DEAR CAROLYN: I've been married three years. My husband and I had major communication issues early on, where I felt my opinions were instantly dismissed and he felt constantly criticized. We almost separated, but with counseling and some hard work to change our destructive patterns, we've been thriving for the past year or two, even during the pandemic. There is one exception, though. While he really makes a point now of acknowledging my opinions, actually getting his attention in the first place can feel impossible. He will be reading when I come into a room and start talking to him, and only after I've finished what I'm saying will it become obvious he didn't listen. Or we will be in a conversation, face-to-face, and I will say two related things — he will respond to the second and then ask me a question making it obvious he didn't even hear the first. The same doesn't apply the other way around; he assumes I turn on my ears when he comes in and starts talking. He insists he's tried to improve his listening, and there's nothing more he can do because he doesn't realize I'm talking in the first place. Obviously I miss things, too, sometimes. But this happens constantly, and makes me feel like he unconsciously doesn't regard my voice as worthy of his attention. Am I being over-demanding? He's made major changes to become a more emotionally responsive partner already, and I don't want to expect the impossible.
METAPHORICAL EARWAX: Some people just burrow deep into their own mental wool, and it takes them a while to come out.
Is your husband one of them? I can't say.
But I can say that treating him as if he is — as if he just gets so lost in his head that he needs extra time to become fully present with you — can take a lot of pressure off you and your marriage. If it's just his wiring or temperament, then you don't have to take it personally (since he'd respond this way to anyone), you don't have to take offense, you don't have to strategize new ways to "get" him to change.
Instead, you merely need to anticipate this and get into the habit of summoning his attention before you launch into whatever it is you want to say — a courtesy we all ought to grant each other anyway — and of waiting that extra beat for him to arrive back on earth.
A bit of a nuisance for you, sure, and maybe not anyone's ideal for an attentive partner — but ideals will break your heart faster than any partner can. And it's still a lot easier to find your own ways to get your own needs met than it is to go out of your mind waiting for accommodations to come to you.
If you're ever unsure where the line is between making reasonable changes and erasing yourself completely, then look to whether you feel contented (the former) or drained (the latter). Also look to a point you make your letter: He's made a significant effort on your behalf already. That's an inflection point — when somebody cares enough and is invested enough to try to meet you halfway.