Even if you’re happily married you might find dates kind of awkward sometimes. What do you talk about? I know we struggle at times to have an easy flow of conversation, too.
I don’t know what it is about dates that make it difficult to know what to talk about. Sometimes we’re just distracted or exhausted but sometimes if you’re up to date with each other then you’re also not sure what to go over. Certainly if there’s an ‘elephant’ in the room, that gets in the way too.
This is a good place to start because where couples struggle sometimes is they haven’t dealt with something that’s pretty major. One spouse initiates the date as a way to try to repair or even extend a peace offering.
We could go down quite a rabbit trail with this but I think it would be good just to point out that you want to set up your dates so that you have the same goal/agenda when you go on them.
If your marriage is distressed, be sure that you’re both heading in with an open mind that you’re doing this as one little step to move towards repair and reconciliation. If this is your situation, don’t go in with super high expectations and give your spouse the benefit of the doubt and show some generosity by extending good will.
This is one time that we’d actually recommend avoiding the elephant in the room. If the ‘elephant’, or issue, is too big for you, put that out there before you go and also suggest how you’d like to resolve that: set up a time to talk, ask for help from a spiritual leader in your church, or get some counselling. On the date itself, though, is not the time or place to hash out difficult issues.
What you want to try to do is to set up your dates to allow a little sweetness to percolate into your marriage. Warmth. Kindness: both given and received.
When you’re going on a date in the context of the distressed marriage you want to point the conversation toward topics that help you to build little wee connections with each other again. On the other hand, if your marriage is reasonably healthy but you just need a way to freshen up your dates and your relationship we’re going to point you toward the same topics!
We know that life happens. We all get super busy and because we’re always in the whirlwind we tend to lose track of those little details that are happening in each other’s lives. Remember how when you were dating you used to love finding out those tiny little facts about each other? Well, date conversations should steer in that direction.
Talk About Relationships and Experiences
Generally, and looking at research on conversations that people tend towards, about 55% of conversation times for males and about 2/3 for females is devoted to talking about relationships and experiences.[i] See, most people like to talk about relationships and experiences because these are the most influential forces in our lives in terms of our emotional wellbeing.
A much smaller amount of time goes to work or school-related trips, then to sport, then arrangements for future social activities, then culture and art and politics and religion.
So let me give you a few different ideas about this.
You definitely want to spend more time asking your spouse about the relationships you see less of. For example, how’s it going with their boss, with their mother, with their closer friends that maybe you don’t hang out with as a couple too much. These things are really important to your spouse.
Watch for little hints of emotion there and try to catch those and expand on them to learn more about your spouse’s feelings. Be curious. Rather than assuming you know something, ask about it.
Watch how you add your interpretive layers to what they’re saying, though. You may find more value, instead of thinking about how you see something just to stay with more neutral non-judgmental questions to ask your spouse how they experienced their friend or the specific circumstance at work.
Part of this is not only having the topics to talk about but actually stopping and taking the time to unpack them. Males tend to just assume certain things and fill in the blanks on stuff, but if you can hold back on your own interpretation and try to lean into the curiosity, it not only helps to extend the conversation but also helps you to get to know your wife better. More understanding always leads to more compassion.
The second thing here is to learn also to be curious about areas of your spouse’s life where your interests don’t overlap. Even if you have no interest or knowledge about what they are talking about, turn that into an advantage and say “Wow, I know nothing about that” and then start being really curious about the basics. Now you’re asking questions to learn about this interest and you have the other person excited about one of their interests and that is a great way to have a conversation!
You can also just decide you want to take time to get to know how they think about certain issues more.
Talk About Important Issues
I know, I know. I said not deal with major marital issues on your dates.
However, there is still a place for important, substantive issues.
We get a lot of small talk from many of our relationships, we need to go deeper in our marriage.
There was a study in 2010 that compared small talk vs. substantive conversations and looked at wellbeing. The small talk was really banal like “Oh, how’s your popcorn chicken?” and the important issues were those things where we’re exploring relationships, like, “So, your mom baked out of your lunch date? What do you think might be going on for her?”
What these researchers found was that higher well-being was associated with less small talk and more substantive conversations.[ii] It appears that happy people don’t just stick with small talk but they also engage in more in-depth conversation.
Come Prepared With Conversation Starters
I think the title is self-explanatory. Come prepared. It helps if you have something or some things ready to talk about.
Our work sheet for this episode is a great place to get some of those ideas!
Start Conversations by Asking Questions
Sometimes the pressure of having to bring a conversation starter leads to anxiety which prevents you from getting into the flow. Well, one thing we can do is learn to ask good questions. This is such a great skill for any part of marriage, or family life, or any human relationship.
Here are some ideas from the 7 Power of Questions by Dorothy Leeds.
The first thing you need to know is that not all questions are equally effective as conversation starters. I’m sure every person knows how well it works to ask your child, “So, how did school go today?”.
End of conversation.
Asking your spouse, “How was work today?” often doesn’t go much better. It’s too general a question. Think about how you can get more specific with the question. Try:
- What was the best part of your day at work?
- What was the most annoying part of your day at work?
- What was the funniest thing that happened to you today?
These will lead to more things to talk about because they are more specific. It works even better if you have the presence of mind to track things from day to day. “So, you were hoping to get your proposal finished at work today. Was it hard to get it finished on time?”
Keep Date Conversations Going by Staying Focused
One thing that is so easy to do is to grab your phone wherever there’s a lull in the conversation. It’s like our phones have become the ultimate awkwardness disrupter – something to take me away from my discomfort and anxiety when there’s silence.
There was a study in 2014 where researchers looked at the relationship between the presence of mobile devices and the quality of real-life in-person social interactions. They looked at 100 pairs of people discussing either a casual or a meaningful topic together while a trained research assistant observed them unobtrusively from a distance noting whether either participant placed a mobile device on the table or held it in his or her hand.
The results of this study showed that conversations in the absence of cell phones were rated as significantly superior to those in the presence of the mobile device. Note: this is “in the presence” of; not even talking about use!
They also noted that people who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathic concern. Empathic concern is that ability to relate and to connect emotionally with what the other person is sharing.[iii]
Putting your phone away shows that you are truly interested in the conversation at hand – it shows you care. When you show that, you’re sending your spouse a signal that gives them a reason to keep talking about what matters to them.
So, be mindful of how your cell phone is a part of your date together, and what it might be adding or removing.
Yes, if you have younger kids or a new babysitter, you may want to have your phone close by you. This is a time to get creative with your technology! Give your sitter a special ringtone or even turn on the do not disturb feature but set your babysitters contact info so she has special exceptions to this. That way it will only ring if she calls and you can have uninterrupted conversation the rest of your date night.
Once you get those date conversations going, remember that you also need to be intentional about how you’re going to keep them going!
And keep in mind the Bible verse from Ephesians 4:29 that says our conversations should be “such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
It would be really cool if you could go on your next date with a real concern to give grace to your spouse by being intentional about your conversation!
[i] R. I. M. Dunbar, Anna Marriott, and N. D. C. Duncan, “Human Conversational Behavior,” Human Nature 8, no. 3 (September 1997): 231–46, doi:10.1007/BF02912493.
[ii] Matthias R. Mehl et al., “Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations,” Psychological Science 21, no. 4 (April 1, 2010): 539–41, doi:10.1177/0956797610362675.
[iii] Shalini Misra et al., “The iPhone Effect The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices,” Environment and Behavior, July 1, 2014, 0013916514539755, doi:10.1177/0013916514539755.