Dating after Marriage
Great Conversation is Essential for Dating
Willard F. Harley, Jr.
Sherry and Todd had come a long way. But they still had a long way to go before they’d ever be in love again.
They had managed to completely eliminate Angry Outbursts, and had almost ended making Disrespectful Judgments. Thoughtful Requests had taken the place of Selfish Demands, and they had actually fulfilled some of those requests for each other.
They started to look like friends instead of enemies. Love Bank withdrawals had stopped and deposits had started. Their account balances were moving up.
If done right, dating would have shot their Love Bank accounts from negative to positive in a very short period of time. But they would not have done it right. So, I had to teach them how to meet each other’s intimate emotional needs on a date. A better way of putting it is, I had to remind them how to meet those needs.
Before marriage, they knew what to do because they were in love. They did it right. But in their present state of mind, they couldn't remember what they had done so effortlessly. By hating each other, their instincts had been leading them in the wrong direction. Now, they had to put some effort into meeting each other's intimate emotional needs.
I selected one of the four intimate emotional needs for them to master, intimate conversation. Of the four needs met on a date, it’s the most important one to get right. That’s because none of the other three needs can be met effectively if intimate conversation is not met. If they could learn to have great conversations with each other, they’d almost be ready to date.
Their reading assignment was chapter 5 in my book, His Needs, Her Needs: Intimate Conversation. In that chapter, I describe four friends and four enemies of intimate conversation.
Enemies of intimate conversation
The enemies of intimate conversation are: 1) making demands, 2) being disrespectful, 3) expressing anger, and 4) dwelling on mistakes of the past and present.
When I taught Sherry and Todd how to avoid Love Busters, we had already addressed the first three enemies. So, we were left with only one other to avoid: dwelling on mistakes, past or present.
When couples dwell on each other’s mistakes, little is ever learned. Sherry and Todd had plenty of examples of each other’s mistakes, but neither of them were willing to acknowledge their own.
She didn’t think there was anything wrong with forcing him to buy a house instead of living in an apartment, as he had wanted to do. It made a lot of sense to her. But it had created such deep resentment in him that he mentioned it often, especially when they had a conflict. He expressed his resentment by doing as little as possible to help her with the house . . . and with their child.
He thought that his unwillingness to help more around the house and provide more care for their children were the consequence of her selfish decision. He felt he was doing enough under the circumstances. But she was feeling overwhelmed by her full-time job, caring for the children, and doing most of the housework. It was very difficult for her to avoid telling him how upset his lack of involvement was making her feel.
I encouraged them to express any negative feelings toward each other’s behavior as it occurred. But I didn’t want them to go back in time to describe past failures that were similar. A complaint should be about what had just happened, and it should last no longer than a minute. It should also avoid any judgments about the person. A simple, “it bothered me (or, offended me) when you did . . . ,” was all they could say.
They were still completing three worksheets every week, one for each of the Love busters, Selfish Demands, Disrespectful Judgments, and Angry Outbursts. These worksheets had been coming back mostly empty, but I still wanted them to bring them to me each week.
Now, they were to add one more worksheet to document any instances of dwelling on mistakes of the past or present. A one minute complaint was acceptable, but if it went over a minute, it was to be entered.
The following week, that new worksheet was empty for both Sherry and Todd. I felt that would probably happen because they had made so much progress. But still I wanted them to focus on that issue for at least that one week so they would see it for what it was: an enemy of intimate conversation.
Prior to my counseling them, much of their conversation was spent dwelling on mistakes of the past. In fact, Sherry would sometimes go on for hours at a time lecturing Todd about his failures. In one week, however, they were able to completely eliminate it, giving their conversation an opportunity to be enjoyable.
It’s hard for some people to believe that one spouse can actually lecture the other spouse for hours. But most marriage counselors witness it early in their careers. It’s much more common in marriage than most people think. And without a doubt, it’s an enemy of intimate conversation. It absolutely destroys the bond between a husband and wife.
Sherry wanted Todd to listen to her, and understand how much she was suffering. But it did the exact opposite. Instead of understanding her, and being empathetic of her plight, it drove him away from her emotionally. He wasn’t the least bit interested in why it was that she seemed so out of control.
Now that her complaints were made in a minute or less, he paid more attention to them. And he was willing to think of ways that he could accommodate her.
Friends of intimate conversation
Once Sherry and Todd were able to keep the enemies out of their conversation, they were ready to be introduced to the four friends of intimate conversation. They are: 1) inform, investigate and understand each other, 2) develop interest in each other’s favorite topics of conversation, 3) balance the conversation, and 4) give each other undivided attention when conversing.
The first and second friends of intimate conversation deal with content – what to say. The second and third deal with etiquette – how to behave.
1. Inform, investigate and understand each other.
To help them get started with the first friend, I gave them each a copy of my Personal History Questionnaire. You can download that form free of charge from the questionnaires section of the Marriage Builders website.
