Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
March 2015 - Volume 15, No. 3
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The Magic of Marital Conversation

I’ll often affirm the best medicine for a marriage is an increase of conversation. As simple as that.  

I’m not just speaking of people talking about the general stuff of life, or even problem solving. I’m talking about people Talking - and not talking to each other but talking with each other.


When a couple is in courting phase, there’s a lot of sharing that goes on. It’s like hunting. There’s a lot of focused interest, attention and strategy. Men can be good hunters, and the prize is a “good catch.” Women can also be great hunters, as good as or better than men. A major difference is that once a man “bags the game” (with apology for the rudeness of the phrase), he stops hunting. He’s accomplished his task. It’s time to go home and go to work. His ‘hunting’ behavior and his ‘going to work’ behavior are generally quite different. 

When a woman “bags her game,” she also stops hunting, and goes home. But for a woman (and this is a generalization), hunting behavior and being-at-home behavior are much more alike. So that ‘at home’ she’ll want to focus attention and strategy on feeding the relationship. That’s her ‘natural knowledge.’  

Let me say for the sake of the record, I’ve experienced many couples where the man is the primary relationship builder, and the women is the one who ‘disappears.’


A ten-year-old boy probably doesn’t know much about sex. But he does know that once he has it, he has to go to work to support four people for the rest of his life. That’s his ‘natural knowledge.’  

So as soon as a man and a woman get together, they seem to go their separate ways.    

For the first eighteen months, those great sexual urges can keep them happily together. How many couples will brag (at least to me) “we’ve done it in every single room in the house.”

Beginning to have children doesn’t help much either. A number of couples in retrospect see that first child as signaling the denouement of the relationship. They probably continued talking, but it was mostly problem-solving and maintenance talking. The conversation that would feed the relationship was dying. There just wasn’t time. Then there just wasn’t even the inclination. Life got in the way of being alive together.

What is a marriage?

My favorite answer to this question is this: Marriage is the life-long relationship of two persons in which they continually explore the mystery of each other. (I heard this in a TV interview with Roland Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the 2011 marriage of Kate Middleton and Prince William, heir presumptive to the English throne.) 

Marriage is by nature organic, in that if it doesn’t grow, it dies. Recently I asked a client, “Have you spoken of that (particular experience) with your wife?” He answered, “No, why should I, she already knows.” This is the encyclopedia approach - marriage as a somewhat static collection of data points. Graduate engineers may find themselves at home in such a relationship, with their automatic proclivity to value problem solving and data management.   


Conversation is more intimate than talking. A parallel for me is when I write. I’ll sit down and start, with a sense of where I want it to go. But quite often, the writing begins to take a life of its own, and goes somewhere else. I could insist “No, you can’t to there, you’re supposed to go here!” A lot of marital talking can be like that. It degenerates to a matter of right vs wrong, black vs white, me vs you. No wonder folks shy away from talking with each other.  

My rule of thumb when I write is the first draft is usually writing for myself. It’s up to me to listen to the inner message. Then once I’ve taken in what’s there for me to hear, I can begin further drafts for the sake of someone else, for example, you my readers. This is a common pattern of ‘Conversation.’  My writing and I have a creative ‘Conversation’ - primarily because I am willing to listen and engage from the beginning. 

Terror and Joy

Very often (again a generalization) when a woman says to a man “we’ve got to talk” - the first response in a man is one of terror. I know I’ve done something wrong, and I’m probably going to be dressed down for it. Conversely when a man will say to a woman “we’ve got to talk” there’s a good chance the woman will say within something like, “great, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this, let me clear the table and get some wine glasses…” 

The reason I’m willing to enter Conversation is that I have memory of occasions when I began with a willingness to listen, knowing there was useful information or a message for me. Once I allowed my ears (and my heart) to take in the messages, comfortable or not, I had the further experience of a productive and even delightful sharing. Any terror turned to comfort, and even delight in the creative exchange that unfolded. It isn’t just compromise, but the creative building of something greater.  

And the magic of that ‘something greater’ in marital Conversation is often an increase in the experience of intimacy.  

To put this into the realm of erotic intimacy, it’s no accident that some of the best foreplay for a woman can extend to a number of hours (maybe all day).  [Thank you Steve Jobs.]  

The fuller traditional meaning of Conversation easily reaches into the realms of sexual intimacy.  (For an odd example, the legal term for adultery is still on many law books called “criminal conversation.”)

In summary, the gene pool can accomplish in the first months or years of a marriage the task of propelling us into sexual intimacy and play - for the sake of perpetuating the tribe. But the gene pool wasn’t designed to last much beyond about 35 years of age. (Way back when it was being formed, most folks didn’t live past that age.)  

In the meantime, a marriage grows in joy and intensity (and sexual intimacy) through the development of Conversation. Conversation teaches us to trust and then cherish our encounters with each other. That’s why sexual passion is often much greater in elder couples than can even be imagined by those in their 20’s and 30’s.

At the beginning of a session with a relatively new client, he or she may say “It was a good week, we had no problems.” I’ll think to myself, “Not much intimacy growing there yet!” I return to the Archbishop’s definition: Marriage is the life-long relationship of two persons continually exploring the mystery of each other. It can take a lot of courage to live within the vulnerability of such a relationship. And Conversation, the sitting down and willingly facing each other, is the medium and lubrication of that magical journey.

May it be ever so for both thee and me.

Pay Attention

Comments (4)

  • The whole person is a person who is on the one side open to God,
    and on the other side open to other people.
    It has been said that there is no true person
    unless there are two entering into communication with one another.
    The isolated individual is not a real person.
    A real person is one who lives in and for others.
    And the more personal relationships we form with others,
    the more we truly realize ourselves as persons.

    Source: Ordinary Graces Kallistos Ware

    — Cynthia, 3/2/2015
  • Bill – Would you please define the difference (if any) between conversation and communication between intimates.

    — Cynthia, 3/2/2015
  • Conversation or Communication

    Cynthia’s question:
    Conversation by its roots has a sense of turning back and forth to each other. Latin: verso/vertere = ‘turn’/ converter = ‘turn around’. Conversation generally presumes or invites a mutuality, a co-intimacy
    Communication is less personal. It has more of a one-way quality: I am giving information to you. It’s primary Latin root, munio, has a quality of defend, fortify, protect, secure, guard. Communication does not of itself presume or invite intimacy.

    — Bill McD, 3/3/2015
  • Sending this on!

    I can only hope my girls will read this when I pass it onto them. Your wisdom can help them if they will. They are 19 & 20 and will benefit not from just this one article but all. I am passing on your link!
    Thanks Bill for being you!

    — Barbara, 3/13/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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