Getting a Word in Edgewise / Seeking what Really Works
Dear Dr. Hurd,
My partner of 17 years has a son who is 27 years old. I know and like his son, and of course my partner’s quite proud of him. The problem is that he rarely talks about anything other than his son. When we are out with friends, it’s an endless diatribe about the boy’s latest job, or what he has accomplished, how he gets to work, what he cooked for dinner, etc., etc., ad nauseum. I know I take second place to his son, and that’s OK. Our friends feign interest and try to be polite, but they talk about it and make fun of him. I’m not sure how to approach him on this—if at all.
Dr. Hurd replies,
In cases like this, the verbal/direct approach is not always the solution. But there are alternatives. For example, you can dive in and change the subject. Don’t be rude, but wait for the apparently elusive “period” at the end of one of his sentences, then introduce a new subject. Or, better yet, ask someone else at the table about something you know is of interest to him or her—a child, grandchild, pet, job, career, etc. Interrupt if you must, but avoid it.
I like this approach because it sends a subtle yet potent message to your partner (assuming he notices and takes the hint). If he doesn’t, you have to consider other steps. But what do you think he’ll do when you shift the topic of conversation to something else? If your friends feel like you say they do, they’ll silently thank you.
When I work with socially anxious people, I suggest, “Ask questions. Most people like to talk about themselves. The top subjects are generally children, grandchildren, or pets.” Ironically, a socially anxious person would love your partner, because he happily fills the conversational void. This doesn’t solve your problem, but it suggests a technique for inviting others to step in with their interests in an effort to sidetrack your partner.
If he later expresses hurt and anger, don’t get defensive. Be ready and eager for a conversation about it. Just tell him what you wrote me. Explain that you realize his son is important to him, and you love that fact about him. But others have things they wish to discuss as well. Don’t condemn him, because he’ll take this as a criticism of loving his son, which is not your intention. All you’re asking for is more time for others to talk.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
As an advice columnist, you must receive lots of questions from people who are unhappy about one thing or another. An occupational hazard, I guess. Given that, I don’t expect you to print this. But I just want to say that I’ve lived here at the beach for over 14 years now, and I’ve never been happier. Of course, there are the everyday hiccups and tribulations with work and relationship, but all I have to do is walk out onto Lewes Beach at sunset or stroll the Rehoboth Boardwalk early in the morning and everything becomes a bit less significant.
I’m sure you get troubled input every day at your office, and frankly I don’t know how you do it. But after reading your various columns for so many years, I admire your fortitude. And again, you don’t have to print this.
Dr. Hurd replies,
People who know I’m a therapist usually assume that I’m analyzing everything people say or do. That’s not true. What I’m usually doing is trying to find out what works for them. I’m most interested in people who are reasonably happy. In other words, I like to know what makes them happy; what keeps them in their relationship; how they met; how they found the work they love, etc. It helps me in my ongoing attempts to help others (particularly clients).
When people seek my professional help, there are usually several conflicting events going in their life. Or perhaps they approach me for nothing more than perspective or guidance in one troubled area. I also learn from them. In fact, that’s why I selected your letter. It’s nice to remind people that it’s possible to be happy and that a lot of people do, in fact, celebrate life every day.
You ask me how I “do it.” Personally, I’m quite happy and I attribute that to the kinds of things you mention. For example, I deliberately selected an office on the east side of Coastal Highway so I could have easy access to the beach. After all, that’s the reason I went to the trouble of relocating my home and practice here 12 years ago. Contact with the central thing that brought me here helps me stay in the moment to achieve and maintain serenity and perspective.
A lot of people would have only considered the cost, the rent, licensing, general upheaval, etc., etc. Those things matter, but for me personal happiness trumps pretty much everything else. If that works for you and me, then it can work for a lot of other people too. And it’s with that knowledge that I look forward to going to work every day.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.