#1115: “Shop talk for married people.”

Would you like to read about nice people with good problems today? Good! Me too!

Hello Captain,

This question may fall under “general conversation skills,” but as I haven’t seen it on the blog, I’m writing. My spouse and I are both academics, in the same discipline. Her career is hitting some bumpy spots (high teaching load, few publications, not a great institution) whereas mine is going gangbusters (low teaching load, books & articles, awesome institution). That’s stressful, but we’re working it out (we have a distance situation, to compound things). What is really challenging is a conversational pattern we’re falling into, where talking shop feels like an emotional minefield. And our work involves a lot of our respective personal identities and time, so it’s hard to avoid discussing.

The fuller picture: I prefer “talking” about my area of expertise in writing. I avoided talking about it in grad school with my peers, really dislike Q&A at conferences, and kinda work alone, except when I read with other people (my work is pretty textual). My wife likes to talk in person, at conferences, and over post-conference dinners, and she likes to puzzle through ideas out loud. I often don’t want to, though I will–but she can tell that I’m not into it, and it makes her sad. Sometimes I feel like she’s talking a lot, and not listening to my desire to stop, change conversation, or to tell her that I just don’t know (and am not interested in figuring out the issue at the moment).

But she has expressed feeling not only sad, but feeling like my reticence is a signal that her work isn’t good, that I don’t respect her, and so on. But that’s not true–she’s awesome! And in fact, despite some outward success, I have the “imposter” feeling lots of academics do, and I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal. I sometimes share stuff, too, but it’s more “hey, I read this cool thing” or “I got this article done,” and not a give-and-take. Sometimes we can manage, like if we trade things we’re writing, or have a very clear focus. But casually bringing up work often turns into hurt feelings and an argument.

One more piece of (perhaps not relevant) info. Despite being in the same area, we work differently. She agreed the other day that I would not be the person she would normally seek out to chat about her work, because of our methodologies and focus. But we respect each other’s work–though given our conversational patterns, she doesn’t feel like I respect hers.

We do pretty good communicating elsewhere, I think, but this pattern is starting to get embedded, and I don’t want to hurt her. We’ve talked about just not having work be a shared topic of conversation, but that feels like cutting off big parts of ourselves.

Help?
(Masculine pronouns)
Not good at catchy sign-offs

Dear Not Good At Catchy Sign-Offs,

I can relate to this strongly as a person with ADHD who sometimes just…runs out…of attention budget for the day. After 9pm + Long and/or complicated story or pitch for a script = Jennifer NOT GREAT AT LISTENING and it super hurts my spouse’s feelings, especially since he is pretty great at listening to me. So I’m working on this too.

I think what would make this more satisfying and workable for both you and your spouse is adding some structure to when & how you have work discussions. She benefits from talking through stuff aloud. You benefit from working alone (though your knowledge and understanding of your shared field probably benefits a lot from her puzzling through the stuff you don’t know out loud). But sometimes you do well “trading things you’re working on or having focused discussions” so maybe build this into your lives in a structured way, like, Friday nights you each open a bottle of wine in your respective places and sit down to work in tandem, and you keep a chat window open and share quotes or snippets or articles as you go. You also need those rituals that aren’t about work, like, Monday night is the night we watch our favorite show in tandem and text about it and there is NO work talk.

Because you’re long-distance right now, “working breakfast Saturdays” aren’t going to be as easy as if you saw each other all the time. But you need to find a structure, like, during this set time, you get to talk excitedly at me about your research and what you’re reading and thinking about, and I will put aside the fact that I’m not an expert and I will just listen as best I can and get excited with you! And then we’ll switch! But maybe not every day, maybe not at the very end of a long day of work when energy is very low and you’re feeling “researched out” or “discussed out” for the day, and you both get a limited “no work talk!” veto power. Important: Schedule this time when you both have energy for it. Don’t put it after you do all your “important” stuff, don’t do it when you’re hangry or distracted.

If your spouse were writing to me I would also encourage her to do some work to connect with other people in her specific area of focus and build a supportive and fun community to talk shop with that does not depend so much on her spouse for that. For example, I’m a member of a couple of Facebook groups around teaching in my subject area and it’s great to have a lot of informal discussions and connections to dip into when I feel like it and backburner when I don’t. Mr. Awkward is taking a class and has a teacher and classmates to pitch stories to. It makes our discussions better when there is another outlet.

Since this letter is about you and what you can do to change the dynamic, let’s talk more about that. It’s telling that you say “I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal” and I think this is worth working on within yourself. Why do you have to “feel intelligent” or like an expert all the damn time? Don’t be the people at those awful parties this Letter Writer described, where everyone can only talk about their Very Serious Research! If you find yourself getting bored or distracted because you’re not in Expert Mode, that is a good time to practice everything you know about active listening and staying engaged. Do it because it’s kind, not just because it’s sufficiently interesting.

You’ll be a better scholar and a better person if you can say “I don’t know very much about that, tell me more!” to lots of people who do lots of kinds of work, not just your spouse. While you need to be able to say “Babe that is fascinating but I am discussed OUT for the day, can we talk about makeouts for a while and revisit this during [structured work time]sometimes, if you do say that the very next time you talk you need to remember what she was telling you and follow up specifically“That article about x you were talking about yesterday, do you mind telling me about it now?” That will go a long way toward showing that you are paying attention and are curious about and invested in her work.

I wish you both luck navigating this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

89 comments
  1. jennthemighty said:

    “I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal”
    Dudes use this construction a lot: I feel X, it causes Y behavior. (Defensive tone and dismissal are behaviors.) Bonus points when they frame it in such a way that they have no agency and no way to change, prevent, or fix the behavior–or even tell that it is happening: “I bet it translates into…” Basically, you are saying, “I can’t know for sure if my behavior is contributing to the dynamic, I’ll just guess, and keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing. All we can do is hope and leave it totally up to chance!” Dude. If you suspect you are being defensive or dismissive, then work on that. Develop the self awareness and the maturity to check your own behavior, and take ownership for your own tone of voice and the words that come out of your mouth. Do the emotional labor to make sure you are not being defensive and dismissive, instead of expecting her to do the mental/emotional labor of going, “He sounds defensive and dismissive, but he’s really just feeling insecure, I won’t take it personally.”

    • What, that volcano? said:

      Exactly. LW being shitty to his wife because he is intimidated by her knowledge of a topic in their shared area of expertise is 100% something he needs to deal with. That’s not a problem with how his wife communicates, that’s LW feeling threatened. If LW can’t note the behavior in himself and address it in the moment, he needs to consider therapy because that dismissive tendency could spread to a lot more of their interactions over time and LW’s wife deserves better than that.

      It might not be their only issue. But it’s certainly one LW has full control of and could start to fix right now if he genuinely wants to.

    • Yuppp. There’s an institutional element going on here too. Academia really encourages the attitude of “I’m not an expert in this subject, and I’m obviously smart enough/dedicated enough/special enough to be, so the only possible explanation is that the subject is inherently boring and pointless, and only those of lesser minds would waste their time on it.” It infects conversational habits. The fact that here this habit is stemming from a feeling of imposter syndrome is so cyclical it hurts.

