My boyfriend and I have had a lot of serious conversations about marriage and kids, as those are things we want in the next two years. We are both single parents to two-year-old boys, and we’d like to add two or three more children to our family. The problem is that when the conversation turns serious, he immediately starts making jokes, and comes across as if the discussion isn’t important to him. Even when he says he wants to have a serious discussion and initiates it, it’s in such a joking manner that I don’t know whether or not he is being serious.
I’ve explained that it irritates me, that I don’t feel heard, and it pushes me away, because I don’t feel as if I know the real him. I’ve explained that I prefer these conversations to have a serious tone, because no one in my family is able to talk about serious things without balking, or leaving the discussion altogether. I understand that he may be using it to cope because he’s not had many of these conversations (his parents are very buttoned up about serious issues).
I don’t want him to feel as if I’m trying to control his emotions and the way he reacts to things, but I’m starting to see it as him not being able to be vulnerable and genuine with me about his thoughts and feelings.
There could be a few reasons he doesn’t want to talk too seriously, even if he initiates it – and one of them might be that he doesn’t feel the same as you do about your futures, but is scared to tell you. He might not be reticent about everything you have planned, just parts of it: he might just not be in the same place as you yet. It sounds as if you both have quite a lot going on already, so he may want to keep things as they are for a while.
You say he starts making jokes the moment the conversation gets serious, and, as I understand it, that’s a change from previous behaviour. Do you know when this started to happen? Or does he begin to make jokes at the mention of a particular subject – in which case, you may need to look at what that is. In your (understandable) need for answers, might you have changed the way you start a conversation? Because we do often need to look at our own place in these things.
I contacted psychotherapist Chris Mills about your problem. Mills was hopeful: “The good news is that you’ve had serious conversations before, so clearly the template is there, but if you’ve both grown up with parents who were no good at talking about serious stuff then confidence on how to find a shared ‘tone’ might be low. Awkwardness or anxiety could cause one to come across as rather intense and the other to seem jokey and ungrounded.”
Mills recommended some fact-finding. You could start with saying something like, “I [remember ‘I’ statements are less inflammatory than ‘you’ ones] don’t feel comfortable when we try to talk about important things: we seem to be on a slightly different page… you don’t seem to be taking things very seriously. Is that true, or am I reading you wrong?” And take it from there.
He also suggested an exercise that allows you both to talk about what you do and don’t want to happen in the future. “You could say something like, ‘Thinking about the next few years, what would be your top three things for us to get in place? And what three things are you equally sure you don’t want to happen? Why don’t you start and then I’ll tell you what mine are.’” This approach is useful, because it’s a conversation, not a confrontation.
I also wondered if something in your relationship has changed and you’ve become the person who moves the relationship forward and has “the conversations”. “I often see this,” explained Mills (whose speciality is couples), “in heterosexual couples where the man ‘defers’ the emotional communication to the woman and tries to keep his own feelings hidden, as if they’re irrelevant or a nuisance, or in danger of upsetting the woman, whom he mistakenly feels is his job to keep happy.”
If your boyfriend still won’t, or can’t, talk to you, then I think you need to ask him when would be a good time for him to talk. And if that time never seems to come, then I’m afraid you may need to be having a very different sort of conversation.
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