You've covered the hot-button topics: child-rearing philosophies, the true meaning of Christmas, your feelings about cilantro. But at a certain point, every couple needs to have the really tricky conversations.
By Amy Shearn
1. Why did you take so long to ask me on a second date?
In the beginning of a relationship, you don't want to seem needy or nosy. Certain topics are simply not your business (not yet, anyway). So when Ed waited a few months to call you after the two of you met at a friend's party, you assumed he had been seeing someone else. But you didn't ask about it. You just went to dinner with him. Over time, you got to know one another. You grew closer. Your businesses mingled, and soon you were " RachelAndEd." As in, your friends say, "Who else should we invite? What about RachelAndEd?" Which is when it is finally the time to fill in the blanks, and ask what happened in that months-long gap between the first enchanting conversation by the guacamole bowl and when he actually called to see if you wanted to get dinner. Ed's answer -- he wanted to make sure your mutual friend was okay with his asking you out -- could surprise you. And make you love him even more. As if that were possible.
2. What beloved dinner do you no longer love?
I was bursting with pride the first time I made my husband dinner and he adored it. The dish was called... drum roll, please...chicken and broccoli on rice. The secret ingredient is -- shhh! -- soy sauce. Actually, after the chicken and broccoli and rice, soy sauce is the only other ingredient. This meal has taken us through the lean years of graduate school (more rice than chicken), through times when we both worked full time (more chicken than rice), through our childrens picky-eating stages (hold the sauce). And then came the day that so many marriages eventually face. He looked at the chicken and broccoli and rice and couldn't bring himself to eat another bite. I can't blame him. I felt the same way. So don't waste a perfectly good plate of bland food by failing to inquire: What dinner did he once love that he would now prefer never to eat again? And then, you tell him yours. This is a safe place. Get it out. You might just be saving your marriage from drowning...in soy sauce.
3. What do you think of therapy?
When the big things come up -- career strife, dying family members, the various typical but nevertheless excruciating heartbreaks of everyone's life -- you need to know if talking to someone is an option. Is he up for bringing in outside help for the two of you, or even just the one of you (if that one needs it)? Or will he say, "Psychotherapy? Like for crazy people? Doesn't that cost an awful lot?" Some people find clarity in talking out the big issues with an objective outside party. Others see the whole enterprise as futile, or invasive. It's a conversation to have before you're at that completely-overwhelmed-something's-gotta-give point, when you're still talking about the idea of therapy and not about the personal issue you can hardly think your way through.
4. What's the number you're not sharing?
His student-debt balance, his weight before you met, his 545 dusty Star Wars collectors' items, his 3.2 gray hairs, the 365 letters to the editor he sends every year, his actual desired number of children, his 17 identical shirts... There is likely some number you don't know about. It might be intimidating. It might be relieving. Either way, it's bound to be revealing.
5. How are we going to take care of your parents?
No one wants to, but at some point we all have to put on our big-girl pants and manage to make a will, consider our future funerals, alert spouses to our feelings on plug-pulling. Maybe you've even thought about what will happen as your parents age, whether you'll install some bars in your bath tub or rack up frequent-flyer miles. But have you two discussed what will happen as his parents age? (Bet you never thought about that one, did you?) Much has been written about the difficulties of caring for an elderly parent, but less about when the elderly (and often persnickety, uncomfortable, dissatisfied) parent is not yours. Are you in assumed line to be the de facto care giver for your already-crabby mother-in-law? Are you headed toward an argument with your husband's sister about the merits of nursing care? Put a plan in place now for a smoother road ahead.
6. What's boring you about your life?
The authors of the book The Normal Bar, an extensive survey on romantic relationships, found that "boredom was the reason 71 percent of unfaithful men and 49 percent of the women gave for acting on sexual temptation." So please, yes, find out if he's bored in bed. But also know what's boring him about life in general. Have your weekends become a tedious tangle of other people's agendas -- children's birthday parties, neighborhood obligations, lawn care, children's birthday parties, oh and children's birthday parties? Is he so sick of his pants he groans whenever he takes another pair of khakis out of the drawer? To paraphrase Mary Oliver, this is your one wild and precious life, people, and there is no time for the guy you love (or you) to be bored by pants.
7. If you could have any car in the world, what would it be?
Hey, you're grown-ups. This might actually be within reach.
8. Can you smell this peanut butter?
Sounds strange, but a loss of the ability to smell may signal a larger health issue. Surely I don't have to remind you that the ability to smell is associated with the first cranial nerve (all right, I only learned that two seconds ago). This explains why that guy I knew in college lost his ability to smell in a car wreck -- apparently head trauma often damages this first cranial nerve. This also explains why smell is one of the first senses affected by cognitive decline. In fact, graduate students at the University of Florida McKnight Brain Institute Center for Smell and Taste have found a link between a patient's ability to smell and early-onset Alzheimer's disease. (They used peanut butter because it is an easy-to-access "pure odorant.") While we don't recommend self-diagnosing based on this early study, sniffing some PB with your S.O. may pave the way for some important conversations about health -- yours, his, individual family histories and potential future shared histories.
9. If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
We all have our moments of career malaise. But when it's not your own career, not your own malaise, it's difficult to know what to say, other than, "Oh... Yeah... Man. That stinks. Sorry." A more manageable way to discuss this is to start with specifics: What does your partner wish were different at work right now? What doesn't your partner like? This avoids that big question: Do you want to quit and find a totally new career path? But it still gets him thinking, helps him list the things he actually wants to do and offers you insights into your partner's unspoken life.
10. What's the one (doable) thing you wish I'd stop doing?
Considering all the ways in which you might be annoying the bejesus out of your partner can be a little terrifying. Certainly, we could all be better people, better partners. I would like to be a kinder, more patient and giving person who is about 5 inches taller. There are other smaller things I do actually have control over, however, that I could actually change. For example, the tea bags. I am perpetually leaving old tea bags on the counter. My husband finds the resulting slimy counter-slugs to be most repellent, and is constantly saying, in a pointed, exaggeratedly patient way, "Are you done with this tea bag?" Perhaps, as a kind of gift to him, I could give him a weeklong reprieve. Tea bags will be doomed to immediate interment in the trash the moment they have finished steeping. This wild, new habit would not ever become my new state of being, we both know me too well by now to expect that. (After all, dunk that shriveled, secondhand tea bag in boiled water and you've got a perfectly acceptable cup of tea, and I mean, what, does he think tea grows on trees?) But it's something I could do for a week, if it would make him happy. What's the one tiny week-shift that could relieve some pressure; show, if nothing else, that you're willing to try, willing to listen. You know whom to ask. Go, ask him.
Amy Shearn is the author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn: A Novel.