I recently watched an older couple, having dinner in a restaurant. It was a gorgeous day and restaurant was about half full. They sat in silence through the whole meal. It was obvious that they’d been together a loooong time and had nothing to say to each other. How sad – to finally get the time in retirement to spend time together and then draw a blank when it comes to conversation!
When you’ve got work and kids those topics seem to dominate the conversation on date night. You talk about how the kids are progressing, what you are worried about and how to set them up for the future. You moan about your job and your boss and your colleagues. The same topics repeat over and over each time you find yourself alone with your partner over a meal or while driving. To avoid the silent dinner date you end up going to movies instead and sit in silence beside each other. Not much of an improvement!
How to stimulate meaningful conversation?
The video below shows the novel idea a country restaurant in France came up with to entertain guests while they wait for the food to arrive:
A performance like that would be a great conversation starter but to really connect and build the intimacy between you you need topics that allow each of you to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is the key
Remember when you first met your partner and you gradually revealed your past, your hopes and dreams to them? This brought you closer together as you shared intimate details of your life. It took some time to gradually trust this person, new in your life, with information that could potentially be used against you. You trusted them with information about your family, your past relationships, your work and your hopes for the future. You shared the things that make you laugh and cry and they felt privileged to be trusted with the information and closer to you as a result. This need for intimate closeness with others is a basic human need and one which we search for throughout our lives.
Such self-disclosure can take a dive during a long term relationship. You might feel that your partner already knows everything about you and there’s nothing more to tell. Everyday life takes over and you end up talking only about work, the kids and domestic activities (see above!). The supportive focus you have for each other competes with the demands of daily life. You stop confiding in each other and may feel like strangers after many years of superficial conversations.
Having date night conversations with your partner that show your vulnerabilities will build the intimacy and trust between you. How to know if you are being vulnerable? If you feel uncomfortable talking about the topic because the information you are revealing could be used to hurt you and you wouldn’t tell anyone but your closest confidants then you are being vulnerable.
Take it slowly
If conversations with your partner have been stale for some time don’t dump a ton of secrets on them on your next date night in the hope of building intimacy between you. Take it slowly, revealing each layer over weeks or months. Think about how awkward it is when a complete stranger sits next to you on a train or in the doctor’s waiting room and starts telling you very personal details about their life. Don’t be that person – even if you have been married to the listener for 30 years! Choose one or two conversation topics for each date (I’ve found that’s about the most you can get through without it seeming like an interrogation).
Try talking side-by-side
If it feels awkward to face each other and talk about new topics then try taking a walk together or bring up the conversation topics during a long drive together. The sheer fact that you are not looking each other in the eye makes it easier to be vulnerable.
Active listening and no fixing
If you want to make vulnerable conversations happen on a regular basis you need to make them rewarding. Practice active listening while your partner is talking – lean towards them, repeat key points back to them to clarify your understanding e.g. “So, you thought X about Y?” and touch their hand or leg. Do not try to fix any problems (unless they ask for your input). Just listen attentively. Watch your body language – not crossed arms or frowning.
If your partner starts offering solutions while you are talking or interrupts you then don’t respond in anger. Gently say “Hey, I really need you to just listen right now. We can talk later about solutions.”
Conversation topics for couples
It’s all very well to say that you should be talking about topics other than work and the kids with your partner – but what SHOULD you be talking about? Here are some suggestions on sources of conversation topics for couples.
Gottman Card Decks App
The Gottman Institute researches romantic relationships and interventions to improve them. They have created a free smart phone app that offers helpful questions, statements, and ideas for improving your relationship. I’ve found the “Open-Ended questions’ category really helpful. After half a glass of wine during a date night dinner I pull out my phone and swipe through the cards until I find a topic I think my partner might relate to. We’ve discussed topics such as “What are some of your life dreams now?” and “How do you parent differently from your own parents?”
Table Topics Couples Cards
The people at Table Topics have a pack of physical cards that include conversation topics for couples. It’s a little less convenient to carry around that a smart phone app, but it does make for an unbiased selection of the topic if you just pull one out at random.
The Family Dinner Project
The Family Dinner Project includes conversation starters for people aged 14-100. While not specifically aimed at couples, there are conversation topics that would be suitable for date night – you’ll just need to do some homework beforehand to select something appropriate.
Ok, you have booked a restaurant (here are some tips on how to choose one suitable for a vulnerable conversation). You’ve got some the conversation topics for couples and you are ready to go! But how to actually start the conversation? Try saying something like this “Hey, I was reading something about how couples tend to end up talking about kids and work all the time and how they should try to expand their conversation topics. I’ve got an app/list/card deck here – would you like to try some new topics?”
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