How do I get my boyfriend to stop repeating himself endlessly?
July 4, 2012 2:26 PM   Subscribe

My wonderful boyfriend gets stuck on one topic of conversation for days at a time and has trouble talking about anything else. How do I kindly get him unstuck next time before he drives me insane?

My boyfriend has the capacity to talk about one single topic longer than anyone I've ever met. Though the topics differ, they are almost always related to specific technical aspects of his job that I don't understand, and I can't contribute to the conversation. I think this constant chatter is a way for him to think out loud and work out his job-related difficulties with the help of a sounding board, but in the meantime, he doesn't realize that he's constantly steering each and every conversation we have around to the same damn topic.

An example of a common topic is whether or not he should buy a new machine for jst his studio. He'll make a decision, then second-guess his decision, then talk about the decision endlessly in twenty- to thirty-minute bursts at regular intervals for up to a week.

I've tried asking questions and learning about the X machine to get involved in the conversation, but he gets annoyed because I don't understand the most technical aspects. I've tried patient and reflective listening, but this fuels the fire even more. I've tried steering the conversation to practical matters we need to discuss, like what we need to pick up at the supermarket, but he gets angry with me for not listening. He does this at dinner, during movies, with friends, and with my parents, and I'm pretty sure it bores and confuses everyone, though everyone's too polite to say so. It certainly bored the bejeesus out of me, and I sometimes go for days without ever getting to tell him about my day or something funny that happened to me because he's stuck in this one place. I've said this to him, but he gets really defensive and upset that I "don't care" about his topic of the week. I get really anxious trying to think of new questions to ask him so he doesn't accuse me of not caring and it's kind of wearying.

It's not like this is a big dealbreaker in our relationship, but I would love it if someone could point out where I'm going wrong in communicating why this is so frustrating for me! I want to do it kindly. I'd love it if the end goal were that our conversations were less one-sided since I'm sure his obsessiveness is an inborn trait and can't be changed, but I'd be happy if I could just make him understand that just because I can't talk about one topic that for several days in a row, it doesn't mean I don't care about him.

Please assume that I've said all of the above to him and am looking for alternate ways to word this. Or if you think I'm a jerk for not being a patient enough girlfriend or appreciating that this is how his decision-making process works, it's alright for you to say that, too. Perspective helps!
posted by pineappleheart to Human Relations (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Please excuse all the typos, by the way. I'm A/C-less in New York and it's frying my brain.
posted by pineappleheart at 2:28 PM on July 4, 2012

I suffer from this.

My girlfriend sat me down and explained some of the same things you mention here (you don't understand what he's talking about, it bores you and often you have more pressing things to talk about.) She explained that she loved my enthusiasm about my interests but I need to understand that she has interests too and I need to learn to manage multiple conversations. I wasn't as defensive about it as your boyfriend is, so YMMV, but you shouldn't feel weary talking to him.

Now, she just has to say "honey, you're doing it again" and I will take a break from whatever it is I am talking about. She more than makes up for it by actively listening when I have something I am excited about. It's manageable.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 2:30 PM on July 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Why doesn't he have any friends in his field who actually get the technical stuff to talk it over with? Just because someone is your SO doesn't give you permission to unload conversationally on them all the time with things they're not interested in. Five minutes when he's had a particularly important day with (technical thing X) and has been thinking about it alot is fine, then he should drop it and talk it over with someone else who gets it. Obviously he wants you to understand him, his interests and what he's doing with his life, but more than that is rude and inconsiderate of him.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:33 PM on July 4, 2012

Just talk about whether to get your split ends cut for three or four days. Do not cut your hair or make a concrete decision. Do not allow deviation from the topic. Do not allow him to walk away or ignore you.

If he doesn't get it after that, break up with him.
posted by SassHat at 2:36 PM on July 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Have you tried talking about the difference between caring about him and caring about whether he buys the new doohickey? Because it sounds as though he's conflating the two, thinking that your degree of attention and interest in his job and his technical questions is the same as your degree of attention and interest in him. That's why he gets upset when he thinks you don't care about these obsessions.