      • Working Hypothesis said:

        Academia also tends to encourage the dynamic of smart, capable men = career going gangbusters at awesome institution with low teaching load and good research opportunities, while smart, capable women = career in frustrating place at lesser institution with high teaching load and fewer, less good research opportunities. LW, please make sure you notice the ways in which institutional gender dynamics may be affecting your relationship, and pay attention to the effects that sexism are likely to have on your partner’s career. Most men who are even decently capable have much better career opportunities offered to them than equally capable (or, often, more capable) women, and this is actually often even *more* true in academia — which likes to think of itself as a pure and holy center for unbiased knowledge — than it is in the business world.

        • Anonyish said:

          Yeah, unfortunately it is very likely that that is a factor at play here, and that makes it even more important that LW’s partner has his support and validation. The ‘two-body problem’ is challenging enough even when all other things are equal – when they’re not things can be very hard indeed. LW is going to have to *work* to support his partner. That may not come naturally or easily, but it doesn’t when women do it, either.

    • I read that men often have the belief “People should like me as I am. I shouldn’t have to play games.” in a book by psychotherapist David Burns.

      Women more often have the belief “I should change who I am so I’ll be liked.”

      Burns argues that all “shoulds” are untrue thoughts. They’re demanding of the world. We’re better off thinking about choices we get to make. And that others also get to make choices – they don’t have to conform to our beliefs.

      The LW says he doesn’t *want* to have these conversations. That he does *want* to have a better relationship. And frames this as it’s either one or the other

      He can *choose* to both to have conversations to improve his relationship sometimes. And find balance

  2. darthtrina said:

    Great ideas, Captain! Also, from my experience: if you’re so worn out when you get to “I am discussed OUT for the day” that you might not be retaining anything at all, write down what you need to follow up with your spouse on, and maybe set a calendar reminder if you need to. That might sound like treating marriage just like your office, but the important part is your spouse noticing and appreciating you following up with her, not what tool you use to ensure that you keep your connection going.

    • Ginger Baker said:

      +1000 to using whatever tools are necessary – it’s the intent that matters, not how much Active Memory Space we have to hold onto these reminders in our heads!

    • CMart said:

      The first time I quietly stepped away from the dining room table to go grab a notepad an pen, my husband was totally bemused. “Are you… taking notes of our conversation?”

      Yep. I was sleepy, he was passionately talking about an extracurricular project and I didn’t want to be an ass and only half-listen/not ask questions/not remember the ideas he was bouncing off me. So I took notes. He thought it was positively charming.

      I don’t do it all the time, but I will sometimes bust out the notepad if it’s a particularly important-to-him thing he starts talking about and I know I’m not at the top of my game.

      • monsterzero said:

        This is a great idea and would probably help me with my Sweetie!

        I do this at work and my boss actually gets irritated. Like, I *am* listening but if you want me to actually remember half the things you say, don’t shoot me in the foot here, OK?

        • Drew said:

          My boss reamed me out last week for missing one piece of an article for our website. He sent me instructions via email, text, and face-to-face conversation and then got annoyed that I couldn’t correlate all those inputs on short notice. “Do I have to email you everything?” he asked, and then looked positively shocked when I said, “Yes, that would be immensely helpful.”

          • Funnyletter Who Hates Jokes said:

            Meanwhile I’m over here yelling “FILE A TICKET OR IT DIDN’T HAPPEN” at people.

            Seriously though my workload is so large and chaotic right now that if it’s not in our ticketing system I WILL stop realizing it exists.

          • Me too – I make jokes at work about how if people ask me to do a thing but not in writing, I won’t remember. Because I don’t. And every time they ask me to do something verbally, I ask them to send me an email because I will have forgotten by the time I get back to my desk, especially if I have to go past several other people who have questions or need me to do things.

            And then they get cranky when I haven’t done the thing that they couldn’t be bothered emailing me about. Like… I asked you to get me the details in a list so I’d get them right? Instead of in a rambling convo where you could be talking about your lunch for all I’m taking in?

          • Michelle said:

            I ask for many things via email because I can walk through the office on my way to do something and 3 people will ask me for info or to add something to the calendar, etc., and I always say “Email it me or I will forget by the time I get to return to my desk”.

          • johann7 said:

            I, too, always ask for an e-mail with all of the information. This assures that I will have a record for myself of what the request actually was, a record for them that they actually made the request, and all of the pertinent information laid out in the same place, in case I need to double-check a detail or in case something isn’t clear (or internally contradictory), which I can then clarify.

          • Kelsi said:

            I think I have most of my coworkers trained, finally–conversations usually go like this…

            Them: Would you be able to do [Project] by [Date]?
            Me: Absolutely, but—
            Them: Send you an email? Will do.

      • storyranger said:

        If a conversation is happening towards the end of the day and my partner says something like “would you mind doing x task tomorrow” my answer is usually “yes but please message that task to me so I remember it in the morning.”
        Because I don’t want to flake out and not do the things I say I will, but I forget basically anything you say to me after dinner and waking up to a message notification from partner ensures the thing gets done.

        • Monika Tillsley said:

          Would it be possible for you to write yourself the reminder rather than putting that work back on your partner? My husband is quite forgetful so he asks me this but then I often have to set myself a reminder to remind him so I don’t forget! It is a pet peeve of mine. Dude I am thinking of it now. I am not your secretary and since you know you are forgetful you could do the work to manage this. Spouse is better at this since we spoke about it and I love it.

          • Jake said:

            When I ask people to message me a task I usually mean send the message now, and I’ll have it when I need it, not that they should remember later to message me. But if I have my phone on me, setting an alarm is also a reasonable option.

          • Queen of scarves said:

            @monikatillsley Yes, I have the same thing with my partner. I. Sometimes I shoot back in the moment (nicely) can you set your reminder , sometimes I set the reminder for myself to remind him. Maybe I should try to have a calm sit-down conversation about it.

      • Nopetopus Cowgirl said:

        My children feel taken very seriously when I write down what they’re saying. It goes a really, really long way when I’m asking them to hold onto a thought and take turns. Obviously spouses are not children, but sometimes using business techniques in family situations has its place. Namely, it shows how important you feel something is and that you intend to remember it.

        • CMart said:

          Yes! My husband is usually pretty much like “damn dude, this isn’t that serious” but it’s important to me to be a good listener, and he wouldn’t be talking so animatedly about something unless it was important to him, so sometimes note-taking happens! He acts like I’m a weirdo but he’s also usually tickled pink that I care enough to try to pay attention instead of just zoning out.

      • Anonymous Ampersand said:

        You are awesome.

      • ScienceGeek said:

        Early in our relationship, my husband created a file dedicated to my work. Definitions of terms, common procedures, stuff like that. Basically, just enough to understand my day-to-day. It meant so much to me – my parents had, at some point, decided that science was only for smart people, and they’d never understand, so they simply didn’t try. It was very isolating, and it looked like my then-boyfriend would be the same.
        But instead, he stepped up. He made notes. It’s one of the most romantic things he’s ever done for me, though I’m sure he’d think it was no big deal.

