Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Talking Your Way to a Better Relationship

"Ultimately the bond of companionship, whether in marriage or friendship, is conversation".
(Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde was capable of simple profundities as well as outragious witticisms, no more so than in this quotation. Those of us who write about marriage and relationships often spend so much time stressing the need to work on our communication skills, that our readers may justifiably assume that communication equals work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Communication---or at least some of our communications---should be fun. Every day of our lives, we should be having conversations that make us smile, draw on pleasant memories, put us in a better mood, or, with any luck, bring us closer to our truest self. If we're married, at least one of those daily conversations should be with our spouse.

I'm well aware that there are dozens of verbal exchanges between husband and wife that are necessary but mundane. Have you seen my keys? Did you put out the recycling bin? Have we paid the insurance bill? Do we need more beer before the weekend? Do we have a birthday card somewhere to send to your sister? These things all have to be dealt with, but they should never be the only things that spouses talk about. Nor should the sole alternative be heavy talks about "our relationship". If spouses had frequent and enjoyable "light" conversations, there would be little need for the heavy ones.

The key is to find conversational subjects that engage both spouses more-or-less equally. I'm lucky that my wife is a sports fan; I can go into a rant about Alex Rodriguez without boring her to tears. And she's lucky that (after some initial resistance) I've gotten hooked on "Dancing With the Stars"; we can, and do, debate endlessly who should stay and who should get voted off. Your interests may be different from ours, but there's got to be something that you and your spouse share, and that you'd have fun talking about.

Where the effort comes in is in forming the conversational habit in the first place. If you've had little more than perfunctory exchanges for months or even years, it may seem vaguely uncomfortable to both of you to be having a more extended chat. But don't get overly discouraged---and don't take it personally---if your spouse retreats to his newspaper or computer screen after a few minutes. You can try again tomorrow. At some point, conversation will start feeling normal again, and your marital bond will be just a little bit stronger.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A False and Foolish Pride

"How often could things be remedied by a word. How often it is left unspoken".
(Norman Douglas, British novelist)

In marriage, many of us are quick to say a thoughtless or hurtful thing but slow to apologize for it. It's understandable, of course, that when we're sufficiently provoked we're going to want to lash out at the person provoking us. But too often we go overboard. We punish a petty offense with a cruel remark ("I can't believe anyone could be so stupid to forget to pack sunscreen on a trip to Aruba"). Or we become obsessed with the need to prove that our spouse is wrong and we're right ("Will you ever admit that your parents have been manipulating you all these years?"). Or, instead of addressing the specific issue at hand, we dredge up vague but emotionally-laden complaints from the past ("You always put your needs first").

I'm not so naive to think that people will ever stop saying these kinds of things when they're angry, exasperated, or just plain tired. But hurtful words have conseqences---often far-reaching consequences---if they are not followed by a sincere and relatively swift apology. Plenty of divorces have their roots in insensitive remarks and bruised feelings.

You would think that it's no big deal to say, "I'm sorry about what I said. I'll do my best not to say that again". But some people would sooner walk barefoot on broken beer bottles than admit that they're wrong. In fact, they never even think they're wrong. They're not only "right", but they have to be acknowledged as being right. People like that have a stubbornness and false pride that can seriously threaten a marriage. A successful marriage requires compromise, and compromise requires a sense of proportion, a sense of humor, and a respect for the other person as an equal partner in life.

If you're someone who has always needed to be right, you've got to decide whether it's more important for you to be right or to be happily married. If you really care about your marriage, learn to relax a bit and not get hung up on every little thing that goes wrong. And learn to say you're sorry, and mean it. Otherwise, the day may come when you won't have anyone around to argue with, or feel superior to.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Fine Art of Shaking Things Up

"Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit".
(W. Somerset Maugham)

I'm normally a great believer in the ancient Greek dictum of moderation in all things. A day wouldn't seem complete to me if I didn't have a glass or two of wine with dinner, but my nights of binge-drinking are---thankfully---long in the past. It's the same with food: I have a big appetite, but my metabolism isn't what it was at twenty-five, so I've learned to eat---and actually enjoy---smaller portions. I'd rather cut back a bit on my food and drink today, than have my doctor tell me tomorrow that my habits are killing me.

