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.


Dear J.W.,

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 again.

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 unmet.

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 your spouse).

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 more.

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 is.

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 foothold.

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 Conversation.

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 present.

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.

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