        • JMegan said:

          That is actually the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard of – I love so much that he did that!

    • Monica said:

      My second date with bf I was talking about something and he gently interrupted me to ask the spelling of a word. I was like “what? Are you taking notes?”
      Yes he was. Because he wanted to go home and do some reading so that next time the topic came up he could keep up. That’s when I knew I was on to something good.

  3. Yolanda B. Cool said:

    Hey, LW, this dynamic is very familiar to me, except I’m more like your spouse, and my husband’s perspective is similar to yours.

    What we’ve figured out that helps us is that I try to be up-front about what I’m looking for in a conversation (“I need validation around this,” “I want to process my thoughts around this out loud,” “I just read a cool Thing and I want to babble at you about it!”) It helps my husband to know what the end goal is. I also try to keep my thoughts succinct(ish), rather than yammering indefinitely, and he tells me if he hasn’t got the spoons for a conversation right now.

    Its not perfect, but figuring this out has reduced the accidental hurt feelings and tired arguments considerably. Best of luck to you, LW.

    • Anna said:

      Completely agree. My husband and I had some very illuminating discussions when we first started dating around “what is the point of conversation?” My husband likes conversations where people are conveying new facts to each other. I like conversations where people are sharing how they felt about something. We initially had a number of tiffs because I felt like asking about his day at the office was rewarded only with what felt like tedious lectures about technical subjects and he felt like I was often just telling him random problems I had but getting annoyed if he gave me advice in return. Now I ask “did anything funny happen at work?” or “what happened with all the drama with Craig” and if I want to vent about something, I tell him that I need validation and probing questions. He’s gotten better at checking how long an explanation I want if I do ask about something, and about asking if I want advice or just support when I am telling him about something difficult.

      I think this is not uncommon, but romantic comedies where people are so in loooove that they just read each other’s minds and fulfill every role for each other lead us astray a little bit.

      • A Ginger said:

        Holy smokes! This almost perfectly describes the dynamic between my father and me! Maybe I can try that “did anything [adjective] happen that you want to tell me about?” approach when I talk to him. Thank you so much for commenting, Anna!!

      • Kelsi said:

        I have a friend who always jumps immediately to advice when someone is venting–we definitely all had to learn to preface with “I just need someone to sympathize, I don’t need help solving this problem, can I still tell you about it?”

        • Turquoise Dragon said:

          My brain constantly finds possible solutions to things. I like it that way. Other people . . . are sometimes less enthused when they thought they were venting to me but not needing help, and I start trying to solve the problem. I have gotten much better at asking “do you want sympathy or advice?” and then following along with their answer.

    • GreenDoor said:

      Yes to this. I have a lot of friends that get into ranty conversations. I’ve gotten into the habit of just coming right out and asking, “Are you looking for my insight or do you just need to vent?” People are surprising. Some will just stop cold, not realizing they were ranting. Others will admit that, yes, they want advice. If you ask this with a smile and an expression of genuine interest, you might find she’s not looking for expertise, that she just needs to vent….or she just had a bad day and just needs some sympathy…or whatever.

      • I teach dancing, and I find I ask a question similar to this at least once a month. At class, it’s “do you want to talk about it, or do you want to leave it outside? I can happily do either 🙂 “

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      Being up front can work both ways: “Why are you telling me this? Are you venting? Sharing? Needing feedback? Advice? I listen better in context.”

    • This is a genius strategy that should be taught in middle schools to all young teens, to help them recognize their own emotional and social needs and also make friends more easily. Also, I will be telling my husband that we should try to do this with each other…Thanks!

    • I'll come up with a clever name later...maybe. said:

      I learned this early in my marriage. I was angry about something, wanted to complain about and have him agree with all of my complaints, and he started trying to “fix” my problem, which made me even more angry. I remember putting my hands out in front of me and saying “STOP! All I want is for you to listen and agree. I know it sounds a bit crazy but that’s what I need right now!” He complied. Now I let him know what type of response I need.

      • Jay said:

        I told my husband my plans for an upcoming presentation I was anxious about. He started suggesting other things I could do. I said “Great. Now I feel like you think I’m going to screw this up.” He said “No! I was just trying to challenge you!” I said “I don’t want you to challenge me. I want you to help me feel capable.” He got it. Phew.

        • I'll come up with a clever name later...maybe. said:

          My husband calls it making Yummy noises – like that episode of Friends where Monica is making a meal for someone who might give her a job and Phoebe’s whole reason for being there (aside from being the person who brought Monica and the guy together) is to make yummy noises. It’s literally how I ask for him just to listen and not “fix” my issue. “Hey hon, I need to vent about something. Can you make yummy noises?”

          • Heather said:

            Yummy noises! This is both adorable and really helpful, lol.

    • Maddie said:

      Good thing I scrolled down first, because this is almost exactly what I wanted to say. They need some “Why I’m Telling You This” signals. And hey, if you’re not the kind of person who ever analyzes the purpose of a conversation, LW, now would be an excellent time to start!

      This issue caused a lot of frustration early on in my own relationship with hubby. It’s not that we didn’t respect each other, but we we thrive in two completely separate fields where there is very little overlap even in base knowledge. So we’re always going to be talking about something the other one understands very little of when we’re talking about work. And that’s a big chunk of our lives to just leave off the table entirely. Our difficulties came when he felt like I was asking for his input on problem-solving something he obviously knew nothing about, and I was really just needing him to empathize with how tough it was for me emotionally, and understand why I was so zapped that evening. Finally, one night he just says, “I don’t know what you want from me!” and when I snapped back with, “I just need you to listen!” it all fell into place. If this was Work Thing I was trying to solve, I could talk to just about anyone at work about it. But it’s not. It’s about being close to my partner – being known and understood by him. Nobody else can do that part.

      So those times when you feel unintelligent, LW, try listening for the deeper meaning. Think about what it is she hopes to gain by telling you about this, that she wouldn’t get from telling any other colleague. Focus on connecting with your wife, rather than problem-solving with another expert. It’s likely that she doesn’t need you to consult, but rather, she needs a partner who appreciates what a difficult spot she’s in, grasps the depth of its complexity, reassures her, and expresses how much he believes in her, even in the midst of all this she’s facing. Listen for feeling words, and offer empathy and support and encouragement in response to those instead.

      • moss said:

        This is a really lovely comment.

    • Anony said:

      My partner and I have similar conversational issues too. With us, I process stressful things by talking, and they would rather just shut down after stressful things until they recover their energy, so we have to figure out how to work around those. What helps is if I try to be more conscientious about reading their body language, and I explicitly ask “hey, can we talk about X by Wednesday night so I can figure things out before that meeting?”

