Conversation and communication are generally held to lie at the heart of a thriving partnership. But our culture often has a skewed picture of what this involves. We tend to adopt a Romantic attitude which holds that partners ideally understand one another intuitively and see good conversation as free-flowing and spontaneous. It would feel cold and stilted to introduce rules, to resort to a manual or to take a class on ‘how to speak to your partner’.
But the fact is, it is very normal to struggle in this area. We often end up sitting in glum silence, skirt round tricky things or get into rows when difficult issues are at stake. A particularly poignant sign of the trouble we have with talking in relationships is the tendency to sulk. At heart, sulking combines intense anger with an intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about: one both desperately wants to be understood and yet is utterly committed to not explaining oneself plainly. It happens a lot and it’s telling us that far from being easy and natural, good discussion in a relationship can be very hard to manage.
Good communication means the capacity to give another person an accurate picture of what is happening in our emotional and psychological lives – and in particular, the capacity to describe their very darkest, trickiest and most awkward sides in such a way that others can understand, and even sympathise with them. The good communicator has the skill to take their beloved in a timely, reassuring and gentle way, without melodrama or fury, into some of the trickiest areas of their personality and warn them of what is there (like a tour guide to a disaster zone), explaining what is problematic in such a way that the beloved will not be terrified, can come to understand, can be prepared and may perhaps forgive and accept.
We’re not naturally skilled at these kinds of conversations because there is so much inside of us that we can’t face up to, feel ashamed of or can’t quite understand – and we are therefore in no position to present our depths sanely to an observer, whose affections we want to maintain. Perhaps you have completely wasted the day on the internet. Or you are feeling sexually restless and drawn to someone else. Or you are in a vortex of envy for a colleague who seems to be getting everything right at work. Or you’re feeling overwhelmed by regret and self-hatred for some silly decisions you made last year (because you crave applause). Or maybe it’s a terror of the future that has rendered you mute: everything is going to go wrong. It’s over. You had one life – and you blew it. There are things inside of us that are simply so awful, and therefore so undigested, that we cannot – day-to-day – lay them out before our partners in a way that they can grasp them calmly and generously.
It is no insult to a relationship to realise there’s a shortfall of mutual eloquence and that this will probably require some level of artificiality. Our need for assistance is often especially acute around anger, desires that seem strange and the need for reassurance (which tends to arise when one feels one doesn’t especially deserve it). We should not feel that we are failures, dull-witted, unimaginative or unsophisticated if we recognise a theoretical need to learn how to talk to our partners with premeditation and conscious purpose. We are simply emerging from a Romantic prejudice.
An artificial conversation can sound like quite a strange idea. But what it involves is just deliberately setting an agenda and putting a few useful moves and rules into practice. Over dinner with a partner, we might for example work our way gradually yet systematically through a list of difficult but important questions that otherwise we’d likely shelve:
- What would you most like to be complimented on in the relationship? - Where do you think you’re especially good as a person? - Which of your flaws do you want to be treated more generously? - What would you tell your younger self about love? - What do I suspect I might get wrong about you? - What is one incident I would like to apologise to you for? - What is one incident I feel you should apologise to me for? - How have I let you down? - What would you want to change about me? - If I was magically offered a chance to change something about you, what do you guess it would be? - If you could write an instruction manual for yourself in bed, what would you put in it? (Both take a piece of paper and write down three new things you would like to try around sex. Then exchange drafts). Another thing we can do with a partner is to finish these sentence stems about our feelings towards one another – the idea is to finish them very fast without thinking too hard. What emerges isn’t of course a final statement. But it helps to get awkward material into the light of day, so that it can be examined properly.
I resent… I am puzzled by… I am hurt by… I regret… I am afraid that… I am frustrated by… I am happier when… I want… I appreciate… I hope… I would so like you to understand…
Part of the artifice here to agree in advance is not to be offended by what each other says, though some of what comes up is bound to be at the very least disconcerting. Instead of saying ‘how dare you say that, or I always suspected you were horrible, now you’re admitting it’, one should steel oneself in advance (for the sake of the relationship) to say instead something like: ‘I’m listening carefully, can you go into more detail?’ The idea is to set up an occasion on which for once it is possible to look carefully at genuinely awkward aspects or what’s going on between you. The helpful background assumption is: of course there will be many difficulties, because you can’t have a close relationship without there being a lot of sore spots on both sides. We’re not (for a bit) going to be angry with one another. We’re going to get to know what’s happening.
One might also try an exercise of fleshing out the following sequences:
When I am anxious in our relationship, I tend to…. You tend to respond by…. which makes me… When we argue, on the surface I show ……, but inside I feel…. The more I ….. the more you….. and then the more I….
The aim here is to discover patterns of interaction, and how they look when seen from both sides. We’re trying to identify repeated sequences of emotions. Not to validate or condemn them but to understand them. The premise of this artificial conversation is that we’ll both be unaware of some of the things that go on between us. And that (for the duration of the conversation) no one is held to blame. We’re just learning to notice some problems with how we interact. Relationships founder on our inability to make ourselves known, forgiven and accepted for who we are. We shouldn’t work with the assumption that if we have a row over these questions, the opportunity has been wasted. We need to be able to say certain painful things in order to recover an ability to be affectionate and trusting. That is all part of the particular wisdom and task of a more artificial, structured and emotionally-conscious conversation.