I asked each of them to interview the other spouse half an hour a day, using the questionnaire as a guide. They were to write the answers in the spaces provided. I encouraged them to ask other questions that would occur to them during the interview, and to answer all questions honestly.
When they came to see me for their next session, they had come a long way toward completing both questionnaires. I asked them if they had learned much about each other that week, and both admitted that most of what they had written they had not known prior to that week. They were beginning to understand each other.
The assignment was to investigate each other – to ask questions. And it was also to inform each other – to answer the questions that are asked honestly and completely. That’s how understanding takes place in marriage.
But there was a problem. Todd didn’t want to answer all of the questions in the questionnaire, especially about his previous sexual experiences.
That gave me an opportunity to introduce them to a third very important rule for marriage: The Policy of Radical Honesty: Reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know: Your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history, daily activities and plans for the future.
I explained to Todd how important it is for spouses to understand each other. The more they know about each other, and avoid being judgmental about what they know, the easier it is for them to resolve conflicts. Marital conflicts are resolved by using the perspectives of both spouses in a final resolution. And that requires a deep understanding of those perspectives.
Their failure to understand each other led to many mistakes misinterpreting each other’s motives. So much so, that they were both convinced that they had married self-absorbed monsters. The truth was that they both had much to offer each other, but they were not in the mood to try.
Todd felt that some of his past should not be revealed to Sherry because she might bring it up whenever they had an argument. But I reminded him about how they would now be handling the enemy of intimate conversation, dwelling on mistakes of the past. If they could both agree never to use past mistakes against each other, but rather use them as a way to understand each other, it would be a great advantage knowing about them.
It all began to fit together for them. They were able to see how their demands, disrespect, anger, and dwelling on mistakes had poisoned their conversation, making it impossible for them to resolve conflicts . . . and to love each other.
After that session, Todd was willing to answer any questions Sherry would ask, on the condition that she would never use that information against him.
In later sessions, I would reintroduce the Policy of Radical Honesty to them. It had very important implications for the way they would resolve their conflicts in the future, with win-win outcomes. But for now, all I wanted them to know was that radical honesty was essential for intimate conversation. It would help them build their understanding of each other.
2. Develop an interest in each other’s favorite topics of conversation.
The goal of the second friend of intimate conversation is obvious: Talk to your spouse about topics that your spouse likes to talk about. The problem, of course, is that you may not find those topics to be at all interesting to you.
Many wives have come to me complaining that their husbands don’t like to talk. But when I’ve had a chance to be with their husbands, he usually has no end of things to say . . . if the topic interests him. So, I encourage their wives to educate themselves on those topics so that they can have the same experience that I had. Those who follow my advice find that they not only talk to him about his favorite topics, but by loosening him up, they are able to talk about other topics as well.
I am an advocate of a liberal arts education. What does that mean? It’s an education that draws upon a host of topics and issues: Literature, history, chemistry, philosophy, religion, astronomy, physics, art, biology, music, mathematics, languages, geology, political science, anthropology, computer science, sociology, and yes, psychology.
Courses in a liberal arts education provide an introduction to important areas of our accumulated knowledge. In addition, it offers advanced education in topics that are of special interest. For me, it was mathematics and philosophy, which were my two majors in college. But after I graduated, I was still not sure what I wanted for a career, so I continued taking courses in areas I had missed in college. It was then that I took my first course in psychology. I found it to be so interesting that I went on to get a PhD degree in that field.
A liberal arts education is not necessarily about getting a job. It’s about being introduced to the world around us, and being able to continue to learn about it throughout our lives. It gives us enough knowledge to make new knowledge fit into what we already know. Without that introduction, we wouldn’t understand, or be interested in, what is being discovered.
Is it worth the investment? I definitely think so, but I encourage people to spend as little money as possible. Our children attended public colleges with the lowest tuition that offered generous scholarships and grants. They earned graduate degrees with almost no school debt.
The reason that I bring up this topic is that the broader our education, the more interest we have in other people’s topics of interest. Education creates interest.
So, if you find that your spouse likes to talk about a certain topic, educate yourself in it. That education is very likely to spark your interest as well, and greatly add to the enjoyment of your conversation.
That’s the advice that I gave to both Sherry and Todd. They identified topics of conversation that interested them and swapped lists. Some of the topics were on both lists: Their children, their friends, and their family. But most of the other topics were on one list and not the other.
Among the topics that appeared in only one list were sports and fashion. Todd liked to talk about sports. Sherry liked to talk about fashion. Is it possible for Todd to become interested in fashion or Sherry interested in sports?
Their assignment was to give each other something to read that would inform them about those topics. They were also to watch a television program together about sports and about fashion. Then, they were to talk about what they’d learned.
Neither became experts on the other person’s topics, nor did they enjoy talking about them right away. But nevertheless, the conversation they had was much improved. They could both see that the more they knew about each other’s favorite topics, they more they would be able to talk to each other. Over time, Sherry would actually enjoy talking about sports and Todd would enjoy talking about fashion.