      I’ve also found that they don’t respond well to me asking if they’re looking to vent, problem solve, or get validation. In person I can tell from their tone of voice and reactions and such which they want, but it’s harder to tell when we’re apart and they don’t like when I explicitly ask what they’re looking for – I haven’t figured out how to ask in a way that makes it clear I’m asking bc I want to support them better, rather than I’m asking bc I want a shortcut out of the conversation and I don’t want to put in the effort to figuring it out the long way. This part is a work in progress, but the other parts work well!

  4. buttons said:

    I have kind of a related problem. I am an academic and my husband is not, but he has a keen amateur interest in my subject. Sometimes I come home from work and he’s read a popular article about my subject area and he wants to discuss it, and my usual take on the popular article is “…ugh, that’s a major oversimplification and it’s not good,” and he takes criticism of the article as criticism of him (or if I’m tired from work and don’t want to discuss it at all, he thinks I’m bored by him). It’s sad and hard! Maybe some of these suggestions can help us in the future. You’re not alone, LW! Thank you.

    • Mustela Furo said:

      buttons, I feel you. I am also an academic and have encountered this many time with students. What often works for me (not suggesting you treat your husband as a student) is to grab onto the popular article and say “Yes, that’s a very common view! Here are the subtleties!” and use it as a jump-off point for digging in further.

      Of course, if you’re tired from work, this won’t work. But the thing from improv theater of “Yes…AND” (vs “yes, BUT”) goes a long way toward acknowledging the other person and making them feel heard.

    • You know, it’s funny, because I can’t stand it when dudes do this to me, because it usually seems to take the form of what you’d get from a 6-year-old who is now trying to be a Grown Up Just Like You and wants validation and patting on the head that they are so clever and now know everything. Life is way too short to waste on that shit. Unless it’s an actual 6-year-old.

      And yet my stepfather brings up things he’s read in the news or various magazines that relate in some way to my work and asks about them, and it’s never annoying, so that got me thinking about the difference. He’s never seeking a pat on the head, for one thing. For another, he assumes that whatever he saw or his understanding of the issue is probably oversimplified at best, so he tries to ask a question or two based on that and on expanding his own understanding a bit. He also pays attention to the conversations of that sort that have gone well where we both really had fun and looks for what might pique my interest, as best as he can understand it — like he noticed that news of strange technical occurrences related to my field are fun for the two of us to dissect because his knowledge of local politics and community action combined with my technical breakdowns means we both learn something by the time we’ve picked the reports apart and we’ve both had fun doing it.

      My biological father, on the other hand, is the worst of the worst at this crap. He wants to have a back-and-forth that makes him feel smart. That’s his only goal. So he brings up stupid stuff that doesn’t even have anything to do with the topic areas I’ve worked in, because he doesn’t understand my work anyway, and then says about whatever I’m working on, “Oh, that’s exactly what I’ve been getting into!” –By which he means he has read some of the worst dreck out there of bad pseudoscience and wants me to pretend it’s real and give it validity by pretending it connects to what I do, and yes, you clever little boy, you’re as expert as your daughter with a doctorate, ’cause she’s just one of them wimmen and you have a manbrain…

      Talk about two extremes.

      Anyway, most of the dudes who do this that I’ve run across are on the latter end of the spectrum and want someone to do an emotional labor dance to make them feel smart. My stepfather is different because his goals are: 1) Hopefully connect a bit with Helen; 2) Do not annoy Helen; 3) Maybe learn something. The emotional labor is shared, but he does the initial heavy lift and more than half the total. It ends with both of us feeling validated.

  5. sophikita said:

    This is an amazing question. Letter writer, you mention that:
    “she’s awesome! And in fact, despite some outward success, I have the “imposter” feeling lots of academics do, and I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know…”
    I wonder if you have said these things really explicitly to your spouse? I ask becuase I see the same pattern with myself and my husband, we both also work in academia (but thankfully different subject areas). I’m pretty sure logically that he thinks what I do is awesome, but I never hear him say those words to me, so emotionally I doubt whether he thinks this. Sometimes I hear him describe my work to other people and he sounds excited and proud, but he doesn’t say those things directly to me! I think he presumes that I know about the positive stuff without being told. I also process things through talking and he works things out for himself so it also sounds similar to you guys. It would really help me if my spouse would explicitly say the positive things so I can hear him say them. Maybe just have her read your letter, it’s really clear 🙂

  6. Suzanne said:

    This isn’t an answer to your question, but OH MY GOD, LW, your letter is so reassuring for me. Doctoral candidate here, and I also strongly prefer “talking” about my work in writing. I’m much more confident in my academic work as a writer than as a speaker, and for years, I’ve thought that was a sign that my work was just… bad. Or that I wasn’t as fast and smart as my peers, who seem so good at talking through their work.
    It’s so reassuring to hear that I’m not alone in this preference, and that it’s not a sign that I’m destined to live as a carbuncle in the giant academic underwater pit of doom.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with carbuncles, but, you know.

  7. nein09 said:

    I feel you here! My spouse is more of a talk-things-outer and I’m a doodles-on-a-notepad thinker. We have very different ways of working out ideas for ourselves, and that can be hard – I can feel my brain shutting off a little with the barrage of words that are directed at me sometimes. It’s not a good feeling and I am sure he can see my attention drifting away. I feel like I retain like… a quarter of some of these conversations.

    A lot of the time, I’ll say something the next day like “You were talking about X, but it didn’t quite sink in for me- can you tell me again about [one specific thing]?” But this is so much easier when it isn’t long-distance- me being physically present in a room and attempting to pay attention to a person talking counts for a lot, and it’s hard to replicate that on the internet or the phone. If you want me to pay attention and remember what was discussed on a phone call I have to sit there with a notepad and a pencil. It would feel weird to do that with a partner, but here we are.

    I find that I can’t explain my ideas in words until they are way more fully fleshed out, but then sometimes the words will help get them the rest of the way. Would writing things down in an email for you to read help her in that way? Do you feel okay asking her to do that, or would it just be burdensome for her? Maybe you can turn this into an advantage for both of you.

  8. Amy said:

    Maybe you’ve already done this, but it might be helpful to set aside some time for metacommunication–that is, talking about how you guys communicate with each other. Talking about this stuff can clarify where your communication styles line up, where they’re radically different, and what compromises will be both useful and feasible to reduce miscommunication.

    – Does your spouse know that you find it difficult to talk about work out loud, and prefer to do so in writing?
    – Do you actually tell her when you need to be done talking about something? If you’re hoping that she’ll pick it up via less direct signals, have you told her what those signals are?
    – Have you told her that you’re struggling with imposter syndrome? Do you tell her when it gets triggered? Does she know what you need from her when it gets triggered?
    – Have you guys talked about things that make her feel like you respect her work (other than just talking shop, which is something you need to limit for reasons that have nothing to do with her)? Do you know what she needs from you when she’s feeling down about her work?
    – Have you talked about HOW you talk shop–e.g. what times, nebulous everything-is-fair-game vs one targeted thing per conversation, how you engage in these talks (listening to her talk though her thoughts, giving occasional input, being fully half of a two-way conversation, etc.), medium of communication (phone call, facetime/video call, written texts, email, etc.)?

