Too many non sequiturs - how to deal with communication prob in new rel?
June 9, 2015 4:42 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend is a great listener but often replies with non sequiturs or very general responses. Please help us solve this communication problem.

The best way to illustrate what's going on is probably with an example, so here goes:

Last night, I was talking to my boyfriend of ~1 year about my friend's relationship problems. Part of the conversation went something like this...

Me: "He's been with her for five years and feels a lot of pressure to make a decision regarding whether or not to get married. He really loves her and is committed to her, but he's not totally satisfied. He mentioned that he always imagined that his partner would be really active and energetic and playful and creative. He said something about how, when they were first going out, she had told him that she loved music and singing and used to sing in a choir, but in all of their years together he has never once heard her sing. He said she's very inactive; she just goes to work and then comes home and goes to bed and doesn't seem to have a lot of energy. He said that sometimes he imagines how nice it would be to overhear his partner singing in the shower."

My boyfriend: "Or they could shower together."

Me: "Sure, yeah. But I think his point was that he used to think she was the type of person who would sing in the shower. Ya know?"

My boyfriend: "I was making a separate point."

At that point, I felt a little frustrated but suppressed it and continued with the story.

This is a very typical structure for a conversation between my boyfriend and me. Many of my boyfriend's responses when I'm telling him a story or trying to get his input on something strike me as non sequiturs. Also, his responses usually follow a long period of him saying nothing at all while I talk (e.g., he very rarely says the usual "uh huh," "oh, I see," etc. while I'm talking---he just looks at me and stays silent until I'm done). In addition, I'll sometimes tell my boyfriend about something for a minute or two (e.g., "I talked to my Mom today, and she said that blah blah blah..."), and at the end, he'll give a very general response that doesn't show that he understood the point of my communication (e.g., "It's good that you talked to your Mom. I hope she's well.").

In the first couple months of our relationship, these behaviors led me to question whether my boyfriend was actually listening to me. But I asked him - gently - a few times if he was listening or was perhaps distracted by other things on his mind, and he always said something very positive and affirmed that he had been listening; he just preferred not to respond until I had said what I wanted to say. So, I fully believe that he is listening to me. Nevertheless, his responses still strike me as kind of... off. The result is that I get frustrated because I feel that he just isn't following what I'm saying or isn't getting the point of the story. And then I feel stifled and less enthusiastic to talk with him about other things. Also, I don't like to admit this, but I'm starting to feel a bit of resentment creep up each time I get an unsatisfying response. I worry that, at some point, I'm going to get angry and tell my boyfriend he's being weird or say something else that would be hurtful and destructive. I don't want that to happen.

So, I guess I'm not sure exactly what question to ask... One concern I have is that I'm simply being too sensitive or, for some reason, too critical. Maybe my expectations are just off. I honestly don't feel any motivation to nitpick at my boyfriend, but could it be that I'm spoiled by the fact that my other friends and I have more fluid and linear conversations? Maybe I need to give it more time for that to develop in this specific relationship.

Has anyone had a similar communication problem (feeling that a partner's responses were non sequiturs or just oddly general), and were you able to solve it?

I feel very comfortable talking to my boyfriend about our problems but don't know how to approach this one. I really don't want to hurt his feelings or make him feel that I'm criticizing his conversation skills. Any help would be much appreciated.
posted by NeverGrowSoOldAgain to Human Relations (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, by the way, I should have mentioned that my boyfriend will talk for long spans of time about the topics that interest him, and then we can have more engaged conversations. So, it is not the case that he is always quiet or short-winded (or that I'm talking his ear off all the time :) ). Thanks again.
posted by NeverGrowSoOldAgain at 4:51 PM on June 9, 2015


Maybe what you're saying seems a little pointless to him? From your descriptions alone, a lot of what you're saying seems to be you thinking out loud about other stuff, giving him a data dump, and expecting him to be engaged and interested. I know that seems like a reasonable expectation, but I have definitely dealt with people who didn't have a good sense of when the detail and stories they were unloading on me was, well, boring. And I have dealt with people (usually men) who have an especially low threshold and interest in meandering anecdotes (particularly gossip) that don't really involve them. (My own husband is a little like this.) Maybe your sense of nonsequiturs is him trying to change the direction of the conversation or signalling that he kind of doesn't care about the topic you're talking about?

