Monday, August 28, 2006

If Conversation Be the Food of Love, Talk On

I’ve always been afraid of snowmobiles. Once, while I was walking through a pedestrian walkway on my way home from school, two snowmobiles came roaring down the path (illegally, I’m sure), and I reacted the only way I knew how: I threw my backpack over the fence and then scrambled over myself. Only after the roar of the engines died away in the distance did I notice my best friend standing calmly and rationally on the snowbank at the side of the walkway, rolling her eyes at me in disgust.

During my first marriage, snowmobiles became a point of contention. My position was that (a) we don’t have $4000 to spend on a snowmobile, (b) if you choose to borrow $4000 to buy a snowmobile, you need to tell me about it and not keep it a secret for two weeks, and (c) once you reveal the existence of the snowmobile, you really can’t expect me to ride it – not, at least, if you’ve ever met me before and thus realize that the only thing I hate more than fast-moving machinery is being frozen on a fast-moving machine.

I always considered it shallow and unreasonable of then-husband to expect me to accompany him on his various camping, bungee-jumping, and snowmobiling excursions. I had never pretended to be an outdoorsy or athletic type, and I couldn’t see why it mattered. Since then, I’ve realized that it did matter: for him, these peak experiences were not mere hobbies – they were essential to his well-being; they made him feel fully alive, and it was important the he be able to share such experiences with his partner. Long conversations over a candlelit dinner just weren’t going to cut it for him.

Since anniversaries are a time to reflect on the state of one’s marriage, I’ve been thinking about the currencies of marriage – the habits and activities that promote a sense of intimacy. I think I’ve always measured my relationships with family, friends, romantic partners in terms of word-count: talking is the currency my heart most readily recognizes. And this goes back a long way, to the days when the purpose of liking a boy was to have secrets to whisper at sleep-overs, to create an inner circle of girlfriends to whom such top-secret information could be entrusted. In the same way, my relationship with my mother was negotiated over the dishes: each night after supper when I picked up the tea towel, the problems of my day would be dissected, analyzed, put into their proper place. It was a comforting (and one-sided) ritual of talking and listening; our hands were busy and our tongues wagged freely.

In my dating relationships (all two of them), the qualities I sought were similarly conversational: I was looking for someone who would converse with me about books and politics and religion (and I underestimated the extent to which an interest in such subjects might be feigned by someone whose ultimate goal was less, um, verbal). After my first date with the ex-husband, I reported to my diary the topics of conversation covered: "At the end, he went on a tangent about how everyone is different and you have to know what will make you happy, which is why he’s learning to play the drums, and that got a little tedious, but other than that, here’s what we talked about: (1) Italy, (2) alcohol, (3) hockey, (4) the crisis at Oka, (5) school, (6) writing, (7) the secret of happiness."

Early-relationship conversation has to be its own genre, I think, incorporating several features that are no longer typical in the later, more comfortable, years:

  • Showing Off: This is the kind of conversation that is designed to display one’s intelligence, incisiveness, and wit. References to books and movies abound; ideally, one combines the arcane with the popular, analyzing the Nietzschean politics of Survivor, for instance, or the faulty theology of Pearl Jam’s "Last Kiss," so as to seem well-read yet ironic.
  • Mutual Discovery: As Harry puts it in When Harry Met Sally, this is the part where "she tells you all her stories, you tell her your stories." (For Harry, the story-exchange occurs post-coitally, which is why he panicked after having sex with Sally – what do you say to a woman you’ve just had sex with if you’ve already heard all her stories?)
  • Compliments: Ah, the wonderful language of compliments. I understand that there are some husbands who continue to compliment their wives even after the initial getting-to-know you period is over. Fortunately for me, I have a husband of exceptional foresight who warned me in advance that he hates to repeat himself, so once he had comprehensively complimented every aspect of my appearance and personality, the well would run dry. In this he spoke nothing but the truth (and luckily, I wrote all his compliments down for future reference).

To return to Harry’s question, though, what do you talk about once you already know one another’s stories? When all the compliments have been paid, and when the need to show off has blessedly subsided, what is left for a husband and wife to say to one another?

Without including the words exchanged for purely utilitarian purposes ("Do I need to pick up anything for supper?" "Did Bub have a nap this afternoon?" "Don’t forget to put extra soothers in the Pie’s crib."), I would estimate that around 60% of my conversation with my husband revolves around the children: their sweet and winning ways, their latest milestones, their status as evidence of our amazing genetic compatibility. (About a year ago, I asked hubby to come up with a new compliment. It took him a few days, but he finally managed it: If I died, he said, he’d be reluctant to have more children with his second wife, because once you’ve found the perfect genetic combination, you really don’t want to mess with it. Technically, that’s not a compliment for me so much as for (a) the children and (b) my DNA, but I’m willing to take what I can get.)

The other 40% divides as follows: me boring him with talk about blogging (20%); him boring me with talk about comic books/card games/movies about comic book heroes (10%); fun conversations on topics of mutual interest (10%). Ten percent seems like a fairly low number, really. Clearly we need a few more shared topics of conversation. The return of the fall television schedule should be a good start; even better would be a few social gatherings that would produce the kind of gossipy post-analysis that we used to indulge in with so much enjoyment. One of the hazards of procreation is that our social life is conducted separately: I go out to the spa with my blogging buddies, he goes to the Versus tournament with his crew. When we do go out together, it’s for a romantic dinner that, far from providing conversation fodder, simply highlights the lack of it.

