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?