On the other hand, I did know someone who gave true nonsequitur answers to reasonable conversation points and questions and he turned out to have a very serious neurological problem. But it was much much more confounding than the anecdote you've given here.
posted by vunder at 4:56 PM on June 9, 2015 [11 favorites]


In the example that you gave, why didn't you engage with the "separate point" that he was making? Conversations are two way streets, and I'd honestly be bored/offended by knowing that a conversation with my significant other was expected to follow a certain path which they'd predetermined.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 4:57 PM on June 9, 2015 [22 favorites]


There may be a disconnect in what you expect from him and what he hears. I know when I talk to my girlfriends, they give the appropriate responses, nodding and "yes! blah-blah-blah!" and that is so satisfying.

When I talk to my husband, sometimes he will not only not respond, but fall asleep. It's like the sound of my voice lulls him into nap mode. The only thing that wakes him up is food time or sexy times or what are we watching on TV times.

Other times, if it's something he's interested in, he perks right up. The Bourne Identity! Knives and how to do knife fighting! He can tell me how to defend myself against a knife fight (which will never happen, but put the bony part of your forearm foreward, FWIW), or any other manner of fighting. Squats and weights and kettlebells and all of that, suddenly he wakes up.

I don't think it is a flaw, but more what certain people are interested in. He may not be interested in the details of your friend's relationship. He may throw out a one-liner trying to solve it, because you are obviously distressed over it, and he is being helpful (in his mind).

But on the other hand, he is sweet in so many other ways, always texting me, "I love you, did I tell you how much I loved you today?" And running to the store for me, folding laundry very precisely, always offering to help, taking out the garbage with me asking. I read somewhere that men show their love more than talk about it and I am lucky that my husband does both. He can be a pill in other ways, but I like him, and we do manage to talk about other things on a regular basis. But yeah, the girlfriend things, that puts him to sleep.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:58 PM on June 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


Nevertheless, his responses still strike me as kind of... off. The result is that I get frustrated because I feel that he just isn't following what I'm saying or isn't getting the point of the story. And then I feel stifled and less enthusiastic to talk with him about other things.

This strikes me as the main part of the tiff. As long as you keep your frustration private, how will he know? Is there a reason you wouldn't say, in the example above, something like, "Oh haha, very funny, but how would you react in that situation, in all seriousness?" And if another jokey redirect comes up, "Look, I get the jokey stuff, but you're really bugging me here."

My partner and I have some definite conversational peeves with each other, but... we didn't know that until we started talking about them. We came up with an indicator phrase. For me, it's "ahem, palomino," (long story) and he instantly knows to snap to and drop the juvenile snickering commentary on whatever we're talking about. For him, he tells me, "OK dad," and I remember not to be patronizing and just listen.

Also, in the example you gave you're talking about relationship stuff. Other peoples' relationship stuff. Which, for a lot of folks, is supremely uncomfortable. If your bf frustrates you more when you talk about certain topics, maybe you're not picking up on the cues he's giving you that the conversation's giving him the icks and he wants to try to get you off topic without doing what I've just suggested to you--just simply telling you, "hey, can we talk about something else, or in a different way?"

TL;DR: why not ask your bf what you've asked metafilter?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:02 PM on June 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


The two examples you give would be situations where I'd probably respond, "Hm, ok." Is that better? More what you expect?

Sort of a tangential conversational peeve that gets mentioned a lot is one party treating every story/conversation as a problem to be solved when the other party really just wants to vent. Is it possible that this is his way of not trying to solve a problem unnecessarily?
posted by supercres at 5:07 PM on June 9, 2015


In the first couple months of our relationship, these behaviors led me to question whether my boyfriend was actually listening to me. But I asked him - gently - a few times if he was listening or was perhaps distracted by other things on his mind, and he always said something very positive and affirmed that he had been listening; he just preferred not to respond until I had said what I wanted to say. So, I fully believe that he is listening to me.

If he were really a great listener, he would understand that you were asking him to make more an an effort to engage with you, but the rest of the paragraph following that quote makes it clear that he hasn't done that. So I think he's an adequate listener at best, and the evidence for that isn't really there either, frankly.

I feel very comfortable talking to my boyfriend about our problems but don't know how to approach this one. I really don't want to hurt his feelings or make him feel that I'm criticizing his conversation skills.

In a relationship, you have to be able to to take risks to address the things that are important to you. You might be worried that if you this with him more directly, it will become abundantly clear that he won't be able to deliver what you need and you'll have to break up with him or reconsider whether you can be in a relationship that functions like this. I wouldn't want it, but a lot of people can deal with it, but either way hat's not something to worry over, it's something to find out about sooner rather than later.
posted by Kwine at 5:07 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


It sounds like your boyfriend is not very interested in these stories. This is his way of communicating that to you. It doesn't seem to be an effective way of communicating that.

