Husband prioritizes texting over conversation

Question: My husband has an annoying habit of picking up his phone the second he gets a text message, even mid-conversation, and then dropping everything else to respond right away. This irks me.

I am uncomfortable being confrontational and so will often build up resentment gradually until I get disproportionately upset. I am working on that (really), but it is still really hard for me to find the right way to address the behavior in the moment.

I have tried, unsuccessfully, to battle a similar behavior of his, in which we're talking, and he gets distracted. But if I point that out or ask a question and pause, he will replay the last five seconds like a loop recorder and respond to what I just said, which in his mind justifies that it is not a problem. It drives me batty, but he has made it clear that he doesn't think it needs to change, so hey, that's just a character quirk I have to deal with.

My failure to change that behavior, even pointing it out in the moment as a mature adult, makes me insecure about how to say I think these text interruptions are rude. Any suggestions?

Answer: "Please don't answer that text while we're talking."

If that feels confrontational, then reframe it as the kind of request for his attention that you don't think twice about. "Would you please pass the salt?" "Look here - is that a tick?" "Hey, can you get the door? My hands are full."

If he responds again with his usual defense - that his texting is a successful exercise in multitasking - then don't argue that point, because it's not the point. It's about respect. "I'm not saying you can't do both. I'm saying it's disrespectful to divide your attention. Not just to me, but to anyone." Suspend conversations till the phone is off.

By the way, he can't do both. People don't multitask, they toggle-task. And we can also regurgitate the last five seconds of speech without being even remotely engaged with its meaning.

So, that's the argument against his parlor trick, though I agree with your decision to focus on its bigger message: He doesn't care to change.

Which only "irks" you at this point, OK, but neither addiction nor contempt tends to stay within such bounds, and both appear to be at work here. Your other strategies are appropriate to that challenge - the pause, the pointed question, the, "Hello ... ? Should we talk about this another time, when you're not distracted?" - and a calm request that he put his phone away until you finish your conversation would fit in well. Even better, a suggestion beforehand that you both put phones away.

But so would thinking even more expansively about what's going awry. On your part, there's the possibility that you're taking too long to get to your point, or dwelling on a topic well past its expiration date, or demanding his attention at inopportune times, either wittingly or un-. It isn't just an act of kindness to think through important points beforehand - and save them for when people haven't just awakened, arrived home from work, or turned on their favorite show - but it's also simple pragmatism.

On his part, there's compulsion for his phone (can we call it an epidemic yet?) and contempt for you. Work up the courage, please: "Devices are killing us. Put it down and be present."

If he's treating every moment as an inopportune one - can't tell from here - then that would be a form of hostility, as well.

Plus, his last-five-seconds stunt is disrespectful, even if you are beating points to death or choosing bad times to make them. To communicate honestly is a show of respect: "You're right, I'm drifting, can we talk about it later?" or "Can we give this topic a rest? We're going in circles" or even, "Sorry to be rude; I have to answer this" - because at least it validates your observation that he's not fully there.

In lieu of this validation, he's denying, and thereby subtly shifting the blame to you - essentially saying, no, he's not being rude, you've just failed to appreciate how attentive he is.

Translation: No, you're not seeing what you're seeing. This is the basic bone structure of gaslighting. Please look it up.

Let's say he can't honestly validate you that way, because he wasn't actually "drifting," as charged; there are respectful ways for him to do this, too. "I'm sorry, X caught my eye - I am listening, though." Meaning, yes, you're correct, I look distracted, I just happen not to be.

Your suppress-suppress-suppress-BOOMing only exacerbates this problem, because it inhibits honesty from others. People can't trust that your response to them reflects what you really think and feel.

So, Step 1 to solving the text problem is to trust the power of your truth. "That's insulting, please stop." And be mindful of having blame turned back on you - with a skilled therapist, just you, if need be.

tellme@washpost.com.

Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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