    There are so many communication styles out there–it’s worth taking the time to sit down with the people you love and just talk about how you communicate with each other, because there are almost definitely nuances to your methods and perceptions that you didn’t magically intuit about one another.

    • Nanani said:

      These suggestions seem to boil down to “actually do some of the emotional labour yourself” so if LW reads some of the other comments about it, here is a great tie-up.

      • Amy said:

        It definitely does require some of that, because LW should go into this kind of conversation already having some understanding of their own needs and wants around communication, and figuring that out requires some emotional labor. But I don’t want to boil it down to just “stop putting the emotional labor on your wife and do it yourself already”. Ultimately this is a team effort–it’s not just LW doing that work and then declaring their success to their spouse, it’s a mutual conversation where LW shares their thoughts, their spouse shares her thoughts, and they *work together* to figure out a system that works for both of them. My list emphasizes what LW should be doing not because it’s all their work to do, but because that’s the half of the work that they can actually control.

      • Also, I’d like to point out that the LW *is* doing emotional labor around this: he recognized the issue, has an idea about both partners’ contributions to it, and wrote to Captain Awkward about it. So let’s not cut him off at the knees, eh?

  9. Kat said:

    “I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal.”

    In a trusting relationship, I’ve found it can be helpful to be very honest about how you’re feeling. e.g. “Hey dear, sometimes when you talk about things I don’t understand, I feel unintelligent and I think I may get a little defensive or dismissive. I know this is my own thing, so if you’re hearing that, would you mind gently calling me on it so I know?” That way she knows how you feel, you can both do something about it, and she may even feel bolstered knowing there are things she’s an expert in that you’re not as familiar with.

    • He needs to learn to police himself. She’s going through enough without raising him, too. If he knows he’s uncomfortable when he doesn’t know something, IT SHOULD BE ON HIM to mind his reactions and tone, not on her. Or have you missed all the talk lately about women doing everybody’s emotional labor?

      • KG said:

        As long as they have a good existing balance of emotional labor, and as long as LW couches it as a request that his wife is allowed to turn down, I don’t see an issue with it. In a healthy relationship *with a good balance of emotional labor*, this is a totally reasonable request. In fact, I (female) have asked my husband in the past to let me know if I’m doing [thing I’m trying to change], and he’s been happy to do it.

      • Except that we are not always aware of what signals we are giving off, and a person’s reaction to those signals may in part be due to their own interpretations and experiences. I totally agree that there is a gendered pattern that is strongly reinforced by the dominant culture, but individual manifestations of it vary tremendously.

        An example: I’m a cis woman, but was raised with a very misogynistic viewpoint of seeing feminine-coded behaviors, attributes, etc as frivolous or worthless. I’m still doing work to recover from that to this day, and may abreact to varying degrees if someone describes me in a feminine-coded way. (If someone calls a piece of my art “cute,” for example, I have to consciously remind myself that it’s not an insult!). Because this is my issue, I try to suppress those negative reactions, but I think it would be reasonable to ask my partners to tell me when I let it show, especially if these reactions are affecting them!

        As KG said, as long as LW is doing the work, asking for help to identify things that may look very different on the outside versus the inside is reasonable. I think it’s also perfectly reasonable for LW’s wife to say “no, I can’t deal with more emotional labor around this.”

    • I’m with littleblackcar on this. People should monitor their own reactions. People shouldn’t ask the target of their negative feelings to come up with signals.

      In heterosexual relationships, men make this demand more often than women. I see no reason to encourage it.

  10. Sarabeth said:

    I’m an academic, though not married to one. I’ve had a job that sounds more like your spouse’s current job (although the institution itself was fine on most metrics except prestige), and now have one that’s more like yours. Based on my experience, I would guess that your job situations are compounding the pre-existing difference in your conversational preferences. One of the reasons that I left my more teaching-heavy job is because I desperately wanted more of an intellectual community. My colleagues there were smart people, but the institution was structured around teaching, and we didn’t really have conversations about our research.

    If this rings true to you at all, I would think about how you can structure your joint lives to help your spouse fulfill this need in ways other than talking to you. Not that y’all should never talk about work, but it will be easier to find a compromise if she’s getting to have her thinking-through-research conversations in other venues as well. I don’t know exactly what this would look like in your specific situation; maybe committing to use more household money to support conference travel for her? Facilitating her involvement in seminars at your institution when she visits? Encouraging her to skype regularly with other friends from grad school (this was my savior in my teaching-heavy job)?

    My spouse also has a Ph.D., but worked in a very different field and did not go the academic route after grad school. Mostly, I enjoy having my most intimate personal relationship be very separate from my job. I tend towards imposter syndrome as well, and it’s nice that my family is a place where I can set my academic work completely aside, and know that my partner loves me for totally unrelated reasons. But I also need my intellectual community, and I suspect your spouse does too.

  11. JerryLarryTerryGary said:

    You might also consider what you’re doing while communicating. Do you feel tied down with chatting, get easily distracted when texting, etc? I personally kind of hate video chats of any real length, and listen best when pacing on the phone- but your style might work best as an email chain you go back and forth with.

    • Buni said:

      I’m a good listener but I suuuuck at eye contact, so I just come right out and say to friends “I’m [drinking this tea / sorting my bag / fixing my (x)] but I AM listening, do carry on.”. If I have to ‘sit still and listen attentively’ I actually miss most of what’s said. Finding your own / the two of your’s own communication style can be key.

      • BigDogLittleCat said:

        A friend’s boyfriend thought I didn’t like him because I didn’t look at him while he was talking. I now know to tell soft-spoken people that I’m not ignoring them, I’m turning my good ear towards them.

  12. Zinc said:

    Thanks for the active listener link. I had been looking for this exact type of exercise for someone recently.

  13. Birdie Bee said:

    I recently entered the field that my spouse works in (software development), and it has been an emotional minefield. So many times has he tried to help me- explaining something, suggesting I stop trying to unravel a bug because it’s late, or advising that a problem is beyond me- and I grump at him quite dramatically and put moratoriums on discussing work. Camaraderie of career field doesn’t eclipse marriage, and ultimately, the marital way of relating to each other comes first: validation, emotional support, and encouragement over career advice and critiques.

  14. Megan_NJ said:

    Why do you have to “feel intelligent” or like an expert all the damn time? – HA!!

    Sometimes I feel like she’s talking a lot,….. (and am not interested in figuring out the issue at the moment). – E-mail about it later? “I was thinking about the X Y thing you were talking about, & I think …. Z Q W.

    For my husband, it has helped me to distinguish between conversations where something has to happen now, something needs to be done now. Or if he is just having a dreamy dream discussion. He’ll talk about things he wants to happen, & it’s not the time for me to jump in with practical suggestions. I’m supposed to agree with the parts that are nice & keep track of the topic for later. Eventually we’ll get to the day it needs to happen & I’ll be able to go I think R G J about this.

