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How To Stop Having Pretend Conversations in Your Marriage


A couple exactly your age is sitting at a table in a kitchen that looks a lot like your kitchen. She’s talking. He’s listening. Except that really he’s not. In many ways, it looks like he’s listening. He actually was for a while. The topic of the conversation wasn’t a topic in which he was particularly interested.

But he loves his wife and sincerely cares about everything she cares about simply because she cares about it. For several minutes, he was even nodding in agreement and adding a thoughtful verbal response every now and then. And then his mind went somewhere else.

Stop Having Pretend Conversations

Maybe something she said triggered thoughts of an old girlfriend. Maybe he glanced at a headline in the sports page that mentioned a player on his fantasy football team. Maybe his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten in 90 minutes. Maybe this was a story he heard before and he was trying to remember how it ends, but his mind rabbit trails off to three other stories.

Have you been there? As a couple, have you had any of those pretend conversations? How many? And how long did they go?

Please know it’s a universal problem. While it is pretty much the guy’s fault 97% of the time, don’t anyone start pointing fingers and letting it ruin your day. Wives, you may be not-so-amused to know that it happens a lot more than you think. Often, a husband gets away with it. His brilliant maneuvers and tap dancing are really quite an astonishing feat.

How does such a conversation unfold? For a while, the loving husband is actively engaged asking questions and giving input, but before long, the wife finds herself talking without interruption for several minutes. His side of the conversation has diminished to an occasional nod and affirmative grunt. Then she wraps up with some kind of verbal proposal that requires a response. Something like, “Can you do that?” or “How does next Thursday sound?” or “That’s my suggestion, what do you think?”

Once he realizes that a question has been asked, instant panic ensues. Because he’s had plenty of practice, his emotions are imperceptible to her. But believe me, he is internally frantic.

His mushy, unfocused mind becomes keenly aware of any visual clues pertaining to what she might have been talking about. Is she holding theatre tickets? An IRS bulletin? A brochure from a cruise line? An email from the high school dean? A sales flyer from Old Navy? Then he searches his recent memory banks to see if somehow he can recall a train of thought from before his mind wandered. He strains his brain to catch a few stray words still lingering in his ear canals but not yet deleted. Then he takes the ultimate gamble. He responds with actual words. He doesn’t say yes or no because that would be committing to something to which he may not want to commit. He also doesn’t say, “Let me think about it,” because he knows his bride might say, “What is there to think about?” and then his goose is really cooked.

That’s when he begins the verbal tap dance. This Oscar-worthy performance consists of hesitantly delivering short non-specific unfinished statements that hopefully leads a wife to add more information until the original question becomes clear. Things like “Well…” “I…uh…” “That would…” Done properly, it looks like he is actually pondering the question and all its implications. Before long, there’s a good chance she will continue the discussion and he will gain just enough clues to catch up and catch on. The tap dance strategy is a true art form and not for the squeamish or faint of heart. But husbands, be warned. If your wife knows you’re tap dancing, you’re in for a real tough day.

This brings us to the best strategy for any couple who finds themselves in the middle of the above kitchen-table standoff.

First, acknowledge that it’s going to happen.

Second, recognize that there’s no evil intent here.

It’s just a harmless scenario that can happen any time after the honeymoon for even the most committed couples.

So how should you respond? If she’s smart she needs to expect it and accept it. Because when the dust settles, she’s very likely going to get her way.

If he’s smart, he needs to confess, apologize, and beg her to clarify her question one more time. And then – because he’s been given a reprieve – he needs to give her the answer she wants to hear. “Yes, I can do that.” “Thursday is fine.” “I think your suggestion is brilliant.”

After a few years of marriage, you’ll both be fairly adept at recognizing the patterns that lead to topics that don’t hold his interest and situations in which his mind is prone to wander.

After thousands of conversations, a good-humored wife will call his bluff even before he begins his pretend conversation. She knows the signs and will say with a smile, “You’re not listening, are you?” As frightening as those words sound, they are really a blessing. A quick confession and short apology will move the conversation to where it should already be going.

He should respond with something like, “Sorry, I was distracted for a moment. What was that last thing you said?” A smart wife won’t berate her husband because she knows she has the upper hand. She will simply restate the question and include obvious hints that guide the husband toward the answer she wants to hear.

In summary: when a spouse’s mind wanders, the result should not be World War III and a week of nuclear winter. Instead, consider it a fresh opportunity to celebrate your commitment to one another.

Shorter stories from her and a little more focus from him wouldn’t hurt either.

Quick question for you to discuss with your wife:

What is one strategy or signal you could use to make sure you communicate that a particular conversation is not just chitchatting, but carries real importance?

Portions of this post are an excerpt from 52 Things Wives Need from Their Husbands.