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TL/DR: One of my needs in our relationship is going unmet: the need for engaging, thoughtful conversation. I truly believe my partner is capable of this, but hasn't been in an environment where he was encouraged to have more than superficial discussions. How can I help him build his conversational skills and confidence?

Example: To try to clarify what I mean by thoughtful conversation, I'd be talking about things like ruminating on an interesting movie we watched (how does it reflect current society, are we going that direction, which character was fascinating and why, was the story arc good or what plot armor was there, etc) versus walking out of a movie and having it left at "I liked that movie."

I've tried model this with him to some extent with conversations about football, which he is super knowledgeable about where I know only the basics. He'll mention something in response to sports radio and I'll ask something like "Oh? Which position was that?" He'll tell me which one, then I'll ask something like, "What does that position do again?" He'll go on in some detail until I understand the gist of it and then further engage him with a question like, "Why is that guy not a good fit for it?"

This is the kind of conversation I'd like to have, but about other topics as well, not just football. And instead of being the one engaging every time like above, eventually I'd like him to be able to engage similarly with me, even about potentially unfamiliar topics. Most of our conversations just feel like typical small talk ("how was your day," "what should we eat today," "want to do anything this weekend," etc).

To try to summarize the example, I'd like it if when in a conversation he would:

  • Provide more than one word answers when I initiate a conversation (responses less like "ok," and more like "oh, I agree/disagree/don't know because xyz")

  • Be open to discussing in more detail than generalizations ("I liked that movie, but I would have liked it more if..." versus "It was good.")

  • Be willing to listen and engage on less familiar topics (If I mention something like, "Huh, this article mentions a new technology for doing xyz," answers less like "Um, ok... That's random" and more like "Oh yeah? What's new about it" or "Oh, how would that work?")

Extra Background: This info may not be necessary to basic advice, but may also have details that could help. Feel free to skip it.

I've been dating my fiance, who I love and who I know loves me deeply, for about a year and a half. We've been living together for half of that time now. We got engaged the week before I graduated from grad school with my MA this past May. It wasn't out of the blue, as we had mentioned getting married before, so of course I said yes. In the past couple of weeks, my feeling of closeness to him has declined noticeably.

In general, I'm the kind of person whose mind is constantly churning through things, but who has to make an extra effort to identify my feelings, so I spent a couple of weeks in a confused state of low morale before I could identify why I was feeling so badly and figure out the cause. I didn't feel like I could truly connect with my fiance emotionally. We had a discussion about this (that went much better than I had dreaded) and together came up with some actions items for each of us that we thought could help, including me being better about expressing my needs unambiguously and pointing out behaviors that cause the disconnect when they happen instead of letting it build up.

He also shared what he called his greatest fear: that I would realize I was too smart for him and leave. I reassured him immediately and emphatically that this wasn't the case, that I loved him, and that he is also an intelligent person and possess more intelligence than I do in a number of cases (emotional intelligence comes immediately to mind).

I understand, though, where this fear comes from. He was a college drop out; I just obtained my MA. His family do not have any higher education; mine almost all do. Through our mutual hobby, we're surrounded by bright people who are almost exclusively male. I love getting into the weeds on a variety of topics with them, and there are several that I can hold really good conversations with easily. In thinking through my fiance's fear, I also realized that since I graduated my master's program, I have been turning more to these friends for that kind of engaging conversation, probably because I'm not getting it through classmates and professors any longer.

This realization caused a bit of a personal panic in me because I was faced with the question "Is this kind of conversation a need of mine in a romantic relationship?" I'm afraid that if I'm honest with myself, the answer is probably yes. It's nice to get this need met from friends and colleagues, but I'm extremely worried that if I don't get at least a little bit of it from my husband-to-be that I will drift away from him. I can see how the lack of this kind of conversation went unnoticed until now with almost all of my intellectual energies focused on graduating and breaking into my career, but I'm kind of kicking myself for not realizing it sooner because of how deep into the relationship my fiance and I now are.

All this backstory leads to the question: can I help him develop the kind of skills that would help him fulfill this need of mine? How specifically would I go about helping build those skills? He was a straight-A high school student who was bored by school. He's a capable problem solver (I see this in action all the time). I just think he's never really gotten his sea legs regarding his own intellect or expressing his ideas. He's also told me he thinks his communication skills could improve. Additionally, I would bet that he probably feels intimidated by me (and some of our mutual friends) since having more substantive conversations is my default setting.

