One of the most common complaints women have about men is, “He doesn’t give me his full attention.”

And it’s true; men don’t often fully disengage from what they’re doing to listen to what their wives want to say to them.

We’re tackling this together (instead of “He said / She said”) because it’s a challenge for our marriage, too, even after 25 years together. We’re sharing a struggle we really do have – this isn’t just blowing smoke.

Here’s how it typically happens:

Jeremy is doing something. Anything.

Kari enters the room and starts telling him something. Anything.

Jeremy kinda/sorta listens, inserts a lot of “Mmmm hmmmm” and “Yeah” into the conversation.

But after 25 years, Kari immediately knows he’s off in “Wherever Land” and isn’t actually paying attention to what she’s saying.

Usually, Kari interrupts Jeremy’s distant psychic adventure with the always curt, “What did I just say?”

(Hubby side note: one time, Kari didn’t bring me back to attention in the usual way. She just started to make the story she was telling to the absent me more and more bizarre until there was no WAY I could say I was listening. Things like, “I hope you liked the cat I made for dinner. I had to chase it down and kill it with my bare hands.” I said, “Yeah.” I was caught.)

~ Jeremy

It happens to the best of us. Every single marriage has this issue. And it’s basically human nature.

Women want to talk. Men drift in and out of conversations all day.

Actually, it’s likely a matter of biology at work. Men and women are just… different. Men are instinctively hunter / gatherer types, worried about the “big picture” items like are we fed, warm, sheltered, and safe? And the details generally are irrelevant.

That’s why, after a man gets the general thrust of where a conversation is going, they don’t need or want a lot of details. They hear you had a disagreement with a coworker, but men won’t usually need to hear exactly what was said or why. They probably won’t remember the details, anyway.

The other thing a man’s mind will immediately do when his wife tells him about a problem or concern is to immediately try to find a solution (this is another blog post entirely). His mind is pretty simple, ladies: “

“Wife has a problem, summed up as XXXXX. Solution to XXXXX is YYYYYY. Problem solved.”

As soon as a guy’s brain latches onto the gist of her story and his mind finds a solution to her problem, he will begin to tune out on specifics they don’t believe is vital to the situation at hand.

But to a woman, tuning out the details means tuning her out (and again, not to jump to a future blog post already, but women don’t always want their problems solved for them, guys). A wife is wanting to share with you, the complete issue at hand, including how it made her feel.

Men aren’t instinctively wired like that. Where men are chainsaws, women are scalpels. Women are inherently much better at picking up small details and hints that a man would ever be able to. Again, it’s just one of those wonderful differences between the genders.

To a woman, the details and nuances of the story MATTER. And that’s what men have to remember. And paying attention to what matters to her tells her that SHE matters.

We know this will be a serious bone of contention for many couples, because even as we’re writing this, we’re getting crabby with each other over this subject. A lot of raw nerves come out. Kari would say she feels disrespected when Jeremy doesn’t give her his full attention. And Jeremy would say that of course he respects and loves her dearly; it’s just that what she was talking about that moment wasn’t holding his interest.

So what does a couple do about this? We have a few pointers, for the ladies and the gents, that have worked for us over our time together:

  1. Ladies, if you need his full attention, ASK FOR IT BEFORE YOU START. Sometimes a guy is engrossed in something before you walk into the room, and it’s not as easy for men to shift gears or multi-task as it is for women. Do him a favor and give him a few moments to wrap up what he’s doing before you start your story. You’ll get a more attentive husband if you didn’t just pull him up from the football game or the morning paper for what he thinks will be a sentence or two, so he didn’t disengage what he was doing before you started.
  2. On that note, ladies, be self-aware enough to know if what you want to talk about can wait until a later time if he’s busy with something else. If he’s working on a car, or reading a book, or answering work emails, can it wait until a little later, when he’ll likely be less distracted? Remember that men can’t shift gears as readily as a woman can. It takes real effort to completel shift from one activity to another in an instant.
  3. Men, as difficult as it is to sometimes stay tuned in to all the detail and subtlety of her story, it’s her story. She’s sharing something of herself and she values your input. Communication is the lifeblood of women, and you are the biggest part of her life. Take the time to focus on her story, because you’ll score the points of showing her you’re focusing on her.
  4. Men, if you say you are giving her your attention, then do it. Don’t half-ass it. Wives always, always, always, always know. Don’t kid yourself that you can be half-in and half-out of a conversation.
  5. Men, you need to be self-aware, too. If you realize you’re drifting away mentally from the conversation, stop yourself immediately and tell yourself, “No, stay focused on her.” (Jeremy has to do this often working with clients as a financial planner, too. Sometimes people just need to talk; even if they, by his standards, aren’t saying much.)

It’s not something we think a couple can ever make perfect. We’ve both had to work on this a great deal, and we sort of ebb and flow in our success at doing it. But it can be done.

Guys, remember: she’s sharing with you because you’re her best friend. Don’t take that lightly. We may not always care about all of the details. But we must always care about her.