What to Do When Your Conversation
Becomes Boring and Unpleasant
Introduction: Conversation is not just a means to
an end, it is also the end itself. What I mean by that is that conversation in marriage does
more than help us communicate and solve problems, it also meets one of our most
important emotional needs -- the need to talk to
someone. When you learn to meet that need for your spouse, it can deposit more love units than anything else you do.
The way you talk to each other is very important. Even if your spouse has a
need for conversation, you can talk your way into Love
Bank withdrawals very easily. And when conversation suffers, the solution to all
other problems are bound to suffer.
Dear Dr. Harley,
What do you do when your relationship reaches the point where everything you say
or do feels the same -- when everything you say to your partner sounds as if it's been said
a hundred times.
And more worrisome, your partner accuses you of hidden agendas which you definitely
do not have, as if your trying to sort out a problem with somebody who has their mind
made up surrounding who is 'to blame'.
From an 8 year marriage that is 80% wonderful, please could you share your advice on
running into that communication brick-wall.
I'm sure your brief letter would strike a chord with many other couples who are struggling
to make their conversation interesting and meaningful. For some reason, you and your
spouse have become defensive. That makes for superficial and frustrating conversation.
Because you and your wife no longer share your deepest feelings with each other, you
are left guessing about "hidden agendas." I'll also bet that you are not talking to each other
nearly as much as you did before you married.
Conversation in marriage is so important that very few people fall in love without it. Not only that, but the conversation must meet very high standards of intimacy. But after marriage, those standards are often forgotten, and
conversation becomes boring at best, and downright abusive at worst. I'm afraid that you
and your spouse may have fallen victim to the Enemies of Good Conversation. You have also forgotten all about the Friends of Good Conversation.
The results, as you have already seen, are disastrous.
First, let me help you and your wife get back on track by reminding you of the Friends of
Good Conversation -- those habits that used to make your conversation so terrific. Then I
will help you see how the Enemies of Good Conversation have managed to gain the upper
hand, making your conversations not only boring, but dangerous.
The Friends of Good Conversation
Remember how it used to be? You and your wife used to be fascinated with each other. You would support and encourage each other. Empathy and understanding were almost
effortless. You had many common interests to talk about. Somehow, you need to
resurrect the kindness, consideration, empathy and interest you once shared in your
conversations with each other.
Once you can talk to each other like that again, you will be meeting one of each other's
most important emotional needs: The need for
conversation. And if you can learn to do it well, you will deposit so many love units that you will become irresistible to each other
There are ways to make your conversation great. I call these the Friends of Good
Conversation. If you incorporate these friends into the conversation you have with your
spouse, you will get out of your rut.
The first Friend of Good Conversation is using conversation to investigate, inform
and understand your spouse. You and your spouse have not begun to exhaust all
there is to know about each other. But, for some reason, you have stopped investigating.
Your conversation has become predictable and uninteresting as a result.
I suggest that you investigate the facts of each other's personal histories, present
experiences and plans for the future. Also investigate each other's attitudes and emotional
reactions to those facts. You are bound to each other, through marriage, in a partnership
that requires you to navigate through life with skill and coordination. Without conversation you will have neither, and your marriage may crash.
Why investigate? Why not just inform? Well, most of us don't just offer personal
information about our deepest feelings. Someone must show an interest first. If you don't
investigate with a genuine curiosity, your spouse is unlikely to share those feelings with
you. Your curiosity about your spouse's thoughts and feelings is essential to her revealing
them to you.
But curiosity is not all that's required. Trust is also essential. Your spouse must trust you
with her personal feelings before she will expose them to you. I'll talk about building trust
a little later when I get to the Enemies of Good Conversation.
Once personal information is requested, you should both inform each other of the
facts of your personal histories, present experiences, plans for the future, and your
attitudes and emotional reactions to all of those facts. To withhold accurate information
about your inner self prevents intimacy and leaves the need for meaningful conversation
After you have investigated and informed each other of personal activities and feelings,
you are in a position to understand each other. What motivates you and your
spouse to do what you both do? What are your rewards, and what do you find punishing?
What are your beliefs, and how are they put into practice? What are your most common
positive and negative emotional reactions? What are your strengths and weaknesses? The
list goes on and on. There is so much to know about each other, you will never get to
know it all.
By reaching an understanding of each other, your conversation will break through the
superficiality barrier. You become emotionally connected to each other, and able to bring
out each other's best feelings, and avoid the worst. "Hidden agendas" are not possible
because neither of you hide anything from each other.
The Second Friend of Good Conversation is developing interest in each other's
favorite topics of conversation. Topics drive most conversations. We usually talk
about something and this something keeps your conversation going. But we all like to talk
about some topics more than others.