So what do you talk about with your spouse? Any ideas for a conversation-deprived wife?


Odd Mix said...

Just a list of thoughts, here.

Why are his interests boring to you?
Are you sure blogging is boring to him? Have you ever read your blog together?
What did you talk about before you had kids? And why don't you talk about that anymore?

It seems, like much else in married life, conversation topics are often a matter of compromise. In my marriage, our non-offspring-or-television oriented topics consist largely of farm stuff (mainly her interest), photography (my interest) and blogging (also mine). We have each had to make a determined effort to find interest in the other’s passion. Not bored toleration or feigned passion, but genuine interest. It is remarkable how a subject can become interesting when you decide to learn more about it.

Try talking with him about what subjects you both might enjoy. Brainstorm a list of topics. Do some independent study about an agreed upon subject and then discuss it later. Our latest topic is making cheese (which is fun, by the way).

Mamalooper said...

I have been thinking about this lately. When Monkeydad and I go out alone, the talk invariably settles on Monkeygirl.

What I try to do is to get curious about Monkeydad. Ask him about his dreams, his opinions on certain issues, etc. I try also to mix things up a bit and go out to new places, even if it is only a new route for our daily walk with Monkeygirl. That can often generate new conversation since we don't often get out alone together.

Have you tried learning something new together?

Oh, The Joys said...

We face the same thing. Though we tend to plan things together - events, trips, projects...

Minnehaha Mama said...

We like to talk about the love lives of celebrities. How pathetic is that!!

OK, and also politics, movies, extended family and books. That's better.

Emily said...

We have our problems, but conversing together isn't one of them. We talk about our perceptions about things, however obscure. We spend a good part of our time together laughing and making jokes. We do a lot of cultrural analysis about, again, ordinary things. We also cook together and talk about that. I'm lucky that he blogs, so there's that too. We even talk about you! :)
Hilarious post! Loved the "I'm impressing you" phase.
PS Was your first husband MY DAD? Eiw."Peak excperiences" funny & I know!

Aliki2006 said...

The other day my husband and I were talking wistfully about our long-distance dating days, when I was working on my MA in upstate NY and he was doing the same thing in MD. We would call each other around 10:00 at night and just *talk* for about two hours straight, hanging onto every word each other said, long silences rife with meaning and longing. "What did we *talk* about?" I asked him. I'm not sure I can imagine talking for two hours straight anymore. I do miss that time to just talk--we spend so much time moving in a companionable flurry of child-caring and work.

We do have lots of meaningful conversations--but talking, just to *talk* seems to be a thing of the past, I think!

Eric said...

Don't they have blogs for comic-book aficionados (note I didn't say geeks)? Get the man started on a blog like that and - voila! - you have a common blogging interest.

As for my marriage, our kid vs. non-kid topic breakdown is probably closer to 90-10, so I probably can't be of much help.

Mommy off the Record said...

The breakdown of my conversations with husband are something like 40% recaps of our day at work, 40% talk about Little Guy, and 20% random stuff to make each other laugh. (Though when it's that time of month, I would substitute that last 20% for me yelling at husband for leaving his socks on the floor, not doing enough to help with the baby, etc.)

So, in terms of new conversational ideas, I'm not sure I'd be of much help, but I like the idea mamalooper had of learning something new together. Maybe instead of a dinner out at a restaurant one night, you two could go learn how to make sushi or something.

Her Bad Mother said...

My husband and I talk about the baby, what's on my blog, what's in the newspaper, what's up with his work, what's on TV and what's for dinner.

Usually in that order.

Mrs. Chicky said...

Funny enough, I divorced my first husband because we had nothing to talk about (zero, zilch, nada) and married my current husband because we talked nonstop. Now, due to a kid and jobs and stress we don't talk as much as we used to, but we try to find random things to converse about. It's usually something we read in the paper or online or saw on the news. The majority of our conversations do revolve around our child, but we're still making a concerted effort to find non-kid related things to talk about. Gotta keep our relationships interesting, right?

penelopeto said...

great post. your communication skills belie your dilemma, but of course, that's not what you mean.
We indulge in a little harmless gossip, and I like to ask hypothetical questions (often beginning with 'would you rather...'). They are new, interesting, and revealing. and, I am a champion bitcher. Does bitching count?

metro mama said...

We like to read the paper together (we do this well because he reaches for the front section first, and I the style section) then we talk about what we read.

He doesn't seem to mind my yammering about blogging.

sunshine scribe said...

The only compliment I've received in the last year related to my DNA too. LOL.

I totally hear you on this one, my friend. We once got so deep into the conversation rut that I went out and bought a book of questions etc ... it was a fun book of hypothetical situations etc that kept us laughing and pondering and chatting for days.

We talk ALOT about my son and work and extended family and household matters. But we've also learned to purposefully try other topics ... like daydreaming/planning for the future.

Of course the truth is I am an extrovert married to an artsy introvert so I do most of the talking anyway :)

Em said...

Ahem. W and I do talk a lot about the kids... maybe 50% of our time is discussing them (well, we have three). We talk about buying a house, travel, how we passed our days. We talk about mutual friends and family. We reminisce about things we've done together. We tease each other and joke a lot (we have a lot of humour in our relationship). We don't tend to discuss ideas, politics, religion - I don't know if either of us have the mental energy at the moment.

We never seem to run out of coversation. Sometimes I'll ask W to tell me something new - and he'll usually come up with something - a new thought or idea. We do have a rule that we won't discuss the kids when we go out on dates, which has been helpful.