The Trouble With Tuning Out

Katie Young
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Wednesday - May 07, 2008

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with your husband or wife where they just seem to be completely tuned out? They might answer robotically with an “uh-huh,” answer a question totally different from the one you were asking or appear not to have heard you at all.

You find yourself wondering what’s wrong with your partner, and you say pointedly, “Earth to spouse. Come in, spouse. Are you there? Can you hear me?”

Is this tuned-out state just the natural progression of any long-term relationship? Certainly not, according to Tom Merrill, Ph.D., ABPP and his wife, Bobbie Sandoz-Merrill, MSW.

The Merrills are members of the Hawaii Psychological Association, have a private practice and each is an author and consultant (see their web-site

While there is no one explanation for why couples tend to tune each other out after years together, Tom says there is definitely a “tuned-out switch.”

“Some people do get hard of hearing, but this is not usually the reason we stop hearing our partners,” he says. “Our hearing is fine when we’re 25 and in love and courting, but people do seem to get selective hearing when they have been married for a few years. This can be anything from completely ignoring what their partner says to sometimes tuning them out.”

Perhaps you are among the lucky ones who remain tuned in to every word your partner says. But most couples I know say their partner tunes them out at least once or twice a day.

“The fact that we chalk it up to ‘it happens’ is why we have the high divorce rate we have,” says Bobbie. “We’ve normalized it yet we feel insulted by it, and we eventually end up falling out of love with our partner.”

Thinking your relationship will just continue to slide downhill is nonsense, say the Merrills.

Tom says the longer couples are together, the more they speak in “shorthand,” the more they anticipate what the other person is going to say and the more they think they’ve heard it before so they just don’t listen.

“They’re not attending or listening to their partner the way they used to when they were courting,” he says.

“I think we also tune out when we assume the person is just going to stay in love with us no matter what,” adds Bobbie. “Once we’ve fallen in love, our belief system tells us that our partner is likely to stay in love with us.”

But this isn’t the case. Relationships don’t survive without work, right? This is something we’ve all heard before.

“People really aren’t awake to what the consequences are going to be,” insists Tom. “If you tune your partner out, he or she isn’t going to feel close to you anymore. You don’t see the consequences right away, but if you knew what it would do to the relationship over time, you wouldn’t do it.”

More than that, he adds, you don’t have a right to ignore your partner just because you are connected and you figure it goes with the territory.

Very rarely is it simply a matter of “I didn’t hear you,” says Tom. Sometimes people don’t want to get into the conversation or they haven’t learned the art of conversation.

“It can be a whole host of things that keep people from responding. If the person who is tuning you out is doing it because they think what you’re saying doesn’t matter, then they’re not as in love either because they’ve missed all those chances to connect.”

My friend Jake says that his wife talks to him only when he’s busy doing something, and this annoys him.

“Why can’t she wait until I’m not busy to talk?” he says.

Jake might have a point. It would be nice for his wife to consider how wrapped up Jake is in his current project and not interrupt unless it is absolutely imperative. However, says Tom, Jake should never ignore his wife completely, no matter what he’s busy doing.

“It’s not a reason to not listen or answer,” Tom says. “You can easily say, ‘Let me get back to that as soon as I finish this.’”

Perhaps your partner doesn’t even realize they are tuning you out. This is where a serious conversation needs to take place to get everyone’s feelings out in the open, and to find a way of talking that is beneficial for everyone. Ask your partner if he or she even realized they weren’t listening. You can even use humor to lighten a potentially tense situation.

But the bottom line is, as the years of your relationship go by, it will be increasingly valuable to remain tuned in.

“If you hear your partner’s voice, you need to realize that voice is important,” says Bobbie. “So wake up and make the attempt to be engaged all the time. If you’re not doing that, you’re saying you don’t really care if the relationship works or not.”

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