That's all well and good, but sometimes we form habits of moderation in areas of life that call out for a little excess, or even just a little variety. This is particularly true when we're married. All too often, we do the same things together. We have a limited number of restaurants we go to, a limited number of other people---usually couples---we socialize with, a limited number of things we talk about. We have long since given up going to music or dance clubs, or picking up the phone and inviting someone over right now for a drink, or doing anything at all that's spontaneous or a little bit crazy.

After a while, moderation breeds a certain numbness. Our sense of possibility becomes, almost imperceptibly, narrowed, and our imagination dulled. We stop taking delight in things. We start thinking and acting like people who are old beyond our years, people stuck in a rut and half the time not even knowing we're stuck.

If this sounds even remotely like your marriage, I urge you to do something soon to shake things up. The good news is that the more boring things have become, the less it takes to make your life---and your marriage---a little more stimulating. You don't have to buy a Harley or a Porsche, or take up sky diving, or move to the Yucatan. It might be enough just to go out tomorrow night to a restaurant you've never been to, or drive this weekend to some bed-and-breakfast, sight-unseen, or invite an unmarried friend over for dinner instead of the same couple you always invite. It might be enough to go to some live jazz or blues club (and so what that you might be the oldest people there?). It might be enough to dust off that bottle of wine you've been saving for a special occasion, and make tonight that special occasion.

The reason I say all this is that I've seen too many marriages die a premature death from boredom. When there's not enough oxygen to breathe, not enough sunlight coming in, someone will eventually do something just to feel alive. Unfortunately, that "something" may be an affair or some other act of desperation. Before you're tempted to do something crazy outside your marriage, do something a little crazy within your marriage. Liven things up, one small step at a time. Pretend that you're still single, think of your nights out as dates, dress a little sharper, look at---and listen to---your spouse the way you used to, and break that cycle of boredom before it breaks your marriage.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The One That Got Away

"This could but have happened once,
And we missed it, lost it forever".
(Robert Browning)

Mid-life dating is, to say the least, challenging. You spend so many hours each day working, commuting, dealing with kids or elderly parents, doing the food shopping and all the other chores and errands, that you have little or no time to pursue romantic adventures. Yes, you may sign up for an online dating sevice, but before long you've allowed things to drift; you're too busy to even check your inbox. At work, everyone who's even remotely attractive is married. Even if you had the time for bars, your experiences in them have been dismal in recent years.

You seem to be waiting for lightning to strike, and sometimes it actually does---sort of. You see the person of your dreams in the produce aisle of the supermarket, or at an adjacent table at Starbuck's, or in your checkout line at Target. You want to say something, just can't. You're instinctively afraid of looking foolish, or being rejected. So you let the moment pass.

But oftentimes you torture yourself afterward, and, against all odds, desperately try to reach out to that person who exited your life as quickly as he or she entered it. The "Missed Connections" section of is full of sad stories of lost opportunities, along the lines of: "Yesterday at Trader Joe's. You asked me which wine would go best with chicken piccata. I talked your ear off about Chilean sauvignon blancs, but was too shy to ask for your number. Write to me please".

It IS hard to approach a stranger, or to turn a "neutral" conversation into something a little more personal. Aside from the rejection aspect, we may be short of time, or in a distracted mood, or aware of how sloppily we're dressed, or be otherwise unprepared to initiate a little flirtation. It's a common problem, but fortunately there is a fairly easy solution.

Have some cards printed. Not business cards (you don't want to divulge too much information to a total stranger, no matter how nice he or she appears), but simply cards with your name and either your e-mail address or your phone number. If you're feeling unbearably attracted to the person behind you in the checkout line, but also unbearably nervous and tongue-tied, just take one of your cards out as you're leaving, and give it to the person in question with a friendly but casual-sounding, "I'm in a rush but I'd love to talk to you more sometime. Here's my number. Give me a call".

If you don't hear back, you at least won't be kicking yourself about the one that got away, and you won't be writing needle-in-a-haystack messages on Craigslist. The person may be married, or engaged, or just not interested; whatever it is, you can accept it, and you can't blame yourself for not trying. But if you do get that call, you'll be on top of the world. You'll be proud of yourself for making it happen. And your new friend will be impressed with your initiative, creativity, and self-confidence.

Give it a try. You've got nothing to lose but your regrets.