My husband is a great guy. He’s really smart and he’s very accomplished professionally but he’s also very hard to be around. It doesn’t matter if it’s me or our kids or neighbours or 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. Everyone says talking to him feels like work. You can’t ever relax because he acts like he’s always trying to keep you off balance. 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?
If your husband grew up in a house where the conversation was naturally combative then to him that is a conversation. You define a conversation as an exchange between two people about personal events and things. He might see that as pointless and boring. If it never happened it would make no difference to the world. Instead he defines conversation as a growth opportunity where he wants to study and compare and challenge the belief systems of the participants.
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. If he’s an environmentalist who pushes an environmentalist agenda, then he can easily see his pressure as being about purely good things. He’s certainly not sitting there consciously being problematic. People tend not to do that. But their views of the world—yours and mine included—all tend to be mutually exclusive to a large degree. So he hasn’t had your past and 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 or rude or demanding. He’s conversing.
Now it sounds like your idea of conversing is more light-hearted and event oriented. Maybe you want to talk about the new cabin someone built, or their new baby, or you might ask about their job. You 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 conversation. They are informational rather than growth-oriented.They are static rather than rippling forward. They are enjoyable rather than useful.
So in his conversations the agenda is to grow and challenge and inspire growth in others. In your conversations the agenda is to exchange current personal events and to share experiences. Both of these actually have value—which one is “best” would depend on who you 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 don’t go to parties hoping to have to prove my point all night. But I’m also quite bored by small talk and egoic events. I don’t really want to hear people gossip or whine about their boss at a party because I know they’re using up their psychological energy to create experiences that aren’t enjoyable for either party. Idle gossip has no value. But sharing has great value. It’s a form of caring. Those connections are what inform our responses to our friends when they’re in crisis, which means your husband probably doesn’t respond well to individuals, he’s probably more likely to attend a rally or to work on a political campaign.
My point is that your husband is being himself. He is being the person that attracted you in the first place. So when he used to get all upset about some political event you would have seen his good intentions, but now that you take those for granted you’re just noticing when other people and you don’t want to have those kinds of conversations. But wants are always at the heart of our suffering. So 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 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 since your ship is doing that too, and so is everyone else’s, maybe everyone should spend less time adjudicating the value of each person’s direction in life and instead they should just focus on sailing their own boat where it feels the most rewarding. 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 and others will have the sailing itself be the point. None of these sailors are right or wrong, they are merely individuals. So our life was never about getting all of the boats going in the same direction, it’s really about learning to keep your footing as your 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. So 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 the price.
Good luck with it. I feel for you. I know I used to be bad for the same thing your husband is and 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. But I needed those experiences to discover those lessons, and that happens at an organic pace. So go have the conversations you would like have and let him have the ones he would like to have. Live with some faith that he is, as you pointed out, a great guy who’s smart and accomplished, even if he is in the midst of a conversation that you would not have.
Following a childhood accident should have left him dead, Scott McPherson spent his life meditating on thought, consciousness, reality and the self. Seeing the emotional damage done by ego-based overthinking he began dedicating a part of his life to guiding students toward more peaceful and rewarding lives. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, Canada.