I think you need to admit that you don't care about these things. Just admit it. Tell him that you've pretended to care because you care about him and his feelings and want him to be happy, but that other than insofar as it makes him happy, you don't give a crap about the work stuff, mostly because you have no idea what he's talking about. But you have to be clear that you love him, you care about him, and you care about how he feels about the problems and triumphs in his life.

If he can't accept that, I think it might be time to start thinking about whether this is the right relationship for you. It's not fair at all of him to talk constantly about things you don't understand, then get mad at you for not understanding them and investing in them as heavily as he does.
posted by decathecting at 2:36 PM on July 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

he gets really defensive and upset that I "don't care" about his topic of the week.

First of all, has your partner been screened for Asperger syndrome? Second of all, you need to get up front and okay with YES, not caring AT ALL about whatever boring topic he's on. "Dude, no, I don't care if you get a new machine for your studio, but that doesn't mean I don't care about you or that I don't support whatever decision you make." And then refuse to apologise for that because it is utterly reasonable and totally how other relationships work.

Note: Albert and Elsa Einstein did not discuss theoretical physics at home, but still needed groceries and laundry.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:41 PM on July 4, 2012 [30 favorites]

This is one of those cases where it's really hard to say how to respond without knowing you, him, and your relationship.

Like, what did you (once?) talk about? What do you have in common? What is it that holds you together aside from talking that you... do? (Activities that would take his mind off things... anything from running to playing an impromptu Magic: The Gathering game to sex). Regardless, he's the one who's totally ignoring your presence and treating himself as if he was (essentially) alone with his thoughts. It's unclear if this is a phase, a personality trait, a product of stress, a sign he's not captivated enough with the stuff that used to stimulate your conversations, etc.

I'm tempted to guess that it's likely a personality trait, even if one you weren't always exposed to equally, combined with stress. I find that geeky type guys of a certain mold tend to... um, go 110% into 'the thing' they do (work or play) when stressed. Artists are like that, too. But no one said artists weren't assholes.

I personally think you should confront him on this directly. Talk about you two, talk about what you used to talk about, talk about a movie you go see, etc. Ask him for his attention, and if he says no he's an asshole. Also, distract him with stuff you know he likes-- whatever that is, treat him to a mini-vacation. It sounds like his work has eaten his brains. Gently suggest he needs time off, and it doesn't work, kidnap him on Saturday morning and don't let him go till Sunday night. Well, kidnap him with his consent. Ahem.

I don't think you necessarily need alternate ways to word it. 'Why are you always needing to talk about work stuff? You're driving me slowly but irrevocably mad' is not unreasonable. I once had a guy who would not shut up about his issues that were never resolved no matter what, so I know whereof I speak (though we had still had other subjects for conversation, or I really would have gone mad). Conversation (you may explain) is the glue of a relationship of any kind, not just romantic. What do you do if you don't have bonding, mutual conversations? You're no better than strangers on a bus, or in a lunch joint (just because the lunch joint is at your house means little, really).

Anyway, he needs to snap out, if he can (can he? like I said, I don't know what the real problem is). I realize no one really tends to 'snap out of' serious issues, if indeed it's an issue for him, so who knows. The 'why' is really important. Mostly, if indeed you're together for good reason, conversation that is satisfactory to both of you must be part of that reason, so, well, get in touch with that. Set boundaries-- you can do that too. 'Stop, I can't handle this subject anymore tonight' is a valid option; if he whines, that too may be addressed separately. Try talking about your period 4 hours a day for a week and see how he feels. Suggest he keep a diary or write out his thoughts. Anyway, a 'sounding board' is all well and good, but you may say you don't feel you're really contributing much, and would suggest he upgrade to something more useful, like a note-talking organizing software program.
posted by reenka at 2:42 PM on July 4, 2012

Just breaking in to say that he doesn't do this all the time and I don't think he's a selfish dick. We can go for a few weeks without this happening and our relationship functions like a pretty typical one where we have common interests and private jokes and we cook and watch movies together and he asks me about my day.

