My husband is a great guy. He’s a really smart and very accomplished philosopher at a good university. He’s reliable and trustworthy as a husband and father and co-worker. But he’s also very hard to be around. It doesn’t matter if it’s me, our kids, neighbours, or even friends at a party, the only kind of conversation he will engage in is to challenge people. He doesn’t seem to understand that he could ask someone about themselves instead of challenging something they believe. I know this is just his university professor approach to thinking, but everyone says talking to him feels like work and I can relate to that. You can’t ever relax because he acts like he’s always trying to find holes in ideas. He’s not wrong with what he notices. But I’m tired of seeing people move away from us at parties. Is there any way I can help him to see how it feels for other people when they’re with him?
Your challenge will be that, if your husband grew up in one of the many houses where the conversation was naturally contrarian, then to him, that probing action is a conversation. We define a ‘conversation’ as an exchange between two people. But that doesn’t guarantee equal interest in the subject or approach. He might see a non-probing conversation as pointless and boring, just as a larger group finds his probing questions unenjoyable.
He’s likely right in the sense that, if a non-elucidating conversation never happened, it would make little to no difference to the larger world. So, maybe instead, he defines ‘conversation’ as a growth opportunity where he wants to study, challenge, and compare the belief systems of the participants. Then it seems quite natural that he would have ended up as a professor. You can likely be grateful that at least some of this impulse is being exorcised at work.
His agenda might very well to be to make himself better by testing his ideas against others. Or it may be generous in that he may want others to see some sort of important factor to life or living, and that’s no different than what teachers or religious leaders try to do. If he’s an environmentalist who pushes an environmentalist agenda, then he can easily see his pressure as being about purely good things.
The one thing we can be fairly certain of, is that he’s not sitting there consciously being problematic. We’re pack animals, so people tend not to do that. But our views of the world, (yours and mine included), all tend to be mutually exclusive to a large degree. Since he hasn’t had your past, he can’t define ‘conversation’ the way you have. This doesn’t mean there aren’t still social prices to pay. But my point is that, from his perspective, he’s not being disruptive, rude or demanding. He’s conversing.
It sounds like your idea of conversing is more light-hearted and event-oriented, which is also fine. Maybe you want to talk about the new cabin someone built, or their new baby. Or you might ask about their job. Your husband may see those as frivolous subjects that don’t really matter in the sense that people don’t generally change from those sorts of conversations. They are informational rather than growth-oriented. They are static rather than rippling forward. They are enjoyable rather than useful. We all find our rewards in unique ways.
In his conversations the agenda may be to grow, challenge and inspire growth in himself and others. In your conversations, the agenda may be to exchange current personal events and to share experiences. Of course both of these actually have value—which one is “best” would depend on who we asked. I can enjoy a good debate, but it’s true I don’t want to always feel like I have to hit a tennis ball back in a conversation.
I doubt anyone goes to a party hoping to spend the evening having to prove their worldview valid. But many are also quite bored by small talk and egocentric events. I know as someone who doesn’t like his headspace polluted with negative thinking, I don’t really want to hear people gossip or whine about their boss at a party. I know they’re using up their psychological energy to create experiences that aren’t enjoyable for them or us.
In reality there is no ‘right’ way to have a conversation, there are just some that are more popular. So my point is that your husband is really not being unpopular, he’s simply being himself. He is being the person that attracted you in the first place. So, maybe he used to get all upset about some political event, and you fell in love with is passion for caring for others. But now that you have that, you’re just noticing when other people don’t want to have those kinds of conversations. But would you have married the person who wouldn’t have them?
Our wants are always at the heart of our suffering. In essence you’re writing in asking me to change your husband into someone you want to take to a party. But I can’t do that because your husband is your husband, he is himself first. And he can only be who he is. Expecting him to have a whole new perspective on something like conversation is like asking him to instantly have a different past. It just doesn’t work that way. It would be like me asking you to be combative and challenging all the time. You can’t because it’s not you and it doesn’t feel appropriate. Same for him.
I’m not saying you don’t have to pay a price for his approach. Every ship creates a wake no matter which direction it travels. But your ship is doing that too, and so is everyone else’s. So maybe everyone should spend less time adjudicating the value of each person’s direction in life, and maybe instead we could all just focus on sailing our own boats towards wherever we experience the greatest rewards?
Some will choose the hot sun and calm days, others will choose heavy winds and high speed. Some will have their destination as the important part of their journey, and others will have the sailing itself be the point. None of these sailors are right or wrong, they are merely individuals sailing in their own ways. So our life was never about getting all of the conversational boats going in the same direction. It’s really about learning to keep our footing as our boat gets jostled by someone else’s wake.
There will be situations where your husband will shine. There will be situations where he’s a disaster. Same for you. Rather than trying to turn him into someone more socially acceptable it might be more worthwhile to train yourself to see the value in what he brings, rather than just the price.
Good luck with it. I feel for you. I know my lack of familiarity with people’s constant self-talk meant I used to say more things that upset egos. I’m sorry my ex-wife had to deal with that. But at the same time, thanks to the the challenges and the conflicts I experienced as a result, I have used those experiences to adjust my course through life and I do think I’m better at choosing the most productive conversations to have.
Note that I needed those experiences to discover those lessons, and that happens at an organic pace. So, even though it may not be ‘enough,’ in your estimation, it’s likely your husband has already had experience teach him a lot. But as we all know, changing a fundamental about ourselves is challenging. We should really make sure it’s worth it if we want to undergo the prices for accomplishing that kind of change.
None of us dies ‘finished.’ All of us can see ways in which more of this or that quality would have done this or that amount of good in our lives. But to gain those things would be to lose others. So, unless you’re planning on leaving your husband over this, the best bet for your marriage is not to try to force him to be someone he can’t be. You’re better to just find contexts and ways in which to enjoy the person he already is.
Of course none of this means that you have to participate in these conversations, so feel free to be honest. Just be loving. Explain that you know they are passionate subjects for him and you respect that. But they are not passionate subjects for you, and you simply want space from them just as you would try to give him space for something similar. And fortunately, almost any time that we extend our respect to others, they will generally extend it back.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.