Friday, November 19, 2010

Conversational Imbalance

Forget what’s going on between the sheets. Get over that endless search for the greatest sex tips and the latest sex gadgets. When it comes to marital (or pre-marital or extra-marital) bliss, conversation is where it’s at.

Lately, I have been touting a new book by Maggie Arana and Julienne Davis: Stop Calling Him Honey and Start Having Sex: How Changing Your Everyday Habits Will Make You Hot for Each Other All Over Again.  The book recommends that if you want to improve your sex life-- and, who doesn’t?-- stop using pet names and start calling your significant (or insignificant) other by his or her given name.

Stop the terms of endearment and the baby talk: go back to Jack and Jill.

By the way, someone should send a copy of the book to the recently betrothed Prince William and Kate Middleton. Apparently, the prince calls his fiancee: Babykins. Not very encouraging. However, Kate calls her fiance: Big Willie. More promising….

But where do you go after you open the conversation by exchanging proper names. Conversation needs some common nouns, some verbs, some adverbs, some adjectives, with a few prepositions thrown in for fun.

It’s not enough to identify and designate your interlocutor; you need to have something to say. Actually, you both need to have something to say. There needs to be some kind of balance between talking and listening.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein, therein lies the problem. As she reported a few days ago, married couples seem too often to fall into a distinctly unsatisfying conversational pattern: she talks and he listens.

As Bernstein describes it: she talks and talks and talks while he sort of listens and eventually falls asleep. Link here.

Translate that formula into other areas of connubial  experience and it doesn’t sound like too much fun.

You will not be surprised to learn that, to my ear, this conversational formula sounds like classical psychoanalysis, the kind that existed when analysts were more often male and patients were more often female. Most of you probably do not remember those old days, but, trust me, they existed.

Way back then the patient used to lie on the couch and talk to her heart‘s content. The analyst used to listen, and to doze off, not paying all that much attention to the content of the patient’s communication.

If he was practicing Freudian technique he was listening for hidden meanings, for repressed truths, for anything but what the patient thought she was saying.

Back in the old days this made him a great listener.

When psychoanalysis was practiced this way, anyone who had undergone the process would have come away with a misimpression. Namely, that communication did not involve any real exchange of ideas or feelings or information, but was a way for one person to express everything freely and openly while the other person would presumably be listening attentively for hidden messages.

Once you learn how to talk endlessly about nothing in particular-- because psychoanalytic free association does not even have to make any sense-- then you are likely to believe that you can use the same dubious skill in your other relationships.

Or, at least, this is what the marriages described by Bernstein seem to look like. A woman talks, as though she is thinking out loud, and her mate bravely tries to follow, only to give up and turn off his listening apparatus.

In the best cases, he will, every once in a while, utter a few wise words, words that have nothing to do with the overt content of her communication, but that sound like they came straight from the Delphic oracle. 

He doesn’t say much, but what he does say is redolent of meaning. All she has to do is to figure out what the meaning is.

For those who do not believe in Freudian causality, Bernstein reports that current brain research has shown that women are hard wired to talk to the walls and men are hard wired not to pay much attention.

Those who follow the dictates of brain scans seem to have come to the conclusion that that’s the way it is, that women will always chatter on endlessly while men drift off into a stupor.

After all that gender bending we have arrived at a point where we have all become living, breathing, sexual stereotypes. And we believe that science has told us that we must act in a way that asserts that we are all-woman or all-man….

Some have suggested that we solve the problem by mating the garrulous with the garrulous, the taciturn with the taciturn. Yet, your imagination tells that two sufferers from logorrhea will soon come to blows over who gets to speak while two mutes will never communicate anything at all.

If you want to solve the problem, the answer is almost too obvious: compromise. If she loves to rattle on to no one in particular, she will need to exercise some degree of discipline, even if that means stopping the verbal flow, pausing, asking a question, and allowing her untalkative mate an opportunity to get in a word or two or three.

And that also means that her strong silent mate, the one who says little but who tries to make each syllable count, must exercise enough discipline to offer a few extra words, a few more sentences that might introduce something resembling balance into the conversation.

Worse yet, if our two living, breathing sexual stereotypes really want to engage in something like communications, the loquacious female must direct her attention to the kinds of things that her incommunicative partner might like to talk about. And that would be facts and information before feelings.

Similarly, the hyper-reticent male should realize that if he is happy reciting statistics from last Sunday’s football games, and if his partner’s eyes glaze over when he shares this vital information, he will have to learn how to express an occasion emotion and to engage in a discussion of something that does not concern the markets, the polls, or the NFL. Something that might concern living people and not all of those numbing numbers.


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Heh

Been there....Done that....

....albeit I didn't talk NFL stats. [Note: There's only ONE football. It's Go Big Red!.] However, she was a fellow alumni.


P.S. The scroll-by babe with the heavy-barrel, competition-grade .22 cal can shoot at my range ANY DAY....

Anonymous said...

"women are hard wired to talk to the walls and men are hard wired not to pay much attention"

Which is why men learned long ago the wisdom of interjecting her diatribes with occasional "Yes Dears." It moved the noise along and, so long as we were not committing to something we had not really been tuning in to, gave us peace. Of course, later we would be advised that somehow we promised to do something really expensive that we somehow don't recall.
Steve G

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Well said!