Research: I did some searching and found this answer that seems somewhat related, but not quite the same. In that user's instance, it was always the same few topics, but for me it's more of a depth question than a topic question.

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    You say that you had a conversation about this...but did he say he was willing to try to change like this? Is this something that he wants? – scohe001 Jun 27 '18 at 21:15
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    Is this something you've talked with your partner about? – sphennings Jun 27 '18 at 21:15
  • @scohe001 I mean specifically them learning to have deeper conversations, not how the OP doesn't feel like they're able to connect emotionally. – sphennings Jun 27 '18 at 21:18
  • Not in the exact words I used, but he explicitly said he would like to improve his communication skills. I would be hesitant to bring it up exactly as I have here because I know how insecure he is regarding his perception of our differences in intelligence, despite my reassurances that he's plenty smart. – Curious_Flyer Jun 27 '18 at 21:19
  • Could you maybe expand on the symptoms of his conversational lackings? You got into a lot of background but your example was pretty superficial, and half of it was actually more background (i.e., how you try to engage with him on a topic he is interested and knowledgeable about). If you state your opinion or perception of something, how does he react? Do you ask him questions? If so, what type of question, and how does he react to that? Are you expecting him to chime in and he just doesn't? Does he change the subject? Is he driving while you are talking? – Bryan Krause Jun 28 '18 at 0:15
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This is a problem that my partner and I have also sought to solve. However, in our instance, it was less that one/both of us weren't willing and more that we noticed we were having these conversations less often as a result of our busy lives.

In order to spark these discussions more often, we've started something like a book club between just the two of us. Each week, we alternate choosing an article we've recently read that made us think. Next, the non-choosing partner reads the article and then we go get a drink at a quiet bar and talk about it. Sometimes it leads to a far-reaching, hours-long discussion, and sometimes we find that there isn't actually much to say, and we finish our drink and go home (or just discuss something else). In order to work well, there shouldn't be pressure to find a conversation that isn't there, merely the expectation that you make an honest effort.

Since you haven't said anything about your individual reading habits, this might not work exactly for you, but you might be able to tailor it to your own interests (you could instead pick a TV episode, or movie, or anything that made you think). Even if, at the beginning, your fiancé is only choosing articles about football, hopefully with time and the example set by your selections, they might become more confident choosing other topics.

We've come to look forward to our nights out, since in the worst case we get to spend some time together and enjoy a drink. We've also become more comfortable with these conversations and have noticed that we'll have them outside of these specific evenings as well.


I realize I don't say much about how to initiate this tradition. I'm hoping that, since you've already had an honest talk about this need of yours, that you can bring it up as an experiment to try. If you receive pushback that it feels too forced, or that your fiancé doesn't think they'll have anything to contribute, you can reiterate that this is important to you and that you think it's worth trying. I'd also recommend volunteering to go first (and choosing a topic that's familiar to both of you) to make it easier.

  • I'm a big reader, but he isn't, so shows or movies might be best to start with for him. Certainly a solid idea though! – Curious_Flyer Jun 28 '18 at 0:34
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I think one important point is, to guide him, while trying to discuss a topic. Regarding his background, he is most likely not use to give in depth answers to a question like: “Why did you enjoy that movie?”. Therefore I suggest you guide him e.g. “Do you think, that character xy will reach his goal of abc in the future?”. This focuses on one narrow topic, rather than a broad topic (the whole movie). After his answer, you can ask him why he thinks so. From there on, you can start with another section of the movie.

This will hopefully make him used to discussing something to enrich the mind, rather than to deliver information. If you do this more often, he might give you more in depth answers to less specific questions, which hopefully leads to more in depth discussions. I think it is best to pick topics where he and you have at least some knowledge. This makes it easier for him to provide answers and enables you to guide the conversation.

If you ask him: “What do you want to eat?”, he will deliver an information, so he gets food he enjoys. He is most likely not used to answer questions in depth, just so you can have a discussion. Questions are most likely a tool to get information for him. It is like a hammer, you can use it to get a nail into the wall, or to make a sculpture. The nail is useful, the sculpture is beautiful.

The second important point is to motivate him. Of course making you happy is a source of motivation, but there will always be a huge difference between loving in depth conversations and having an in depth conversation to make your girlfriend happy (especially in the long run). You can try to do him favors in return, but I do not know if this will lead to success. Maybe someone else knows.

  • so what she does about football in reverse. – WendyG Jul 2 '18 at 16:20
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Generally, someone enjoys conversations which he has a good intuition, through a solid accompanying knowledge and generally having pondered about those affairs.