And yes, if someone put a gun to my head and said, "Does your boyfriend have Asperger's, yes or no?" I'd say yes. (See my previous thread about his memory problems.)
posted by pineappleheart at 2:49 PM on July 4, 2012

I can't tell if you really had a conversation with him about this. If so, what did you say?
posted by J. Wilson at 2:52 PM on July 4, 2012

Has he seen a doctor, yet? Even just a therapist?

Because, really, a lot of strain is being put on you, and it's great that you're willing to compromise so much, but it's not healthy for either of you, ultimately.
posted by batmonkey at 3:04 PM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I sometimes go for days without ever getting to tell him about my day
This is not acceptable. Please tell him explicitly that this is not acceptable. Explicitly, loudly, and repetitively, while brandishing a cheesy-yet-quantitatively-researched relationship manual by Dr. John Gottman (sparklyfont)Ph.D.(/sparklyfont).

Sincere commiserations. I have been forced to such measures myself (and can report that mrs_goldfish now responds to the same cues as Rodrigo Lemaitre).
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:11 PM on July 4, 2012

Oh, yes. What happened with the memory thing? Is he still doing that? I'm starting to wonder if he is constantly compensating for some kind of cognitive issue and always feeling overloaded as a result. But he doesn't know everyone feels that way or that there's any way of dealing with it other than pushing himself up to the max. The forgetfulness and the obsessiveness my be because he is spreading himself too thin, mentally.

It's not fair at all of him to talk constantly about things you don't understand, then get mad at you for not understanding them and investing in them as heavily as he does.

This is what I would tell him. You accept that come level of repetition is part of his process and he accepts that sometimes you're not going to be interested or able to follow.
posted by BibiRose at 3:14 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also suffer from this, though for non-technical things. Mostly things and topics i'm really excited about that my wife is not (there's plenty that she is excited about, but there are certain areas where our interests do not overlap). It also doesn't sound as extreme as your situation.

My wife and I have had to sit down and talk alot about this and after much discussion we've settled on this script. Now, we normally don't talk to each other this way, but this is the only way we've found to figure out this problem...and we've talked about it, and it is a script. We both know it's a script, and it tries to suss out the problem without our feelings being hurt (even though we're both allowed for our feelings to be hurt)

Me- blah blah blah, oh man, this is so rad, blah blah blah.
Mrs- I'm not listening to you. I totally tuned out.
Me- Oh shit, i'm doing it again.
Mrs- Yeup. Can we talk about this later when I can focus on it a bit more?
Me- Totally. But I'm going to have to act a little butthurt for the next 5 minutes or so.

This works (for us, maybe not you) very well.
posted by furnace.heart at 3:15 PM on July 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

As someone who has a bit of this, all I can say is that you're going to have to talk to him about it, probably more than once. You're going to have to get him to understand that while you can't be his sounding board for these kinds of ideas, you still care about him and want to support him in every way that you can support him, just not this way.

Gently explain to him that when he talks about this stuff you feel like he's talking at you rather than with you, and that it's not a subject that has inherent interest for you or one which you are likely to become expert enough in to be of any real use to him. Explain that it comes off as a bit selfish and rude when someone talks your ear off for half an hour about something you don't know or care much about.

Suggest that if he needs an outlet/sounding board/advisor for these questions then maybe he should seek out an internet forum for people in his field, or find someone IRL who he can befriend and who likes talking about this stuff.

Get him on board with the idea of finding some other outlet and being better about not repeatedly steering conversations into areas that aren't mutually interesting. A little bit is OK, a lot is not. Expect him to slip up frequently, and gently redirect him. Know that over time he will likely get better about this but that it will never be perfectly "solved". Learn to forgive the part that cannot be changed, and eventually learn to love him for it.

