Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
February 2008 - Volume 08, No. 2
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The Demise of Intimate Conversation (Communication in Marriage)

Let’s begin by looking more deeply at this word “conversation.”  The Latin roots give us the meaning ‘to turn about with’ - or perhaps the more modern “to hang out with.”  When it emerged in the 14th century, it had the meaning of “having dealings with.”  In the early 16th century, it had become a synonym for “sexual intercourse” – and beginning in the late 18th century, “criminal conversation” became a legal term for adultery. 

Our current sense of “conversation” as talking with one another, emerged only around 1580.  So the deep meaning of this term carries a very intimate connotation.  When we “hang out with” someone, we are connecting at more than just verbal levels.  Hence an almost sacred meaning.

My couple-clients know my insistence that what marriages and relationships need, especially those in trouble, is to “talk and talk and talk and talk.”   By talking and talking, I want the couple to begin to (re)learn how to communicate with each other.  Since two people in conflict rarely speak the same language, it takes a lot of talking to begin to communicate.  And this can be a very difficult assignment.

When this communication finally begins, then that sacred phenomenon of conversation can emerge. 

talk and talk and talk   –>   –>   communication   –>   –>   conversation  (intimate)

When I first meet a couple, I’ll ask what attracted them to each other at the beginning of their relationship.  And almost everyone says, “we could talk to each other.”  There was that special intimacy of conversation – which, if my observations are accurate, in a great majority of cases, quickly overpowered sexual attraction as the significant glue of the emerging relationship.

And then, so often it happens, that once the relationship moves beyond the courtship phase, into marriage, this conversation diminishes, and even dies. 

On the surface, this is the ‘fault’ of the male.  We men are wonderfully wired to be hunters – and one major part of our courtship arsenal is this art of courtship-enhancing art of conversation.  In essence we are selling ourselves to the female – inviting her attraction back toward us.  The female, in turn, employs the same courtship-enhancing art of conversation with the male.  But the male, as any hunter, stops hunting once having bagged his prey.  And his courtship-enhancing gifts don’t as easily translate to relationship-enhancing gifts.  The male doesn’t have a genetically wired-in pattern of conversation for relationship behavior, with the possible exception of ‘talking’ the woman into sex. 

For the female, on the contrary, I find her courtship-enhancing gift of conversation more naturally translates to a relationship-enhancing gift of conversation.  And her plaintive cry in my office is “he won’t talk to me anymore.”  By the time the couple sees me, the frequent male response to any invitation to conversation is generally “I don’t know” or just silence.   

Men often don’t understand that this withdrawal is painfully felt by the woman, and is what I’ve come to call “violence against conversation.”  And for the man to come to this awareness can be a major therapeutic accomplishment.  The very same man who talked for hours in intimate conversation before the wedding, now stands essentially mute - almost physically unable to form words in response - a violence against the relationship glue of conversation.

Is it his “fault?”  Yes and no.  The woman wants to say yes – because she can have no other understanding as to why this verbally intimate suitor has become, now as her husband, so stubbornly dumb.  The only other sensible answer for her is that he must find her so unattractive as to despise her presence.  That, at least, keeps his virtue intact in her eyes – the fault becomes hers.  Further violence against conversation. 

The first answer, for me, is perhaps overly simple: teach men to talk.  Unless we grew up witnessing our parents or other intimate adults in lots of creative conversation, and especially the male side of conversation, we simply don’t know it.  And our felt physical inability to speak here (functional dumbness) is not just a “choice” of that moment, but it can go much deeper.  That’s my work. 
Let me make an important distinction here.  Some things, what I’ve called “wired-in,” we know by nature.  Women know how to talk to men, in both courtship and relationship, by nature.  Men know how to talk to women, in courtship only, by nature.  I contend that men do not know by nature, how to talk in relationship (except perhaps to invite sex).  Therefore it’s the job of the culture to teach men how to talk in relationship.  Men need to be taught.  That’s my work.

It’s not that men have nothing going on inside.  Rather, getting to it and getting it out in a primary relationship is a more difficult emotional and neurological process. 

In the absence of any other teachers, it’s the women, bless their hearts, the wives and girlfriends, who struggle to teach their men to talk to them.  And so much of what we men have learned, comes from the teaching of our significant women.  But why aren’t men teaching men the art of (intimate) conversation with women?  So much of what men have taught other men, at least in the past, is a subtle violence against that conversation, for which women use the word “controlling.”  Men generally misunderstand this - but the women have felt/known it for years, decades, generations, centuries.  And, as men, only by entering this conversation (however much it is painful and difficult for us) will we come to understand our “violence” and stand against it, for the sake of our own relationships, and the health of the larger culture.  (It is the honor of our male nature to always keep this double focus.)

When men and women “hang out with each other” in marriage - that intimacy involves a lot of vulnerable and sensitive territory.  We must each guard against any ‘violence’ there.  When a marriage is healthy, there’s a lot of “talk and talk and talk” – which can readily lead through communication onto conversation.  When a marriage is in trouble, there needs to be a lot more “talk and talk and talk and talk” - an energetic invitation to a new-beginning communication, and then the re-emergence of deep (intimate) conversation.  And once we get there (again) let us guard it with our sacred honor and our life.

And, of course, it always means
pay attention!  

Note:   This is a part of a larger work in progress on the subject of marital communication.  The final result will be announced in a future newsletter and made available on our website.

Comments (5)

  • — Gloria, 10/7/2010
  • Emotional Intimacy in Conversation

    I agree with pretty much everything in your article. I have experienced this lack of emotional intimacy in conversation with
    my husband. He just doesn’t seem to know what to say in order to
    have an intimate conversation with me. Also, taking the time to
    have some intimate conversation isn’t a priority for him, but it
    is for me.

    I’m not sure how to go about teaching him the art of intimate
    conversation. We sure could use it in our relationship to increase
    our level of intimacy.

    I would appreciate any help you can provide me.


    — Kim Guthrie, 10/17/2011
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  • There is definately a lot to learn about this issue. I like all of the points you made. raspberry ketone

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  • communication

    William, your writing on communication is so interesting, and this issue is certainly at the heart of almost everything (good and bad) in relationships and marriage. I worked with a psych prof back in the 70s and did extensive research on marital communication. The learnings have always stayed with me....‘troubled’ couples' communication gets so out of whack that, in a given day, they don’t even remember what their spouse has said to them...don’t accurately process compliments, questions, concerns...positive or negative. It gets to the point that one or both spouses ‘check out’ totally, often leading to an affair or desire to abandon the relationship. Very, very hard to keep those marriages together.
    I really appreciate your writing.

    — Marcy, 3/1/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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