I think of an ideal conversation as a true back-and-forth on a topic of mutual interest. From only the couple of examples presented here, it seems more like you are monologuing (or telling "stories") and expecting a simulacrum of a conversation from positive noises from his direction.

For example, while I care about the people close to me and about their relationships with others, I don't care at all about those people's relationships with people who are one more step removed. Many other people will not care either, and it seems like your boyfriend is unable or unwilling to convincingly pretend he cares.

It seems like it would be worth discussing this with him. Although if you want an effective conversation I would try to do it in a way that doesn't back him into a corner. So don't ask whether you bore him sometimes. Instead, you might say something like this: "Sometimes, I want to talk about some topic and it feels like you aren't engaged in that conversation. For example, the other day when I was telling the story about my friend wanting to hear his girlfriend sing sometime, you made a remark about them showering together. Is this because you would have rather talked about something else?"
posted by grouse at 5:11 PM on June 9, 2015 [15 favorites]


Been there, done that (maybe a little). A guy is maybe not very interested in the relationship problems of people he doesn't know well. He's happy to let you natter on, but feels he doesn't have much to add (besides the mandatory sexual remark).
posted by SemiSalt at 5:13 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Confession: I did this to partners in my younger, less honest days. It almost always meant that I didn't like the conversation and I wanted to have a different one, but I wasn't mature enough to express that clearly (or understand my reasons for it, much of the time).

It's possible that your BF is listening, but he'd prefer not to be, and he knows that replying with something on-topic is just going to continue this conversation he dislikes for whatever reason. So maybe he goes weird, hoping to come up with something more palatable.
posted by yomimono at 5:24 PM on June 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


His "separate point" sounded to me like he was suggesting that your friend complaining about his girlfriend's activity level might be code for a very specific type of activity level. Or else he's making a joke to distance the conversation from this super-awkward topic of friends' relationship problems, because ick.

If it's a conversation, ask "what do you mean?" and engage with what he's bringing to the table. It sounds like you're ignoring his contribution to the conversation. If it's constant jokey asides, then that's frustrating and you can ask to be listened to seriously for 10 minutes. But this sounds like neither of your are satisfying either partner's conversation.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:26 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


To me it sounds like he's not interested in what you're saying and is not really paying attention and/or is being indirect (maybe even passive aggressive) but not particularly subtle about letting you know that you're boring him.

I don't get all the folks acting like this is your fault, conversations do have their give and take, and maybe he's not riveted by x, y or z but he should either try and take (or at least feign) an interest because whatever this is is important enough to you that you need to talk about it, OR tell you that this makes him uncomfortable or that you are providing too much detail (if that's the problem). And frankly it sounds like he's happy to take when it's a topic of his choosing, he's just not willing to give when it's not.

I listen to my husband tell stories about tricky electrical wiring situations, not because I'm AT ALL interested in tricky electrical wiring situations (bored to tears more like) but because it's IMPORTANT to him and so I try to actively pay attention and listen to what he's really saying, not just ignore what he is needing to talk about (frustration, pride, worry, whatever) to make some unrelated point. And yes sometimes he goes into a crazy level of detail that I will never be able to understand or that I am just too tired for and I'll tell him, "dude, I can't handle that much detail/can you give me the condensed version" or something like that. But I respond to what is important to HIM rather than just blowing it off by trying to change the subject mid-conversation.

And he listens to me tell stories about my best friend's relationship troubles because they effect her happiness which effects mine and he cares about that. We don't do this often but the whole "men don't care about and shouldn't have to ever talk about relationships" thing strikes me as weirdly sexist.
posted by pennypiper at 5:48 PM on June 9, 2015 [40 favorites]


You might be interested in this thread, particularly lollusc's comment.
posted by Questolicious at 6:00 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


** Damn. Affect not effect. **
posted by pennypiper at 6:02 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think he tunes out about 95% of what you're saying, then when you pause, frantically rewinds the last sentence you said and makes a quick "joke" based on what he thinks it's about:

you: "Let me tell you about Ralph and Sarah's relationship!"
him: "great!" (internally: hmm, what about that game-- I bet if I put the blue piece ahead of the red piece I can beat Gary tomorrow. Do we have beer in the kitchen? If not, was I supposed to buy it? Oh crap, I have to go to the credit union tomorrow and get a cashier's check for that thing. And it's my mom's birthday next week and I gotta get her a card.)
you: "..singing in the shower."
long pause, you stare at him and wait.
him: (frantically reviewing convo he remembers, trying to come up with something plausible when the only clues he has is "Sarah and Ralph's relationship" and "singing in the shower") "they...could...shower... together?"