When you were dating, you probably tried to discover your wife's favorite topics of
conversation, and she tried to discover yours. Then, you probably developed an
interest in those topics so that your conversation would be more enjoyable.
Interests will change. Topics that may have interested your spouse when you were
younger may have lost their attraction. Topics that were once completely boring, you
may now find fascinating. Besides, you are encountering new topics almost every day.
You may have had compatible interests when you were first married, but have you kept
up with each other's changing interests? Once you may have been able to talk for hours
about mutual interests, now you may find yourselves struggling to find anything you
have in common.
If that's the case, you must return to the mind-set you had when you were dating. In those
days, you made an effort to talk about topics that your spouse found interesting, because
you knew it would deposit love units. To make the
conversation more interesting, you may have spent some time educating yourself on those
topics. What may have started as an effort to be loved, may have turned into a genuine
curiosity about subjects that interested your spouse.
I suggest that you make a mental note of subjects that interest your wife today, and
educate yourself about those subjects. The same thing goes for your spouse, too. She
should try to develop an understanding of some of your favorite topics of conversation.
What if both of you try to educate yourselves in each other's interests, and still find
yourselves bored with certain subjects? There's no point in faking an interest in something
that is truly boring to one of you, and there are literally hundreds of subjects that both of
you will find interesting. So I suggest that after an initial effort, you abandon subjects that
you do not find mutually interesting. The Policy of Joint
Agreement can help you create an inventory of subjects that you both enjoy
discussing (never talk about a subject without an enthusiastic agreement between you and
The Third Friend of Good Conversation is balancing the conversation.
Conversation is a two-way street. But if you try to turn it into a one-way road, it becomes
a speech. Conversation is meant to be interactive.
There are important rules of conversational etiquette that must be followed when you
talk to each other. Don't interrupt or try talking over each other. Make sure that you both have a chance to finish a thought before the other person
responds. If you notice that one of you is talking more than the other,
the more talkative spouse should pause to give the less talkative spouse a chance to talk
Balancing the conversation simply refers to the importance of equal participation from
each of you. Any effort you make to insure balance will make the conversation much more
enjoyable, and more interesting.
The Fourth Friend of Good Conversation is giving each other undivided
attention. Some people feel that they can do several things at once, so while talking
to their spouse, they try to do something else, too. But you can't have an intimate
conversation when you divide your attention. It leaves your wife feeling that she is not
important enough for your full attention, or that other tasks are more important than she
If you find it difficult to talk to your spouse with your undivided attention, it could be that
you have allowed competing activities (like television) to ruin your opportunity to deposit
love units. There's nothing quite as frustrating as
trying to talk to a spouse whose mind is somewhere else.
Over the years, I have become increasingly convinced that couples must schedule time to
give each other their undivided attention. If it's not on your schedule, you're not likely to
do it. You will talk to each other on the fly, instead. And that doesn't deposit love units.
During courtship, I estimate that it takes about 15 hours a week of undivided attention for
a couple to deposit enough love units to fall in love.
Think back on your courtship. Without that amount of time for intimate conversation, I
don't think you would have married.
But I bet you are not spending that kind of time now. In fact, it may only be about 15
minutes a week. How sad. I suggest that you correct the situation right now.
Begin by working out a schedule with your wife so that you will have 15 hours of
undivided attention from each other every week. The fifteen hours should include
conversation, but it can meet other important emotional
needs, too -- affection, sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship.
These four Friends of Good Conversation that I've just introduced to you will help
you communicate with each other more effectively. They will also help you meet each
other's need for conversation and deposit love units.
On the other hand, if you are not careful you can use conversation to do just the opposite.
It can also withdraw love units. You and
your spouse may need to talk to each other, but if you invite the Enemies of Good
Conversation along, the pain will become so great that your conversation won't be worth
the effort. You may even avoid talking to each other entirely. From what you have
described to me in your letter, those enemies may have already landed, and secured a
The Enemies of Good Conversation
The conversation you and your wife once shared was enjoyable for both of you. You
looked forward to talking to each other. But lately, it's not at all pleasant. In fact, it's
something you often do out of duty rather than choice. That's because you have developed
habits that make your conversations unpleasant. I call those habits Enemies of Good
The First Enemy of Good Conversation is using conversation to force agreement to
your way of thinking. It's okay to negotiate with your spouse, but it's not okay to be
disrespectful. Negotiation should start with a problem and end with a mutually
acceptable way to solve it. When disrespect enters the picture, you not only fail to
solve the problem, you leave with hurt feelings.
