What Is Attention and How Do We Pay It?

a field of purple flowers. Only one is in focus, front and center.
Image by Joel Olives / CC BY

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

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So, while driving in the car with the person sitting right next to us, we think about other things. We aren’t interested in him anymore. What arrogance! The person sitting there beside is really a mystery! We only have the impression that we know her, but we don’t know anything yet.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Allergic to Vulnerability

“I feel like you’re allergic to vulnerability,” I say to him, finally. I’ve been holding the thought in for a while and can’t take it anymore.

“I don’t know why,” he says.

I don’t know what to say.

“I’m more vulnerable with you than I’ve been with anyone else. What makes you think that?” he says.

“It’s the one-eighties you pull,” I say. “The way you change the subject at the worst possible time.”

“Like?”

“When I’m opening up to you, being romantic, and then you interrupt me to show me an Internet video on your phone. Or decide it’s the perfect opportunity to share the lyrics of a death metal parody.”

He laughs. “I guess my timing hasn’t been perfect.”

“It hasn’t,” I say. “If it’d been just once or twice, I wouldn’t think anything of it, but it’s become a predictable pattern.”

“It’s just my ADD,” he says. “If I could do something about it, I would.”

Love and Attention

For me, there’s always been a strong link between being paid attention to and feeling loved.

And this isn’t an abstract hypothetical. It caused a lot of problems in my first marriage. Seth carried a diagnosis of ADD (made years before we met). He expressed frustration with it and the ways it affected his life. So I put a lot of effort into learning about the disorder and what I could do as a supportive partner to help.

Early on in the relationship, before we even lived together, I borrowed a bunch of books on ADD from Seth’s mother. She’d personally found them helpful in being a supportive parent when he was first diagnosed. I read a half-dozen of these books diligently, taking copious notes. And yet the knowledge contained in them was still useless when I went to apply it. Anything I tried to do, feel, think, or say to help him backfired. I couldn’t get him to even accept other help I recruited him, professional and otherwise — both with life coach stuff for him and with finding ways to maintain the relationship that were mutually satisfying.

But I was committed to Seth — and to the idea of our relationship lasting, so I gave up trying to help and changed my expectations instead.

Discrimination and Setting Limits

I’ve read a bit about discrimination in dating lately, mostly in the context of racism and physical ableism. I even ran a guest post on Poly Land by another author about it (and if you read that piece, you’ll note in this essay, I’m arguably in violation of that writer’s advice). As I read and think through these issues, I’m finding some interesting conflicts in some of my core principles and those of many around me.

One of my core beliefs is that you can say no to a relationship for any reason, that you absolutely get to set the limits that you need for yourself, but I’ve always had a hard time reconciling this with discriminating against a partner based on a disorder. Even though attention and love are linked for me.

Pain Is a Powerful Memory Enhancer

As it would happen, Seth and I would end up divorced (we were hugely incompatible), but he wouldn’t be the only person I’d date with ADD. I would go on to date multiple others who’d been diagnosed (men and women). And as always, I would have no idea until I’d been in the relationship a little while, and they’d mention it offhand.

Sometimes we’d simply be talking about ADD or ADHD as a general topic and they’d volunteer that they had the disorder as a way of sharing their phenomenology, their lived experience. After they told me, I’d notice other small things, but I can honestly say that I never would have known if they hadn’t told me.

But with others the diagnosis would be brought up when I’d point out certain behaviors that disappointed me, as an alternate explanation. Like the guy who would often change the topic whenever things became emotionally vulnerable. He was earnest when he said it was linked to ADD, but I couldn’t help but notice that there didn’t seem to be a general problem with attention. The quick topic changes only seemed to happen in moments of vulnerability.

True, it’s possible that he did it all the time, and I only noticed it during the vulnerable times because those were the ones where the quick switch hurt me. And pain is a powerful memory enhancer.

But I’m not so sure.

What Is Attention and How Do We Pay It?

ADD/ADHD continues to not be a dating dealbreaker for me, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about what people mean what they say attention. I know the technical definition of attention of course, ripped from cognitive psychology, neurology, neuropsychology, all the -ologies. Y’know, the Wikipedia definition:

The behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether deemed subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form of one out of what seem several simultaneous objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of limited processing resources.

At its base, attention is about prioritizing certain stimuli over others, in a way that’s volitional.

But that definition doesn’t say a lot. About how it feels — on both sides, as the attention-giver and the attention-getter. Or as the neglected stimulus, the person who becomes background noise.

And I can’t help but notice that we all seem to have individual understandings of what attention is and how to properly pay it.

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My book is out!

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory

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