Having discussion about sociatial, philosophical issues etc. Requires a lot of work that many people cannot just submmerse into. That requires a maturity in academic reading which is not easily acquired, unless you have majored in something. It is like having a discussion about music with a non musician.

So, even if he would potentially indeed enjoy to angage in deeper conversations in the beginning it would be, understandably, underwhelming for both of you, as there is too much of a gap into your background and method of thinking to make the conversation stimulating. Again, given your background you have spent many many years developing you background and maturing your thought process. Imagine a chess professional playing against a chess enthusiast, both people love chess but neither enjoying themselves when they play together, and of course this has nothing to do about intelligence.

Now, what I would suggest is perhaps joining a book club. There will be people of all levels, and you are going to be exposed to ideas that both of you find stimulating. There he will be able to hone his skill closing the gap between your thought process and background.

Similar ideas would be taking a beginners class in something both of are not very familiar. Maybe cinematography on coursera. So this class will have something to offer to both of you, and next you go to a movie he will have already digested ideas as his guide to make an interesting conversation.

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In my opinion it might backfire if you ask him to change. He has expressed the fear that you might not find him enough intellectually. Maybe his inability to initiate and engage in “thoughtful conversations” on some topics he’s not familiar with is due to pyschologival reasons. It’s really hard to think on your feet and let the conversations develop when you are afraid of being judged and stressed out about the consequences.

It’s a decision you would have to make eventually. It sounds you are doubting your relationship and your feelings for him. Putting the pressure on him to change is not fair, as you’ve acknowledged that having that level of conversation requires a lot of knowledge and that takes time to build.

Instead, own your panic, take a step back and honestly ask yourself if you would be okay with who he is now, and your relationship as it is today. You have the right to take some time to reflect and decide whether to continue this relationship or not. If you do, focus on other things that make the relationship work. You have other options to make it more satisfying for you if you still want it.

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All this backstory leads to the question: can I help him develop the kind of skills that would help him fulfill this need of mine? How specifically would I go about helping build those skills?

You need to accept that you probably can't. You have a naturally analytical mind, and enjoy mentally tearing things apart to understand how they work. It sounds like he does not.

He also shared what he called his greatest fear: that I would realize I was too smart for him and leave. I reassured him immediately and emphatically that this wasn't the case, that I loved him, and that he is also an intelligent person and possess more intelligence than I do in a number of cases (emotional intelligence comes immediately to mind).

This isn't a question of smarts, certainly not about anything that can be measured by a grade. This is about you being an intellectual, and him not being one. One's spouse does not have to be everything to a person, they don't have to fill every role. But I really doubt that this guy will ever fill the role of "someone you can dissect a movie with". And I doubt a book club is going to change that.

I was faced with the question "Is this kind of conversation a need of mine in a romantic relationship?" I'm afraid that if I'm honest with myself, the answer is probably yes.

Remember all those movie tropes you know about? You know the trope about how a couple that loves each other can fix everything and be happy together just before the credits roll?

Well, this might be the time in your life when you learn that real life doesn't work like that. You can love someone, and that person might still not be the right life partner for you.

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There is the possibility that he is comfortable with his current level of discussion, and that he doesn't want to change, or just can't change. You probably want to resolve this, one way or another, before tying the knot. Doesn't sound like there's any problem with your approach, just the results you're seeing.

I didn't fear a woman who was as smart or more intelligent than myself, I welcomed it... gee, I must be pretty good if I can attract her attention. But, a lot of guys don't have that mindset.

When I was dating, I noticed that there were some people, both men and women, who put up an intellectual 'gender barrier'. They would adjust their discussions when they were around the significant other and other members of the opposite gender, as opposed to how they would interact with 'their bros' or 'their sisters'. More than not discussing potentially delicate gender specific subjects, I could see that they definitely dialed back their intellect when around the opposite gender. As if they saw the opposite gender as an object, not a person. What a pity, they're missing some interesting people...

Not all people are like that, but enough are. When I met a woman who didn't exhibit that, who could speak on any subject in depth with me, who could hold a genuine heart to heart without an intellectual gender barrier... I got married. (okay, it helped that she was a stunning beauty, too, and not at all stuck on herself about that) We just passed our 25th anniversary, so I definitely picked the right one.

The real question is - do you want a lifetime of the current situation? If it's right going in to a marriage, you'll probably do well. If there are obstacles before you get married, the only thing a ring and a piece of paper will do is insure that breaking up will cost you an arm and a leg.

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