You try to set aside a special evening every now and then. That would have been absurd in the old days, you were alone so much of the time, but now there’s a need to make it artificial and schedule it in the diary way ahead of time. Which means – sadly – the pressure is greater.
At first, it feels rather strange to be out, just the two of you. It can be hard to know how to get started. Obviously there are so many vital things you need to say to one another, but they can be elusive. You look carefully at the design of the wine glass. It seems to be Scandinavian. You mention that the colour of the menu is unusual. Your partner comments that it looked like it was going to be difficult parking – which, it turns out, it wasn’t.
We tend to have a ‘Romantic’ conception of conversation. We believe that in the right setting – distressed old wooden tables, food from Liguria, bruschetta – conversation will flow naturally, without special effort.
The reality is that conversation is an achievement, something we might need to learn. This point belongs to a bigger argument about emotional education. We do not spontaneously or naturally possess many of the skills we need in order to cope adequately with the demands of psychological life. There is much we should learn about love, work, ageing, family life, self-control, but on the whole modern societies have not provided education of this kind, or even seen it as desirable. They have unconsciously been guided by the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who thought of artifice (rules we learn around emotional functioning) as fundamental obstacles to real intimacy.
Not keen on rules about how to talk to your lover Yet we should not feel that we are a failure, 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.
Here, therefore, is an attempt at a conversational menu, questions to raise as the meal unfolds, and designed to unlock certain chambers of our hearts:
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?
At the start of a relationship, there’s an exciting period when you are getting to know one another. One evening you hear all about the partner’s cousin – whose existence you hadn’t even suspected. Another time they tell you of their French holidays during adolescence. Then things settle down. You come to feel you know each other through and through. Yet this is necessarily always simply a failure of imagination. Every life is inexhaustibly interesting. Here are some follow-on suggestions:
What would you tell your younger self about love?
What do I get wrong about you?
What is one incident you would like to apologise to me for?
What is one incident you would like me to apologise to you for?
It’s perhaps time for the main course now, a chance to deepen matters further: Finish the following sentences:
When I am anxious in our relationship, I tend to….
You then 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….
If I was magically offered a chance to change something about you, what do you guess it would be?
What would you want to change about me?
How have I let you down?
Without thinking too hard, let’s finish these sentence stems about our feelings towards one another:
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…
It’s getting late. A chance to try out a few final enquiries:
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. Exchange. Relationships founder on our inability to make ourselves known and forgiven for who we are. We shouldn’t work with the assumption that if we have a row over these questions, the evening 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 structured and emotionally-conscious date night.