Everyone knows by now that communication is essential to a healthy relationship. Yet how good is the communication in yours? What’s keeping you from improving it? How much do you and your partner actually engage in interesting conversation? There are a plethora of issues working against sustained stimulating conversation in a long-term relationship. But there are things you can do to sustain or bring back the engrossing conversation that existed in the beginning.

In the beginning of the relationship, partners often find each other captivating. Each wants to know as much about their partner as possible. This is part of the normal mating ritual. Some say people send their “representative” in the beginning of a relationship. This is interpreted as a better version of oneself, putting forth a phony front to accomplish the goal of entrapping a partner. I disagree, and have a more optimistic theory. Perhaps there is something about the beginning of a relationship, possibly the neurochemical charge, which allows one to be a better version of oneself.

The discussion is interesting. As time progresses, you get to know your partner. You’ve heard many of the stories that your partner believes contributes to who she is. You’re partnered now, and your relationship has moved into the next stages, where you build a life together. Perhaps there is cohabitation, marriage planning, children, or maybe none of these but the relationship has plateaued. Conversation tends to center around these former topics, or the day to day, or what might be termed the “business” of the relationship (who needs to do what to keep the house functioning).

There are theories that explain this. Evolutionary theory discusses how men are unconsciously focused on spreading their seed. When the partnership has been established, the energy can be focused elsewhere (whether that means new partners or a focus on more civilized needs). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs supports this. In this psychological theory, once biological needs are met, the individual moves to safety needs. If these are met, love and belonging needs are next. If the partner believes these needs are fulfilled at least partly by his partner, he moves to self-esteem needs, which might reflect career goals. Most can probably relate to one’s work interfering (unconsciously because the lower needs are taken for granted) with meeting relationship needs. These other needs take precedence because the relationship needs are met, and the relationship becomes less pressing, and quite possibly, taken for granted and ignored.

At this point depth conversation can dissipate. The couple, feeling this is normal and being preoccupied with new personal and relational goals, might not even worry about this trend. This repetition of communiqué can continue for years without concern, creating well-worn patterns of communication. There may be jokes about not listening, about “zoning out” when one partner is talking about something interesting to him. But overall it is considered normal, and often no lasting concern is realized. Although it seems harmless, these patterns form neural pathways that become difficult to work against.

There are a number of things that can be done to prevent or reverse this trend:

  • The most important is to set time aside for discussion. This doesn’t have to be daily, and shouldn’t be overly structured (such as Tuesdays at 8); but one should be mindful of engaging in meaningful conversation with some regularity (a couple of times a week).
  • The topic isn’t as important as the dynamics involved in the exchange. Something as simple as talking about one’s day either builds intimacy or drains energy from the relationship, depending on how it’s done. If you want to talk about your day, gauge your partner’s interest, and if she isn’t interested, find a more suitable topic. If you want to hear about your partner’s day, make sure she is interested in discussing it. Avoid overusing this topic, and save it for when something interesting happens, or as an opening to a more engaging topic.
  • When in discussion, listening skills are essential. Devote the time and energy to actually hearing your partner. Make sure you are not distracted, and certainly not doing anything else at the time.
  • Bring up subjects you know your partner has interest in, which demonstrates you care enough to be attentive to her interests.
    Drawing by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
    Source: Drawing by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
  • Be “in” the moment, engrossed in the conversation, the interaction. See your partner anew.
  • These established neural pathways are difficult to overcome, and exercise great power over behavior. It is easy to slip back into old ways of interacting. Awareness of the power of these established neural pathways and how they are influencing you could be a first step in overcoming them.
  • Focus on the positives in your partner, the things you love about him. There are certainly negatives, and as our brains are negative bias we tend to focus more on those. If you can remember on a regular basis why you are grateful for your partner, it can go a long way toward improving your interactions.
  • When you first get a smartphone, it is an amazing thing. But because we acclimate to everything, within a few months when it doesn’t work the way it is designed to you can look at it negatively. But in reality, it is still an amazing device. The tendency is similar in all we have, including relationships. Try to view your partnership through the lens of all it provides you.

These suggestions are a good start to changing your conversations and deepening the intimacy in your relationship. Though simple in writing, as with most change, the difficulty is in regular application. There are unconscious powers working against this type of improvement. As I wrote in “Consciously Creating Your Relationship”, you can choose who you will be in your relationship. With effort and a conscious mind, new neural pathways and ways of behaving can be reinforced and become more natural and easily executed.

Copyright William Berry, 2015

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