“My spouse just wants to talk. Sometimes I get to the point when I just tune out and stop listening. I try not to let on that my mind is wandering, but I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not. Is it important to pay attention when a spouse just goes on and on, or is it alright to mislead them into thinking that I care about what they’re saying?”
This is a delicate dilemma, in part because we are hearing only one version of the facts. One must not form an opinion or judge a person based on someone else’s report, even someone as close as a caring spouse. But, on the other hand, “caring spouse” is where this topic begins.
Over the course of a relationship, it is not uncommon for two people to redefine their connection many times, and to redefine one’s own identity as time, circumstance, and maturation have an impact on attitude, values, and priorities. Some couples start off feeling close because of the novelty and adventure of beginning a life with their partner. Some start off shy or cautious and their relationship forms with time and increased familiarity. As we age and go through life stresses, both those which are highly personal and those which we encounter together with our spouses, people find that their needs and wishes evolve, their priorities change, and this can be experienced as becoming distanced, detached, and disinterested in the lives and interests of those who are our life partners.
Unfortunately, emotional distance breeds disinterest. One may care about the other in the abstract but may decrease their display of caring behaviors. Colleagues at times have asked me for a psychological definition of love. I have suggested that love is when you matter to someone who matters to you. That might seem to rob the word love of its mystique and its emotional profundity but in distilled terms, this is nonetheless at the essence of every loving marital relationship: I matter to this person and this person matters to me.
Caring for another whom we love might be deeply emotional, a ‘sense’ which somehow evades our attempts to quantify it in objective terms. Caring might also be through overt behavior, characterized by acts of caring, demonstration of respect, and displays of empathy when a spouse expresses their worries, fears, sadness, or frustration. For some, those deep emotional connections fade at times. After all, the mathematics of marriage are 1+1=3. There is one person, there is the second person, and together there are three realities: you, me, and we. At times, a couple feels that sense of “we” and they bond as a unit, a sharing partnership. At other times, he is very much into himself, and she into herself. That is: 1 and 1. They are separate identities during those times, and may need to accept the other person’s need for space and time to focus separately on things that might interest or involve only the one, and not the other. But as much as one’s discrete personal identity is maintained within a marriage, couples still must make time to connect, to share, and to activate the “we.” It might be at times when collaboration is required; it might be when a moment is better experienced when shared. It might be when one needs a supportive listener.
Caring for our spouse is axiomatic. Caring about what they might be saying is variable. If the topic concerns me, affects me, requires my involvement, then I am part of the “we” in our relationship and that warrants my participation and attentiveness. If the topics do not concern or interest me, but my spouse asks for my input or even my presence as they express their worry or their delight, that is my role at that time. Yes, we can respectfully, proactively agree to set times to speak that are mutually convenient, and we can agree to set limits in advance as to how to make progress or get closure when a discussion seems excessive. And it is true that sometimes, one’s participation in a discussion is more pro forma, going through the motions, appearing passively attentive because the speaker does not seek input or response, only an attentive ear or shoulder. The bottom line is when you care about a person, they matter to you, you matter to them, and it is valuable to show them that you are present, not a missing person. n
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. For Israel crisis resources and support, visit chailifeline.org/israel or call 855-3-CRISIS.