My husband has diagnosed actual adult ADD and the above pattern happens quite a bit-- to me, his friends, and his family, talking about any topics, even ones that he really likes. Only when he says a non-sequitur I just start laughing. Then he's like, "What? What's funny about showering together?" and I say, "Dude, I was telling you how Ralph is sad that Sarah doesn't sing anymore, not even in the shower. He is having an actual life crisis trying to decide whether he can survive with less joy in his relationship than he anticipated, and you made it into a really lame shower sex joke." Then he realizes his brain tapped out somewhere along the way and tells me where he lost the thread, and if it's important, I go through the story again.
posted by holyrood at 6:06 PM on June 9, 2015 [19 favorites]


I have a friend like this, and dated a few guys who had this "tic." It's maddening and I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to not waste those years. It's a different communication style - sometimes I'm able to engage like this with my friend, and sometimes I just go "Not today, sorry." And we don't talk for a while. To me it's one of those tiny little things that make me realize the person I'm talking to is not the person for me.

For what it's worth my husband knows exactly how to respond to my inane stories and stream-of-consciousness rants, and thus we're a better match. I personally don't think you can change how this guy works, but I wanted to let you know that I understand exactly what frustrations you're talking about. You guys haven't been together for a crazy long time so far and might just chuck it up to being more incompatible than you originally thought.
posted by erratic meatsack at 6:30 PM on June 9, 2015 [13 favorites]


my boyfriend will talk for long spans of time about the topics that interest him ... his responses usually follow a long period of him saying nothing at all while I talk (e.g., he very rarely says the usual "uh huh," "oh, I see," etc. while I'm talking---he just looks at me and stays silent until I'm done).

I'm someone that will talk for long spans of time about topics that interest me, sometimes to a fault of talking over or at someone rather than with them. When other people are talking, I try to make it a point to let them talk and focus on listening, because left to my own devices, I tend to dominate conversations.

(e.g., "I talked to my Mom today, and she said that blah blah blah..."), and at the end, he'll give a very general response that doesn't show that he understood the point of my communication (e.g., "It's good that you talked to your Mom. I hope she's well.")

What do you expect in response to your statement? Unless the blah blah blah was, "and she has cancer," I'm not sure that a generic statement about a distant person merits more than a generic response. If this is a specific incident in your mind, can you provide some more details? I've always had a pleasant but distant relationship from all of my partners' parents, so while I'm happy to listen to my partners talk about conversations with their parents, it's not going to be particularly interesting or engaging unless something important happened.

Similarly, other than a general statement of agreement in response to the singing comment, what were you hoping for? Especially if he's not really close to your friend, hearing awkward details about someone's feelings that their partner of five years is not the person that they want to be with sounds like an uncomfortable situation to be in, especially he has picked up on your discontent and might think that you're using it as a proxy to complain about your relationship with him. It can be really weird knowing intimate details of people's lives if you're not close to them but will see them every now and then at a dinner party and know that he's deeply unhappy with her.

His suggestion of them showering together is a little strange; without knowing the tone of voice it's hard to judge if he was trying to diffuse tension by making an awkward joke, making an actual suggestion that being physically intimate might help their relationship, or just being odd.

I worry that, at some point, I'm going to get angry and tell my boyfriend he's being weird or say something else that would be hurtful and destructive.

If his style of communication is not so off that you just want to end things, then you need to start addressing things as they happen before they get that bad. Either he'll learn what bothers you and stop doing it or maybe he's not the right one for you.
posted by Candleman at 6:59 PM on June 9, 2015


Thanks, All, for your helpful comments and insights. In retrospect, I chose a terrible example that seems to have triggered some macho-guy stereotypes that do not apply here. My boyfriend was actually not making a sexual joke when he suggested that my friend and his partner shower together. He was completely serious and looked quite concerned and was trying to be helpful. Also, he had asked me to tell him what was going on with my friend's relationship, so that was not just a case of me thinking aloud (which is not to say that I'm not guilty of that here and there). He's from a culture where everyone talks about their cousin's friend's relationship problems and then tries to solve it more or less as a community, so the topic of conversation was actually totally comfortable and seemingly of great interest for him (and I listen and respond to similar stories from him on the regular... which was new to me at first). I should have provided more info about these details up front. But anyway, I think the most important piece of advice here is to just talk to him about it. If it is simply that I've miscalculated what he wants to hear about and have been boring him, that's an easy problem to fix. So, we'll see.
posted by NeverGrowSoOldAgain at 7:13 PM on June 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Since he's indicated his desire to let you speak, could you add a question at the end of the story you're relating? For example, "... He said that sometimes he imagines how nice it would be to overhear his partner singing in the shower. Do you think there's anything he could do?" Or if you talked to your mom today and it was good—say that it was good and he can acknowledge it.