    I make my decisions in my head, over a period of time. So when I present my dreamy plan, it’s all worked out. My part to work on is not to take offense when this is the first time he is hearing about it. I don’t talk it out as much.

    I would jump in to do practical planning & crush his dream talk.
    He accepts that I’m just not listening sometimes.

  15. Kosher Pancakes said:

    LW’s observation of “I feel unintelligent when she talks about things I don’t know, and I bet it translates into a defensive tone, or dismissal,” reminds me of two professors who serve to illustrate two common ways to react to new information in a field they are experts in, and how their reactions stem from a difference in their attitudes. LW has already addressed this as an issue he wants to work on, and perhaps a shift in his attitude could help him and his wife talk about topics in their field he may not be familiar with.

    In my major department, there are two professors who are married to each other and also have quite different outlooks in general, similar to the situation LW described. Dr. Husband is a respected authority in the field and always comes up with a definitive answer to student questions. This is great in many respects because he comes across as confident and knowledgeable, but it has downsides as well. For instance, I took his class last quarter and we were chatting after class about the lecture material, and I commented about a research paper that said [interesting conclusion]. And he immediately shot it down and said that was wrong, even though he hadn’t read the paper. It definitely came across as defensive, like he had to defend his reputation for Being The Expert, which honestly sounds exhausting. I’m not saying LW is like this, but rather to illustrate that many successful people get uncomfortable when they are confronted with something in their field that they don’t know, and they may feel they must react this way to keep their position as a pillar of the field.

    In contrast, Dr. Wife reserves judgment on new theories until she’s read peer-reviewed and reproducible studies confirming Newest Theory. Her approach lends itself more to being in wonder of the rich diversity of life and an attitude of “We don’t know this new thing for sure yet, but it’s exciting to think of it as a possibility!” Dr. Wife is extremely knowledgeable in her field as well, but she’s also comfortable in admitting she doesn’t know something. This may also be due to the fact that in her area of specialization, there are always exceptions to every rule, so there’s little point in making black-and-white distinctions. Dr. Wife’s approach sounds similar to that of LW’s wife, in that she likes to have conversations about “what if?” and I suspect it not only has to do with her attitude, but her learning style. Maybe LW’s wife needs to spread all the facts and ideas around in a conversation before the lines connecting them suddenly appear to her.

    I hope this — it’s not really a story; tableau, perhaps? — encourages LW to consider what attitudes are driving his reaction when his wife discusses things in his field he doesn’t know. I don’t know what field LW and his wife are in, but I do know that every field has specialization, and it’s okay to not know everything in one’s field, especially outside one’s own area of specialization.

    • Kate Monster said:

      Kosher Pancakes, thanks for providing this great example! LW did not specify whether he is cis-gendered, but I want to point out that this dynamic follows a lot of gender stereotypes that LW may take for granted. In particular, there’s the idea that men tend to present themselves as definitive experts, while women are more willing to admit what they don’t know and talk ideas through. (Interesting research related to this: Male academics tend to do more self-citations (see https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/study-men-more-likely-self-cite-women-experts-academics-a7168396.html). Men are much more likely to be treated as experts by being quoted by journalists or put on panels at conferences, as documented at and addressed by initiatives like Academia-Net.org (mostly European) and WomenAlsoKnowStuff.com (political scientists, with related efforts listed in the FAQs).) The good Captain has a great point that LW may have learned a lot through these conversations.

      This goes way beyond the scope of the question, but I wonder whether LW can express his respect for his spouse’s work in ways beyond changing their conversation dynamic. For instance, it sounds like she is stuck in a situation in which it is hard to be a productive scholar, with a high teaching load and (presumably) relatively few institutional resources. Would it be possible for you to arrange finances to “buy out” some of her teaching load or otherwise budget more resources to support her research? Are there ways that LW can take on more of the time commitment of the marriage (like more of the travel, since they’re living apart)? They have probably discussed this before, especially since they arranged to work at separate institutions rather than having one follow the other, but it might be good to check in on other ways she would feel like they’re supporting her career.

      • highlyeccentric said:

        Yes, the ‘I feel ignorant and get defensive’ part struck me as a major problem, very likely also reflected in LW’s work life as well as his personal life. LW says his wife feels he doesn’t respect her work: this is probably why. Not because LW doesn’t know on a meta level his wife is brilliant, but because /he keeps reacting as if her knowledge is a threat to him/.

        What does defensive behaviour look like for you, LW? Do you try to turn these conversations to your field of expertise? Do you point out flaws without praising? Do you refuse to engage at all? Identify these patterns. And then tell your wife you’ve identified them. Do not make it her job to fix this for you, but acknowledge to her it is a thing you need to fix. Check back in regularly. ASK her what you can do to support her and her work, and do it.

    • johann7 said:

      Dr. Wife is the only one there doing science; Dr. Husband is failing as a scientist by rejecting conclusions that contradict his existing biases without actually looking at data. That’s just one of many common ways the practice of science has been historically (through the present) biased by social gender biases, and there’s a dark irony in the fact that the Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkinses and Steven Pinkers of the world fail as scientists when they insist not only that science can ever possibly actually be practiced in an unbiased manner in reality, but that it in fact has been and is presently (the whole point of the scientific method is a recognition that all experimentation, observation, etc. is biased by context, so replicability in diverse contexts is important to validate results, which leads us to better models of how reality works).

    • Hi, Kosher Pancakes, what a great illustration of 2 points of view.
      Also I love your nym.

    • Mary said:

      The other hing that really surprised me about the “feel unintelligent” comment is that, IME, talking through a research otoblemwuth someone who doesn’t understand it but can ask intelligent questions is incredibly useful. I’ve coached people through entire chapter plans by saying things like, “I don’t know much about X – what’s the background of that?” “So I’m not familiar with Z – what’s their argument and how is yours different?” “You mentioned Y before – how does that fit in with this?”

      The more senior you get as a researcher, the more time you’re going to spend leading and mentoring researchers who are experts in fields which are wildly different from yours, and not being able to help someone work out their research difficulties just because you’re not familiar with the topic is a major skill deficit. You need to get on top of that for professional reasons, as much as anything else.

  16. Lil Fidget said:

    This is also a good time to reflect on all the ways I talk with people who are feeling sensitive about something that relates to me – someone who has poor health and I’m excited about training for a 5K, someone looking for work when I’m complaining about being passed over for a promotion, just anyone who want success in an area where I have found success. I always find this difficult to navigate – it can be insulting to them, to feel like you’re walking on eggshells / editing your experiences in talking to them, or it can feel hurtful to them if you’re blathering on while they’re cringing and feeling bad. I have never found the solution to this, other than to keep checking in with them and try to be considerate re: comforting in, dumping out. This is part of your dynamic right now OP and that makes it even more complicated.

    • Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all for humanity.
      Also, thank goodness for that, but it does make these situations difficult.

