Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Who Pays Attention In Relationships

February 26, 2001

Who pays the most attention in relationships, men or women? To women, the answer is obvious. They do. They know. Some men might dispute this but they don’t have a clue.

Why would women be more attentive? Historically, women have needed to be accurate perceivers of men because of the difference of status and power between the sexes. Men generally had greater power to both reward and punish women than women had over men. Consider these points.

- Women in marriage or romantic relationships pay more attention to men. They are more

accurate perceivers (having empathy and understanding) of how men see themselves than men are about how women see themselves.

Men are more influential in courtship and marriage and therefore do not need to know their partners as well. Research has shown that when the quality of the relationship is disregarded, women are the same as men in predicting self-perceptions. However, when it came to happy marriages, a series of studies showed that the women's adjustment depended more on the women being accurate about men than vice-versa.

- Women in courtship more readily confirm men's view of themselves than vice-versa. Several

studies show that confirming a man's self-concept is associated with good courtship progress or marital satisfaction. The opposite case of a man confirming a woman's self-concept had little or no effect on relationship satisfaction. Success involves massaging a man's ego by seeing him the way he sees himself. Men seem to have more concern for their self-concept being validated than the need women have for validation from their marital or dating partners.

- A husband's emotional maturity and mental health are more vital to a wife's marital adjustment than are the wife's emotional maturity and mental health. Research shows women to be greatly affected by their spouses' personality problems while men ignore or are more tolerant of their wives' neurotic tendencies. One study found that a husband's marital distress or depression caused depressive symptoms in the wife. However, the reverse wasn't true. In unhappy marriages, a man's mood affects the wife's mood more than vice-versa.

What are the implications? To some men, intimacy means relating to their partners how they feel and what they need. They expect women to focus on them and their needs. Traditional women in courtship are much better than "liberated" women in decoding men, confirming their egos, and accepting the pace of courtship dictated by them. During courtship a man may become emotionally expressive, but once his partner is secured, his interest in interpersonal interaction falls off.

After marriage, he appears to be satisfied if his wife is a good sexual partner, is physically attractive, can bear and manage children and maintain an attractive home. He doesn't need to understand her. He's got everything he needs. Presumably, he could be married to almost anybody and it wouldn't make much difference. On the other hand, what a man thinks, his moods, his personality, and his problems make a great deal of difference to a woman's happiness.

A wife does wants understanding, recognition and interest in her feelings. Sadly many men don’t respond soon enough to correct the one-sided nature of their relationship. Marriage has changed with the entry of women in the work force. When incomes become equal and traditional sex roles are being blurred, men are becoming much more perceptually accurate, sensitive, intimate and cooperative.

As power between the sexes is equalized, the old rules are going by the board. Courtships are a lot more rocky and problematic. The same is true with marriages. Women want and expect more. Men learn to pay attention when they have to. As men become more empathic and caring about women's thoughts and feelings and aggressively meet their needs, their relationships improve.

How can men develop this sensitivity to the details of their partner’s life - their personality, moods, feelings and thoughts? By being curious, patient, interested listeners. A good listener communicates caring and concern. Receptive body language is important. Eye contact is important. Paying attention to the non-verbal cues their partner gives them helps them track the emotional content of what is being said.

One of the biggest mistakes men and women make is not really listening. Instead they formulate their own ideas and responses while the other party is still speaking. They think they are listening but they are not.

A fast radio commercial can be absorbed at about 100 words per minute. We have the capacity to actually listen up to 140 words a minute. What do you think our minds are doing while the other person is speaking, especially when we think we know what they are going to say anyway? Thinking ahead, thinking of our rejoinder, that’s what.

One way to make sure you are really listening and for your partner to know he or she is understood is to summarize in a caring way the main points that have been made. Just that. Hold on to your thoughts and reactions until you have gained the floor. It is surprising how good we can listen when our only role is to listen and understand instead of feeling the need to respond with our side of the issue.

By being "right," argumentative, or inattentive we miss lot of what is being said. When men or women work at being better listeners, they get to really know their partner. They care more about their lives, and work more in harmony with together.