I think you're reasonable in wanting a bit more engagement but also that you're expecting him to read your mind a bit.
posted by JackBurden at 7:31 PM on June 9, 2015


I do regularly ask questions and actively engage him, whether it's a topic that I brought up or he brought up. I think Questolicious's redirect to lollusc's comment on another post nails it on the head. When he tells me for the fourth time how many publications researchers X, Y, and Z have, I do my best to make it into a reasonably engaging conversation by asking follow-up questions, mirroring, etc. When I tell him about [my friend's relationship, thing I read today, whatever...] I feel that he's waiting for me to deliver all the information at once. At the end, he gives me a single response, which is usually in the form of a practical suggestion (and sometimes not a very on-point one). I think I'm expecting a conversation but getting a solution, and that's what's frustrating me. I'll talk with him about it so that we can better understand each other's expectations/preferences.
posted by NeverGrowSoOldAgain at 7:37 PM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]


So, if he gave you one of these off point responses, and you said "it seems like you may not have understood what the point of my story was. What did you just hear me say?" (you'd have to be sure to say this in a mild way rather than putting him on the defensive by saying it in an angry way) I'd be supremely curious to know what he said. I'm guessing he could not answer that question in a satisfactory way. Because based on his responses, I really think that even if he's not aware of his lack of attention, he couldn't possibly be really paying attention and listening to you.

To me, it doesn't seem at all that you're trying to monologue and just expecting him to cough up an appropriate "mmm hmm" or other "simulacrum of conversation." I actually really like the anecdote you chose, because I think it's an interesting conversation opener. Yes, on the surface, it's just a rehashing of a friend's relationship woes, so in that sense, it might not seem that relevant or fascinating to him (although in your follow up I see that he indicated to you he was interested in that friend's relationship) - but there's really a deeper subtext to it. Why are so many people content to live shallow lives? Can people really be happy just coming home from work, watching TV and going to bed, and having that be All There Is? I kind of feel like there's endless fodder for an existential discussion there. I'm with you that I'd be super annoyed that he seemed to completely miss the point, not only on the deeper level, but even on the superficial one ("yeah, it's strange she's given up on those hobbies. Maybe they're just not a good match and they need to finally hang up the towel.")

Speaking of bad matches... I'm kind of wondering if you and your boyfriend really are a good match based on this. I think you have to consider further whether this is a pattern that happens mainly with conversations about relationships and emotional stuff with your friends and family, or if that's not a theme and sometimes he's able to perceptively discuss relationship issues and other times not, and then figure out why sometimes he's able to be on point and others not. Because I like to chat about relationships and emotions - maybe that's part of why I like AskMe Human Relations questions - and one of the things I like about my husband is that most of the time, he's able to pretty cannily discuss those sorts of things with me, and come back with insightful comments. If he wasn't able to do that in conversations I was going to be having with him on a daily basis, I think for me it would be a deal breaker.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:29 PM on June 9, 2015 [8 favorites]


Hm. Difficult. What if you throw it back at him? I.e. "So how is showering together going to solve his frustration?"
I mean, I'd be generally curious.
If he goes on waffling, ask more directly for what you want. "I want to know whether you think what friend said is concerning?"
posted by Omnomnom at 1:41 AM on June 10, 2015


He might be on the autism spectrum. My ex is like this, and he's a sweet and conscientious person, but he's never going to be good at figuring out what other people are thinking. A conversation where he'd have to figure out what you think someone else cares about? Not gonna happen, ever.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get what he was saying. He meant your friend should stop whining, relax and enjoy being with his lovely girlfriend Sarah. Instead of complaining that she does't sing in the shower, he should get in the shower with her and appreciate how beautiful and sexy she is. Some people are a bit obscure and like to phrase things in the form of quips. God knows I'm like that. I can't help it and neither can he.
posted by w0mbat at 3:41 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


it sounds like he just doesn't engage with the world in a way that tickles your fancy. i've been in those shoes. we both ended up bored and resentful. you can't force him to get your point, or to see why xyz is fascinating, if his brain just doesn't work that way.
posted by iahtl at 12:01 AM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


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