We Started Talking about Ideas—Again

By Susan Arrington Hill

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    Tuesday night, 6:30, suppertime at the Hills, a young married couple with a year-old daughter:

    “Well, dear, how was your day at school?” Susan asks, pouring Erin’s milk.

    “Just more of the same,” Fred replies, buttering his cornbread. “How was yours?”

    “I went to Relief Society this morning and cleaned house this afternoon. Just the usual. Erin is finally getting over her cold.”

    “Good stew, honey. Did we get any mail today?”

    “Only the dentist bill. What are you doing tonight?” She wipes up Erin’s spilled milk.

    “I’m going home teaching with Brother Spencer. Did you want to do something after?”

    “No, I was just wondering. How about some apple cobbler?”

    “Thanks, this is really tasty.” They finish the meal in companionable silence.

    That’s the way Tuesday nights found us a couple of years into our marriage—companionable, but not really companions as in the exciting, electrical time of our courtship when we literally couldn’t talk long enough or fast enough to share all of our ideas. For some reason, we had stopped sharing ideas. And we both noticed that our marriage felt incomplete.

    We were still doing very well at the “maintenance” communication that needs to take place in any marriage: new shoes, dentist bills, this summer’s vacation, and whom to invite over on Friday evening. But two other kinds of communication had slipped: evaluation conversations about “where are we now,” and the intellectual kind of sharing that had nourished and challenged our intelligence. Our “companion” communication was malnourished.

    So we decided to start talking about ideas again. And the first thing we discovered was that it didn’t come spontaneously anymore! We were shocked, but later realized that the awkwardness was natural when two people have established a habit of communicating only about business even in so intimate a relationship as marriage.

    So we kept working and found “companionship” coming back—and along with it, individual growth, stimulation, motivation, and an ever-growing appreciation and affection for each other.

    Each couple will have their own pattern of ideas to explore and their own ways of making it happen. But here are some things that work for us—even with three children, Church responsibilities, and professional obligations.

    1. We go beyond maintenance into companionship conversations about the children. It’s interesting for Fred to find out that Erin’s cold is finally leaving. It’s far more interesting to tell him that she’s learned how to tell time, and vital for him to know that she’s glowing with pride and increased self esteem.

    There isn’t always time to do more than pass on the information; but when we have an hour to walk around the block, we can talk about how we perceive Erin’s personality, what directions she seems to be developing in, how we can help her, and how we feel about her.

    2. We turn maintenance conversations about our own relationship into deeply meaningful explorations. Fred and I are both “people-watchers”; and when we notice our friends, other family members, and neighbors in various situations, we’ve learned to ask, “What do you think is happening there? What would you do in that circumstance? How would you feel?” In addition to knowing each other better, we also feel deepened empathy for others.

    Another advantage is that these conversations can be launching points for the “where is our marriage going?” kind of discussion—free, in this setting, from the desperation of one partner who finally insists, “we just have to talk about this.” We can move from an observation like, “Sally’s so glad that Jerry’s finally graduating” to “How do we feel about being in school for umpteen years?” Nothing makes us feel better than the chance to articulate our positive feelings about ourselves and our marriage. And nothing makes us feel more confident about our ability to resolve the difficult areas.

    Our decision to start talking about ideas grew out of this same kind of companionship conversation.

    3. We use reading to develop a common pool of shared ideas. Once a week while I’m doing dinner dishes, Fred reads a news summary to me from a national magazine. We comment, give opinions, ask questions. We also enjoy reading aloud to each other from a current book—a Church book, a good novel, or nonfiction. The continuity of the project gives us something to talk about for a long time.

    4. A related device is to read the same book separately, but discuss it together. We both love to read; discussing it was the hard part. (We’d fallen into the habit of making it part of our “business” conversation: “I finished Pride and Prejudice this morning. I really liked it.” “That’s nice. I really enjoyed it a couple of years ago when I read it.”)

    Now it’s part of our companionship conversation. If Fred’s starting something that I’m going to read later, he’ll underline paragraphs or jot marginal notes, or tell me to look for something he’s noticed. When I get there, we talk about it over dishes or during our quiet time. I’ll bring a paragraph from a magazine article to the dinner table and share it with him. We both have “assigned” ourselves the same two or three main news articles in a weekly magazine which we read like students—underlining or outlining them sketchily, then discussing them at dinner or on our “current events” night once a week.

    At first it was very awkward, but if we even read aloud the underlined sections, it helped us keep current together. When opinions began flowing as well, then we were communicating.

    5. We take classes together. Fred and I shared a photography class and a German class—delighted with the skills we were gaining together. It would be difficult to do this on a regular basis now that we have more children, but there’s still an extension course, a seminar, or an occasional night class that we can squeeze in together.

    Sometimes we’re both between teaching responsibilities and are in the same Sunday School class. Instead of just “taking” the class, we make sure we take it together by asking each other such questions as:

    “How would you have approached that topic?” “What did you like best about the class?” “How do you feel about being obedient?”

    6. We study the gospel together. We’ve found that having a little external structure helps our scripture reading. We’ve used the Institute home study courses as a guide to fifteen morning minutes with the New Testament, for instance, with very good results. It’s opened avenues to further discussion of testimony, goals that are meaningful in our lives, and the ever deepening realization of the common purposes we share.

    7. We meet family responsibilities together. We talk weekly, usually on Sunday, about potential problems. Our discussions in this area probably bring us closer than anything else. If I notice that the children seem to be quarreling more than usual, I could unilaterally decide that Fred needed to talk to each one of them individually. And that might be the solution. But when we pool our observations about who seems to be causing the quarrels, we may suddenly realize that it’s because they haven’t been getting enough sleep. When we discuss money worries together, we may find a way to cut expenses, or find another way to augment our income. In any case, we will have had a chance to build a better union through sharing the responsibility and sharing a potential worry.

    Naturally, like any good system, communication won’t work at a high level all of the time. Not all of our Tuesday suppers are sparkling intellectual discussions. Sometimes we’re both just grateful to let our frazzled nerves smooth out for awhile, or bypass our reading in favor of getting straight to sleep.

    But it works most of the time, and we’re finding new things to talk about, new minutes to take advantage of, and a new appreciation for each other. Each family is different, and meets its needs in different ways; but the need for meaningful communication is a real part of our marriage. Now we not only remember that we love each other—we have, fresh on our minds daily, some of the reasons why that love exists.

    Items from news magazines often spark a “companionship” conversation that moves us from mundane topics into deeper husband-wife understanding. (Photography by Jed A. Clark.)

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    • Susan Arrington Hill, mother of three, is a Primary teacher and Relief Society cultural refinement teacher in the St. Cloud Ward, St. Paul Minnesota Stake.