    • sayevet said:

      You sound like a lovely person and I’m sure you bring a lot of comfort to your friends ❤

  17. GreenDoor said:

    My spouse and I also get into the “I need help with a problem” vs. “I have no clue what you actually do for a living” modes. You can help without having to know a thing if you can sound upbeat and interested. The trick is to do what therapists do – ask a generic question that gets the other person talking and exploring their thoughts out loud. Examples:
    “What have you tried so far?”
    “What makes that part so frustrating?”
    “Have you talked to anyone about that? What were their ideas?”
    “How much time would you have to invest in that solution?” Is it worth it?
    “HOw did you feel when he made that comment? Is there anything valid there?”

    These questions could be applied to any conundrum. By asking them, she’ll feel like you’re really interested and like she has a sounding board in you. But in acutality, you’re just getting her to talk her problem out loud and consider points she might not have, and maybe some random good idea will pop into her head. Really, I”m betting she’s not expecting you to be an expert in her work. For some people, it really does help to just talk a problem out verbally. So, mostly listen, and toss in a generic question like the above.

    • Lily said:

      Be careful with the therapists’ question. They are useful in counselling but can sound really dismissive in other settings.

  18. neenerini said:

    In terms of feeling unintelligent when your spouse talks about things you don’t know much about, maybe it would help you to reframe it in your own mind as appreciating your spouse’s intelligence instead of feeling like yours is challenged? My spouse is in a different field than I am, and sometimes I am just not up for listening to a long discussion of something I will find increasingly incomprehensible as it goes on, but sometimes I really enjoy listening to him explain something. His intelligence is one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place, so when I’m in the right mood, a long digression on his topic of interest just feels like a nice opportunity to appreciate him. It didn’t work as well when I still felt defensive about being in a different field, but now that we have established a sort of equilibrium where I don’t feel judged for studying my field and not studying his, I can just enjoy his displays of knowledge.

    I imagine it would be trickier to navigate in a shared field, but learning to appreciate your spouse’s expertise and intelligence as something that is independent of your own expertise and intelligence might go a long way towards not feeling unintelligent and not coming across as defensive.

  19. KO said:

    I share this because this was somewhat of an epiphany for me, that may apply here:

    When I have a problem to deal with or a big decision to make, I NEED to be able to talk to a trusted someone about it — pros and cons, possible outcomes, what ifs, etc. etc. Some years ago I finally realized that I didn’t really need the other person to talk BACK. I was processing the problem by talking it out, out loud, but I generally got to the solution or decision I was comfortable with on my own.

    Since LW’s wife talks out her work, it might be worth asking her if she’s seeking advice / feedback / opinions, or if she just needs a sounding board so she can process things out loud. If it’s the second, your job becomes easier; mainly just listen, and you don’t need to feel the pressure to come up with solutions or ideas to contribute to the conversation. “Just” listening can be huge; especially if she often feels overlooked. You’ll mainly only need to respond with phrases that amount to “please continue,” e.g. “and then what happened?” Acknowledging her feelings she’s expressing around the topic is also good.

    That said, active listening CAN sometimes involve asking a focusing question, especially if her thought processes seem stuck — something like “have you considered [option x]?” If alternative options occur to you, they CAN be useful in helping her work through a sticky problem. Sometimes a person just can’t see all the options if you’re too close to the problem.

  20. Lumen said:

    As the person in most relationships who only rarely runs out of conversational energy/attention, my biggest fear (which was too often reinforced, which made it worse) was that if someone I loved asked to end a conversation because they were All Discussed Out, then it would just vanish into the ether. They’d never bring it up again (cue me feeling like what I’d been talking about was uninteresting or stupid or annoying). If I brought it up again because it was important to me, they’d have no idea what I was referencing (cue me feeling uninteresting, stupid, and annoying again, but now smothered in feeling uncared for and devalued by my loved one).

    Yeah, some of that was long-term insecurities that weren’t always related to the person right in front of me, but they weren’t secret insecurities, and it still hurt to have someone I cared about and listened to be unable or unwilling to make the effort to show me that what I had to talk about wasn’t a boring, stupid, annoying burden. That *I* wasn’t a boring, stupid, annoying burden.

    /Self-Disclosure

    The point is, I can’t stress enough that one of the Captain’s final points is really vital: remember the thing you’re taking a pause on and bring it up later for her. Take notes if you need to. “Ask AwesomeWife to tell you about _____” Because that little moment of effort to listen and remember can go a long way to alleviating her anxiety or hurt feelings. In the between-time you can probably even find other things related to that discussion to show her that you were thinking about it even when you didn’t have the bandwidth to TALK about it. That is big for “you and your work and your thoughts are important and valuable to me” points.

  21. LW I feel like you’re not-quite-grasping your wife’s needs here. You just said her career was bumpy while yours is sailing along: I think she needs this more than you realize she does.

    Can you set up a designated time[s] to talk about things more in-depth, so she can organize her thoughts/needs a little more and you can prepare to pay her the attention she wants? I kind of feel like you need to figure out how to give her the extra support she needs to get through a period in which she is struggling and you, comparatively, are not. Frankly, being a woman in academia is hard enough and I’m not surprised that watching your [male] spouse roll merrily along in a field in which she is having a rough ride might be hard, even though she doesn’t resent you, without feeling dismissed by the person on whom she should most be able to rely.

  22. Not good at catchy sign-offs said:

    Hi everyone, OP here. Thanks to the Captain and everyone who has been commenting. I think the ideas about structure, the meta-conversational talk, and my working on being curious/open rather than defensive, are all good takeaways. There are a lot of other good ideas in the comments I will chew on, too.

    Let me add something I didn’t in the original letter, because of aiming for concision, though I think it’s relevant to the gender dynamics. I am not cisgender. In fact, I transitioned partway through my academic career, so for much of my life and my academic life, I was treated as if I was a woman. That absolutely, 100% does not give me an automatic “feminist” or “good guy” cookie/sticker. It does mean, though that I’m painfully aware, in a lot of ways, about the workings of academia with regard to women (having been treated as one) and I have thought a lot about gender. And it’s a topic of a lot of conversation between my wife and me, in fact. That I am, as a man (cisgender or not) participating in a system that is unfair to woman, internalizing and perhaps acting out some of those things, is just a compounding factor when we have meta-level conversations about our conversations. I feel as if I should be better for her than I am, basically.

    All that said, at the end of the day, it’s my job to figure out what I can do to treat her better, to communicate my needs more clearly, and understand hers. That’s a job I have regardless of my gender history. Okay, going to leave the Internet for a bit, since hearing folks say I’m being “shitty” to my wife is tough to hear, whether true or not, and I don’t think my adding to the thread will help at this point. But I’ll pop in again later and look to see if others have added helpful things. Thanks to the commenters so far.

    • Amy said:

      Even if you are behaving in some shitty ways (which, we should all keep in mind that we only have a narrow snapshot of your behavior–not that commenters’ insight isn’t valid, but it’s narrow, we don’t see anything but what you’ve told us), the fact that you don’t want to be like that and are looking for constructive ways to adjust your relationship to make it work better for both of you tells me that you’re a good partner at heart. I hope some of the ideas you’re trying work well for you!

