Paying Attention to Your Partner

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by Randall S. Frederick

Q: So this isn’t really about sex, it’s kind of about the dating series you did a few weeks ago, but I started dating this girl, [name], and she’s great and we have a good time but then sometimes it’s like she’s off doing her own thing and I’m not even important. She’s really sociable and extroverted, like a textbook Miers Brigg [sic] E, but it really bothers me that when we’re togther [sic], it’s just us and when we’re apart, it’s like she’s with everyone else.

A: For such a short question, there’s a lot to work with here! Thanks for contacting me.

First off, a woman does not owe you her attention or time. No one does. These ideas about dating where “if I do this, then they should do that – they owe me” can creep into any relationship – I’m not saying you are doing that. I’m just saying, hey. Maybe examine your thoughts and motives here. Do you feel like you’re putting something into the relationship and expecting your partner to do something in return? Because unrealistic expectations and the feeling that your partner “owes” you their time and attention can be serious issues that you need to discuss with each other. Sometimes, hearing yourself say something out loud causes you to go, “Wait. That’s now how I mean that/ who I want to be.”

Whew! Okay, now that we’re out from under that umbrella!

Your question really hits home with me because I’ve been there, feeling the way you are feeling right now. It took me a long time to accept this, but people – even the important people in our lives – have their own life and can get caught up, distracted, or find new priorities. The best advice I can give you is accept that while you value this person, it’s okay if they do not value you in the same way. You probably loved those qualities in her when you first met, right? The outgoing, personable woman who gave you her attention? Well it sounds like that’s who she is with everyone, not just you. And while it might sting a little bit, that’s a personality trait that you enjoy(ed) about her so let’s try and find a way to keep the things you love and talk about the things you don’t.

The big issue here is that it sounds like you are more invested in the relationship that she is, which is causing this tension of “when we’re together, it’s just us” but also “sometimes she’s off doing her own thing.” For your own sake, do not invest in a relationship substantially more than your partner is investing. All relationships experience waves, especially after that initial honeymoon period where you begin to cool off and normalize into a new stage of relating to one another.

What I want you to do is take a step back and consider your friendships. How would you respond to a friend who was acting the same way? Would you allow them to ignore you, brush you off for someone/something else, ignore important “be there” moments? You might if you felt there was a shared understanding – sometimes you don’t show up, sometimes they don’t show up, but you’re still “there” for each other. But if you are always showing up to their events and they never show up for yours, you have have every right to point this out to them. One of my very best friends does this and, after calling her on it a few times and getting empty promises to “do better” from her, I finally had to sit her down and say, “Look, I love you – you’re like a sister to me. But I’m not going to call any more. I’m not going to invite you to come with me any more. It’s not because I don’t love you, it’s because you clearly are not putting value into this friendship.”

Did she change? No. The goal shouldn’t be to change someone or to manipulate, it’s to reclaim your time. Instead of waiting for someone else to change, you can change and create a better, more vibrant life for yourself.

In other words, what I am saying is pull back for a while. Go do something else. Take time to work on yourself in healthy ways, visit with friends, maybe buy a video game, read a book, anything. Whatever you do, remind yourself that you are rebalancing your relationship and that you are important. One of the things we do when we begin to substantially invest in a relationship is cut off supplementary concerns, activities, friendships and you are taking back some of the things that provided you happiness so your focus is not entirely on your partner. And let’s face it, clearly your partner is benefitting from the devotion you are showing her. Don’t sit around waiting for her to come to you – go “do you” for a while. If she brings it up and says, “Hey, I notice you’ve not been around as much lately,” without drama, you can explain why you have been busy/unavailable, then suggest doing things together. Instead of telling, you can also ask – ask to join her, or ask her to join you.

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