There isn't a simple fix, but coming from the other side of your issue, I think this is likely the best path in the long run.
posted by Scientist at 3:57 PM on July 4, 2012

My husband has ADHD and does this. He drives everyone a little crazy. One time he was famously stuck on bio-diesel; now it's cappuccino machines. I think we're just superly patient with him and accept it is a part of who he is. Some gentle ribbing has also helped him realize when he's going into this mode.
posted by Calzephyr at 4:01 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

nthing furnace.heart's approach for dealing with this issue.

It seems my husband has as much smaller problem than your boyfriend, but what has helped us is furnace.heart's approach, slightly modified. There's no script, per se, but honesty...

e.g. HIM: Blah blah concrete blah blah more concrete blah blah
ME: Sorry, I am not listening to you at all. Oops. [Making loveable face, nonthreatening and nonhostile pose]
HIM: Ha! Well, blah blah blah concrete blah what would you say if I said that to you?
ME: If it's my right to speak, it's also my right to not get listened to occasionally. But X thing you were just talking about reminded me of Y thing [doesn't have to be related to X thing at all really]
OR: ... Why are we talking about this really? Pretty boring day at work, eh? [Drawing attention to why I might not be interested in it, or it's not that interesting etc. and bridging the way to him discussing deeper issues that might be at play, for which he's using boring topic X]
HIM: Oh, yeah well ... [usually further discussion of something else, related to my comments]

If nothing changes in the conversation, I will tend to repeat the "Sorry, not listening again" or, at times, pick up a book or start watching TV and then my husband gets that I'm really not going to participate that much/at all. In the latter cases, if my husband keeps talking then usually "hmmms" and "really?" "yes?no" responses suffice.

To minimise any drama from this, I very strongly recommend all if this being done with playfulness and offering your boyfriend the outlet to talk about X or Y, but much more minimally. Reassurance you are actually interested generally is also good.

This technique is now so ingrained in my house that all I have to do is look at my husband, gesture at his body, and say in a funny voice of some kind "This, all of this I am not listening to right now. Sorry!" This generally gets a smile and kisses.
posted by thetarium at 5:43 PM on July 4, 2012

"I've tried asking questions and learning about the X machine to get involved in the conversation, but he gets annoyed because I don't understand the most technical aspects"

Assuming you are genuinely interested, I'd say this is exactly the right approach. If not, you should be clear about it, kindly but frankly. Him getting annoyed is where this goes off the rails. When he acts annoyed, that should signal the end of your participation in the discussion of his topic. Talk to him about how it makes you feel. You might find what you read as annoyance, is at least partly frustration with his own communication skills, and you can help him with that. If not, well then he needs to find another sounding board.

If you're able to make some progress on this, eventually you want to be a good mirror for him and help him understand he needs to reign this impulse in at social events. Don't try to address both at the same time.
posted by Manjusri at 6:12 PM on July 4, 2012

Has he admitted at all that he does this and needs to do this less and be less defensive when you point it out?

"I think this constant chatter is a way for him to think out loud and work out his job-related difficulties with the help of a sounding board, but in the meantime, he doesn't realize that he's constantly steering each and every conversation we have around to the same damn topic."

In our house, this is called "Externalizing your internal monologue." As in, "Dude, you've been externalizing your internal monologue for 20 minutes. I get to talk now." Usually I say it in an affectionate manner, but before we came to an understanding, I sometimes snapped it. I would get really frustrated because I really felt like he was overwriting MY internal monologue and I didn't get to think my own thoughts in peace because he would spew this logorrhea about Stress Topic for DAYS, and that would shoot my anxiety through the roof until I got a break to think my own things. (It's improved.)