If you are thinking, "I'm right and you're wrong," watch out! You are just an utterance
away from disaster. The Love Buster,
disrespectful judgments, will not straighten your spouse out, as you hope. Instead, it will
drive your spouse away from you. At first, you will develop emotional distance with your
tactics, as your superficial conversation demonstrates. But eventually it will lead to
physical distance -- separation or divorce.
Instead of trying to force agreement to your way of thinking, discuss your differing
perspectives with respect. Your spouse's point of view is worth considering. After you
fully understand it, you may be persuaded to her way of thinking.
Quite frankly, couples are easily influenced by each other when they are respectful. Their
joint wisdom is more profound than the wisdom of either of them separately, and they
know that. But that wisdom is uncovered only through respectful persuasion, never
through disrespectful judgments.
The Second Enemy of Good Conversation is dwelling on mistakes, past or
One of our important emotional needs is admiration.
So whenever you remind your wife of achievements of her past or present, you deposit love units because she needs to be admired.
But when you remind her of her failures, you do the opposite. You undermine her
confidence and self-esteem, and withdraw love units.
Criticism is painful in marriage because we need admiration so much. We want our
spouses to be the most encouraging person we know, one who constantly reminds us of
our strengths. We certainly don't want to be discouraged by being reminded of our
weaknesses, particularly if it comes from our spouse.
In an intimate relationship we give the keys to our inner self to someone else so that person can
be in a position to meet our emotional needs.
Intimacy magnifies the pleasure we receive when our needs are met. But it also makes
us vulnerable. The pain of criticism is magnified in an intimate relationship.
Unprotected, we expose the china closet of our feelings. If the person is critical of us,
they are like the proverbial "bull in a china closet." One romp through our inner self and
we are not so quick to invite the bull back again.
Criticism now and then is bad enough, but spouses often get into the habit of
dwelling on mistakes. These mistakes are mentioned repeatedly in an effort to
make sure that the mistake is understood and corrected. But that's not how mistakes are
understood or corrected. All this does is magnify the pain until conversation is too
unpleasant to continue. Then hope of respectful negotiation is lost.
In your letter, you say that you and your spouse say the same things again and again. You
may be referring to this enemy, dwelling on past mistakes. You may find yourselves
repeating these criticisms because this enemy dominates your conversation. If that's the
case, see it for the enemy it is. As long as you tolerate dwelling on mistakes, you cannot
expect to meet each other's needs for conversation. You may withdraw so many love units that it ruins your love for each other.
The Third Enemy of Good Conversation is using conversation to punish each
other. When you use words to punish your spouse, you are being abusive. Verbal
abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse. When you hurl insults at your wife, you are
trying to withdraw love units. You
want her to feel bad. When conversation is used to punish her, you have entered
a period of emotional divorce, where all hope of reconciliation is gone. All you care about
is balancing the books -- repaying her for the pain you felt over something she did to you.
After all I've said about being sensitive, it seems as if this enemy of good conversation
shouldn't be a problem. But, for many couples, it is. In spite of all of their efforts to be
respectful, and avoid criticism, they blow it all by saying some of the most hurtful things
to each other when they lose their tempers. It sure does ruin intimate conversation, and
often leaves couples talking about not much more than the weather.
I would imagine that you and your wife have engaged in at least one of these three
enemies of good conversation, and perhaps, all of them. That indulgence has not only left
you with a history of unpleasant conversation, but it also may have prevented you from
using some of the friends of good conversation. For example, if you are disrespectful,
critical or verbally abusive, it's almost impossible to "investigate, inform and understand"
your spouse. She will keep her thoughts to herself to prevent your from hurting her with
your enemies of conversation.
Trust is essential for intimate conversation. If your wife thinks that you might use her
personal revelations against her when an enemy of conversation has taken control of you,
her lack of trust will prevent her from revealing her innermost thoughts.
On the other hand, if she knows you will guard her private thoughts and protect them
from your criticism, she will be more likely to reveal them.
Enemies of good conversation often prevent implementation of the friends of good
conversation. I suggest you focus on ridding your conversation of the enemies first.
There's no point in introducing a friend of conversation when you haven't yet learned to
be respectful. But then, after the enemies are rooted out, you will find that the friends
make your conversation downright fascinating. Instead of being boring and unpleasant,
your conversation will encourage you to spend hours together, creating the kind of
intimacy that you need to have a fulfilling marriage.
Take pride in this effort. Become a professional at being the kind of conversationalist who
meets your spouse's need in a far better way than anyone else could. It will encourage
your spouse to develop the same skill in meeting your need. Then neither of you will ever
feel like every conversation is like every other one you've had -- boring and unpleasant.
Instead, each conversation will give you a little better understanding of each other, and
bring you closer together.