  23. LW, I’m the same sort of doing-writing thinker as you, married to a talker-outer-of-ideas. Seemingly unrelated, but after I moved overseas I began a blog about my life and travel for my family back home. It made it much easier to answer the question “what have you been up to?” Usually I say “uhhhh…” while my mind goes blank, but the blog let me write the story it in an interesting way, and then family could follow up on specifics when we spoke on the phone. Perhaps you and your wife could email each other about shop talk once a week or so; she would need to edit herself to convey what she most wants you to know, you could digest that and let any defensive attitudes fizzle out before following up on any particulars with genuine interest and respect during your spoken conversations. And perhaps you could open up more about your work that way, too. If she still feels the need to spitball ideas off of you, perhaps you would feel better knowing you just need to listen, and are otherwise off the hook.

    Personally, when my husband talks through his incredibly complex ideas at me without taking the time to first think about how he can convey them in a way that would make sense to me– or make sense at all– I get frustrated because it feels very inconsiderate. It takes immense time and effort for me to understand, for example, everything about cryptocurrency, from it is programmed on a very technical level to the macro-economics of it. And I am ONLY sitting through these rambling hour-plus explanations to be supportive of him– I’m not especially interested in tech or economics. So maybe don’t make it even harder for me by speaking in a scattered context-less way? Maybe I’ll bring up the email thing with him, because so far I haven’t found a way to ask him to gather and edit his thoughts in a way that isn’t offensive to him. Because I am actually interested in his more abstract thoughts about tech– it just takes such monumental effort to understand them. So yes, LW, I feel you on that. And the “give and take” aspect is bound to feel imbalanced, because I simply don’t talk through my ideas at him that way. I find it difficult to talk about them at all, to anyone (yet can write pages and pages, as this comment indicates…)

    Also, when you feel “unintelligent” in reaction to what she says, you have options as long as you accept that you’re feeling that way and are open about it. Like, “Sorry honey, I’m not really getting what you’re saying. Can you explain it to me like I’m five?” It’s actually a helpful challenge to explain things in such a way, and she’s almost certainly engaging with that, not thinking “geez my husband’s dull today.” Or you could say, “Wait, I’m not sure I follow. Can I tell you in my own words what you just said, and you can tell me if it’s right?” And if you’re just too tired to go to that effort, it’s probably time to say so (“so sorry, I don’t think I can process any of this right now– maybe tomorrow?”) instead of letting her slowly notice that your eyes have become glassy and blank.

    It isn’t only a dismissive tone that can hurt when you are feeling unintelligent as your wife talks, though. As natural a human tendency as it is to get frustrated when we haven’t grasped a new skill or concept immediately in its entirety, the lack of ill intent is irrelevant. When someone works hard to become an expert (like your wife has), and someone who hasn’t put in that work (in that area) comes along and expects to be on the same level on the first try, it feels deeply disrespectful. Like others believe that what the expert has achieved took no work or expertise at all, or that they’re so much smarter than the expert that they should be able to get on the first try what the expert had to work so hard at. It’s just a knee-jerk feeling, but a powerful one. We’re all pretty self-centered, so unfortunately she’s more likely to feel your frustrated dismissal is all about her rather than intuit that you’re feeling ashamed of not understanding maybe because of your own imposter syndrome, etc. Even if you’ve told her. All of that can be easily avoided by being open and patient with yourself about not understanding something. Easier said than done, but by no means impossible!

  24. Quinalla said:

    The captain and others have covered a lot of this really well already, I just wanted to touch on the point that I can really relate to. My husband is a verbal processor like woah and I definitely am NOT and it sounds like something similar is potentially going on with you and your wife. It took a long time for us to figure this out and that combined with my introvert nature and being a morning person and he’s a night person, we were often having these intricate discussions about important life decisions at 10:30pm when I am completely talked out, have had zero time to process since he sprung it on me and I’m at my worst mentally and it resulted in some bad feelings, frustrations and sometimes even crying and fights. We eventually figured it out to where half the time he’ll stop himself before he starts or I’ll gently remind him and it is so much better and he is better about giving me some processing time by myself and I in turn give him what I can in the verbal processing arena and when I’m out of talking power I will ask him to talk to someone else about it, etc. At the beginning of our marriage, neither of us were sure how to talk about stuff like this, now we are much better about just saying “Honey, it’s 11pm and I can’t talk anymore and really need to sleep.” or “I need some alone time right now or I’m going to blow!” or from him “I know it is later than ideal, but I really need to talk about X for a bit and then I’ll talk to friends online/call a family member/etc. and give you a break, ok?”

    It is amazing to me how different all of our brains work and how differently we all communicate!

  25. Cordoba said:

    I recommend LW try to let go of their investment in feeling intelligent or being the expert who knows all the things. That’s bad for both their relationship and their professional development.

    I’m regarded as a technical expert in a small field. There are some other people who do this thing as well as I do, but it is not an exaggeration to say that there is nobody who does it better. I consider any day that I don’t lean something new about this field to be a wasted opportunity.

    Some days this new learning comes from a scholarly article, some days it comes from a grizzled lab technician, some days it comes from a tech problem that zigs when I think it is going to zag. Whatever, it’s all good learning and it makes me *more* intelligent rather than less.

    The person I am dating also works in the same field, although at a lower level. Sometimes they are the source of the thing I learn today. Those are my favorite learning days of them all. It increases their confidence to catch “the expert” on the back foot, I lean something new and have a ready reference to ask for more information as needed, and it brings us closer together as a couple.

  26. Not good at catchy sign-offs said:

    Stopping back to update, briefly.

    – Wife & I are going to have a talk about this in the next few days and talk about specific strategies.
    – In the meantime, we had a good convo. Instead of checking out etc. when I wasn’t understanding, I said so, and asked questions–but was careful to ask in a way that wasn’t blaming her for failing to communicate. Then checked in after the chat, and she said she found it helpful to explain things to me, and that she felt heard. And I learned things, of course, and had fun.
    – She also emphasized that she can see I am trying, that I don’t want to hurt her (though obviously that doesn’t mean I don’t still manage to!), and that we each have our own reactive mechanisms that we can help one another work on, since we are a team in this whole marriage thing.
    – Finally, I’m continuing to reflect on the connections between feeling like an “imposter,” avoidance of talking/preference for writing, and so on. My conversations with my wife are different than with my peers, because we they have very different emotional valences, but I am sure there are connected habits. There is not a one-time fix, of course. But while the negative aspect of these patterns have a deeper impact in my marital relationship than in my work relationships, at the same time, my marriage is a safe space to work on changing them.

    So, thanks, everyone, the specific advice has been really helpful.

    • JenniferP said:

      I’m so glad. ❤

    • Thanks for the update! Good luck with everything. It seems like you’ll be able to work this out.

  27. €LISA said:

    I’m reading this letter and first thought I had was – how come you can describe your issue in a way that does not hurt your significant other and explains really well your side and you can’t tell (write a mail?) all of this to your wife at the same time? Maybe you could try to write a letter for her if you can’t just tell her that.

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