want someone to attend to our needs. This mutual attending to one another is the essence of relationship. Because of this, I do not agree that needing or wanting attention is a flawed character trait or something to be ridiculed. It is the way in which we seek attention that is most often perceived as negative and problem causing. In this writing, I am not addressing the need for excessive attention, which is for another post.
With a child, it is easy to see how they call attention to their needs. What may not be so easy to see, is that as adults, we do the same. When there is a lack of attention, or attending to our needs, as adults we either throw a fit, cry, scream, have a tantrum and demand attention or we may simply withdraw and pout, hoping that the other person will understand our communication and come running to check on us. However obvious it may be that these tactics rarely get us the type of attention we desire, we continue to operate in this way unless we mature in our ability to express our needs appropriately to our partner. This can be difficult because to simply state our need for attention is vulnerable and can feel scarier than throwing a fit or hiding our need by pouting. After a long time of not having adequate attention, the final response is to give up wanting attention. This can be seen in the behaviors exhibited by children in orphanages who do not receive adequate attention to thrive. They simply no longer seek attention; they no longer cry. This is a dangerous point in relationship, and often the point of the end, even if the other partner begins to show the longed for attention. It is often too little, too late. It is at this point as well that one may begin to look for attention elsewhere. It is a self-protective factor to begin to no longer want that which one cannot have, especially if the wanting causes pain. Therefore, at this point, the relationship is in the danger zone for an affair. At this time in the relationship, couples often begin counseling. One partner has finally woken up to the need of the other; however, the other is “done.” This “being done” is ominous as it means: I’m done trying; I’m done fighting; I’m done wanting; I’m done caring.
People usually use all three ways of reacting to a lack of attention at one time or another; however, personality usually dictates a preferred way of responding: either throwing a fit, pouting, or not caring. I use these childish terms because they are easy to understand. I hope this is not offensive. I certainly have done all three in my time. I can throw a fit with the best of them; however, my go-to has been to pout. I am an introvert, and so I naturally tend to withdraw if my feelings are hurt. Even after 30 years of marriage and years of being a marriage therapist, the pout can still get me at times. The worst part about any of the three responses, is the ease with which they occur and the intentionality with which it takes to do something differently. By throwing a fit and with pouting, the unintended consequence is that we push away the very person that we want to draw close. As an experienced pouter, I can attest that there is nothing worse than being stuck in a pout and not being able to get out. Even after the pout has ended, pride keeps you stuck there. The same can be true of throwing a fit. The warning signal of the not-caring response is that it is much more significant than a pout because there is no emotional energy driving it. It has been described by clients to me as being “numb” or having no feeling at all…as being “done.”
I have seen and treated couples at every point on the spectrum so I want to paint a picture of what it looks like and to let you know that it doesn’t have to be this way. These are the very issues that marriage therapy can really help with. The saddest thing for me as a therapist, is to be asked to help too late; knowing that with earlier intervention, each partner could have had a chance to express their need for attention and possibly have been heard before the amount of hurt made it impossible.
So the take away is: Yes! you do need attention, and that’s not a bad thing. If you or your partner can recognize these patterns in your relationship, especially as a cause of pain and conflict, please try counseling from a marriage therapist. It really can help.