If this sounds like a stretch to you, it may be because you have not actually educated yourself in your spouse’s favorite topics. You may have patiently tried to listen to what your spouse has to say about them, but you have not entered the conversation because you didn’t know what to say.
If you and your spouse have any difficulty carrying on a conversation with each other, take my advice. Discover the topics that interest your spouse, and become educated in them. You will not only improve your conversation with each other, but you will also broaden your general knowledge which adds to your personal growth.
Sherry and Todd now knew what to say in an intimate conversation. But how were they to behave? The next two friends of intimate conversation deal with personal etiquette. Conversational manners.
3. Balance the conversation.
Sherry tended to dominate conversations with Todd. She did most of the talking, and when he tried to say something, she’d interrupt him.
She was not being polite when she talked with him, and he was offended by it.
There were many reasons for the way she talked to him. She felt he wasn’t always listening to her and that she had to repeat herself. And when he would respond to what she had been saying, it proved to her that he hadn’t been listening. So, she had to interrupt him to clear up his misunderstanding.
I had already spent quite a bit of time emphasizing the importance of avoiding Disrespectful Judgments, but Sherry was still feeling that Todd’s perspective was essentially wrong. She had learned not to say anything disrespectful, but she still felt disrespect. The way she dominated the conversation and interrupted him gave away her underlying disrespect.
Over time, by applying the first friend of intimate conversation, she would come to have more respect for his perspectives. But for now, I simply wanted her to talk to him with respect, and that meant giving him equal time to talk and to avoid interrupting him.
So, I gave them an assignment to help her become polite in the way she talked with him: I gave them a chess clock to help them balance their conversation.
A chess clock is actually two clocks with a button on top of each clock. They are set for a certain amount of time, say 15 minutes each. When playing chess, each player is limited to that amount of time to make their moves. When one player is thinking of a move, his clock is ticking. When he has made the move, he presses the button on his clock which stops his clock and starts his opponent’s clock. If either player goes over their 15-minute allotment before the game is over, they lose the game.
Sherry and Todd were to use the chess clock by speaking only when their clock was ticking. When either was finished saying something, by pressing their clock’s button, it would give the other person an opportunity to talk. Neither could talk while the other person’s clock was running.
They were to try to keep the clocks at about the same time, so that when one person talked, the other would have an equal amount of time to say something. Interrupting would be impossible if they followed the rules. If either had something to say, they’d have to wait until their clock was running.
I recommended that they practice half an hour a day, each with 15 minutes until their next session with me.
When I spoke with them next, Sherry was very frustrated at first. Todd didn’t say much when it was his turn to talk the first time they used the clock. He had become so accustomed to sitting and listening to her, or more accurately, letting her go on talking without listening, that he didn’t know what to say. But as the week went on, he found his voice.
They practiced talking about each other, and about each other’s favorite topics while using the chess clock. Then, when the half-hour was over, they kept talking to each other, keeping in mind that they should give each other equal time, and avoid interrupting each other.
After one week, they both thought they had it figured out, and would not need the chess clock anymore.
4. Give each other undivided attention when conversing with each other.
The chess clock assignment forced Sherry and Todd to be on their toes when they talked to each other. They had to pay attention to what the other person was saying, so that when it was their turn, they would be able to reflect on what had just been said.
But their previous conversation didn’t have that level of attention. Todd’s mind would often wander when Sherry was trying to talk to him. He wouldn’t even be looking at her when she spoke. If he received a cellphone call, he would take it, interrupting the conversation, making Sherry feel very unimportant.
The changes that had been made, avoiding the enemies and promoting the first three friends, made it much easier for Sherry and Todd to give each other undivided attention when they talked to each other. He no longer drifted off into his own thoughts during a conversation. She now had his undivided attention.
I wanted them to understand that undivided attention was essential for intimate conversation. If something, like television, was so distracting that it interfered with their ability to pay attention to each other, then the television should be turned off during their conversation. In a restaurant, if one couldn’t stop looking around the room while the other spouse was talking, they should take a corner table where that spouse would face the corner, making it easier to focus attention.
In other words, they should try to remove distractions so that it would be easier to look into each other’s eyes while talking to each other. That’s what you do when you give each other undivided attention.
If Sherry and Todd had been in love with each other, undivided attention would have been almost effortless. They would have wanted to look into each other’s eyes. But because their Love Bank accounts were still below zero, they had to give undivided attention some effort. I assured them that as their Love Bank accounts rose above zero, these lessons would not seem to be so contrived and formal. And when they reached the ultimate goal of romantic love, it would be almost effortless for them.
Having finished the session on intimate conversation, and having passed the assignments with flying colors, Sherry and Todd were ready to learn how to fulfill another intimate emotional need that would be met on their dates.
Intimate conversation was more important for her than it was for him, but it made Love Bank deposits in both of their accounts when it was met. So, this time I chose a need that was more important for him than it was for her, one that would also make deposits into both accounts. I chose recreational companionship.
Dating after Marriage