Photo copyright Meryl Schenker
“Excuse me, are you married?” a woman sitting nearby asked me at a restaurant last week. “Yes,” I said.
She looked shocked. “How do you two have so much to talk about?”
She’d been silent the entire meal, I’d noticed; now I registered that the man sitting next to her was her husband. It wasn’t an entirely fair comparison. I was catching up with an old friend, not chatting with my husband, and I’d misunderstood her question to be a general one.
But their silence was noticeable. She told me she was the stay-at-home mom of a 13-year-old. I asked what she liked to do with her time, and she hesitated for a moment before she fell back on what must have been a regular line: “Oh, spend his money.”
It's not hard to imagine it all unfolding. She turns inward in her focus on the home; he turns outward in his focus on his job. They used to talk. Now when they meet up in the evening they each say a couple sentences about their day. Over time no one asks the contextual questions that would turn it into a conversation, showing sincere interest. Thirteen years later, they live in separate worlds. Neither one wants life to be that way.
Drifting apart doesn’t necessarily take thirteen years, of course. My husband and I grew up Catholic, and when we got engaged we went through the required premarital counseling. The first question the facilitators asked of our group was: What did you talk about on the way here? Many of the engaged couples said the weather. Some shrugged. I’ll never forget that. He and I vowed that would never happen to us.
Today is as good a day as any to take stock of your relationship. Especially if silence has descended upon your relationship, if you live in separate worlds, or if your connection could use a boost.
You could add a date night, sure (“We’ll really do it this time, every week”).
How about, on a nightly basis, we banish the cell phones—to a drawer, not a pocket—and listen to each other. Listen, then ask decent questions.
- “Was it like that for you growing up?”
- “Then what happened?”
- “Sounds like you felt….”
- “Tell me more.”
- “Remember that time we….!”
- “What is that process like at work?”
- “Do you think your parents would have…?”
- “What would it be like if…?”
- “Do you ever think about…?”
Yes, I know: we can’t really talk if the kids are around. But we can make a point of going to bed at the same time so we have a few minutes to talk. Even if one person gets up again afterward.
What can we talk about besides our day? This brings me to those blasted “date nights,” where couples go out to dinner and sit there with nothing to talk about.
We’ve got to have shared experiences if we’re going to have something to talk about. The most interesting experiences, from the brain’s perspective, are emotional ones. Eating food as a couple is rarely an emotional experience. That’s probably one reason it’s hard to sustain interest in a weekly dinner date.
My favorite idea is to get a subscription to a theater or lecture series. (That way you remember to go.) Or put book readings, town hall discussions, art gallery openings, ball games, roller skating rinks, workout classes, and concerts on the calendar. If you’re on a budget, you can often find free or nearly free versions of the things you both like. Scratch that—the things you’re both willing to try in order to have shared experiences.
Tend to stay close to home? Close the laptops and shut down Netflix to open books instead, sharing the lines that strike you. Or snuggle up and read the same book together. Maybe one person has to wait for the other on each page, but so what? I guarantee Esther Perel's Mating in Captivity will spark some interesting conversations! Not into books? Play a video game together, if that’s one person’s thing. Next time the other can choose the activity.
Relationships require not just attention but intention.
Here’s a fun way to think of it: Date your spouse.
That’s how my friend Michelle Peterson puts it in her relationship blog, #StayMarried (now a couple’s devotional as well). When we’re dating, we ask questions and listen with sincere interest and curiosity. When we’re dating, we seek out interesting experiences to share. When we’re dating, we do stuff the other person likes, just because they like it.
What one move will you make toward togetherness—today and tomorrow?
P.S. Check out my bestselling book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, for help with the big stuff: choosing empathy first, sharing the household chores, finding your parenting philosophy, and much more.