So, given that my husband recognizes that he sometimes does this, and that when he's preoccupied he doesn't always notice when he's starting to do it, here are some of the things I say:

"I am in the middle of something right now and I can't stop unless this is imminently important. Is it? ... Okay, go away for ten minutes and then I will come listen with my full attention."
"You have been talking for 20 minutes and at this point you're just going round and round. Can we talk about something else now?"
"It doesn't sound like you're talking TO me, just thinking out loud. I'm happy to keep listening, but I don't think you actually need me for this part."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:13 PM on July 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have had a history of being the person who will listen patiently, all the while going insane with boredom in my head, and then finally snapping about how I can't stand another minute. I don't recommend that approach! What I now find works better is owning my annoyance early enough that I can be playful about it instead. So let's say my boyfriend can't stop nattering on about his antique mothball collection, I'll listen and engage as long as I can do it happily, and then I'll say, "oh baby, I have hit the mothball wall, let's go make dinner", or "no offense, honey, but I am just all mothballed out today." I basically find it much easier to put the focus on my mental ability to absorb and interact with the topic, as opposed to how I can't believe he is going on about it again.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 8:05 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I know that whether or not to purchase this gadget is important to you and I'm sure you'll make the right decision in the end. But I need you to know that I feel frustrated and bored when the conversation doesn't include areas of interest to me. I want you to feel free to tell me about your day and your work problems but I also want you to ask me about my day and not always bring every talk we have back to the same subject. This is important to me."

Validate his interest in the subject and its importance to him. Own your own feelings and make a clear direct request for the change you want.

Maybe you've already tried this.
posted by dchrssyr at 9:39 PM on July 4, 2012

"Hey fella, new topic. For real. Right now."
posted by ead at 12:33 AM on July 5, 2012

I'm going on 27 years with the same (diagnosed) Aspie partner and it is very difficult. Firstly he has to accept that this is a thing he does that is communicatively different from so called "normal" communicative patterns. Watch a few episodes of the Big Bang theory for jokes but seriously see if you can get him interested in reading more about Autistic Spectrum Conditions (NB NOT Disorders, these are communicative conditions that can be managed)

If he can accept there is an issue, second step is how this issue makes you feel. The whole crap about ASCs having no empathy/humour, etc., etc., is really old and just that:-crap. But some of them do have real difficulty understanding the impact of their particular communicative patterns on other people, ESPECIALLY the people they can relax around. It does seem that he is conflating the problem with an implicit rejection of HIM rather than rejection of his particular communicative idiosyncracies. So be reassuring.

There are plenty of resources out there, books like Married to Mr Spock that can guide you towards some strategies that can help, but it will come down to trial and error to find a strategy that works for you. Also be careful that they strategy can work in public also. What's really heartbreaking is seeing all that enthusiasm and knowing from the body language of those around you that they think your partner is just plain weird. Once you've worked out something that helps between the 2 of you, you can then move onto something that works in public. feel free to Memail me.
posted by Wilder at 4:24 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

lots more resources in this thread
posted by Wilder at 4:25 AM on July 5, 2012

Always go for the nice and gentle approach before loud and firm. Nice and gentle can still be clear and forthright.
posted by victory_laser at 5:38 AM on July 5, 2012

Suggest one of his friends for him to go call.

"Honey, you realize I don't know anything about your studio, right? I understand you're worried about making the right decision, but I'm not a person who can be very useful to you right now. I like feeling useful, so the situation is a little frustrating for me, because there's really nothing I can do for you that a soundproof booth couldn't do just as well. Maybe you and [Jo] should get together tonight, I know we were cooking dinner but I can totally spare you for a while if you want to go call them."

If necessary (i.e. "so let me educate you"), point out that even if he shares the information with you, that won't give you an outside opinion, and [Jo] is really a better person for that conversation.
posted by aimedwander at 11:07 AM on July 5, 2012

Embroider this on a sampler surrounded by hearts, frame, and put someplace where you both can see it daily.

Albert and Elsa Einstein did not discuss theoretical physics at home, but still needed groceries and laundry.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:05 PM on July 5, 2012

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