A game for couples carries a warning: ‘potential to cause anger, pain, hurt, frustration and jealousy’. Tim Lott tried it
Family games can be hazardous. I have witnessed meltdowns while playing Monopoly, fights during Frustration and ugly scenes at Uno, but a new card game puts all these others in the shade. The Art of Couples Conversation contains a hazard warning. When playing the game “potential exists for feelings of anger, pain, hurt, frustration, jealousy and other emotions perceived as negative that most of us try to avoid”. However , the aim of the ”game” is therapeutic. It’s to teach you to “hear, respect and acknowledge each other’s views” and “connect closely and vibrantly”.
The game contains 100 cards, each with three questions that have been “carefully selected from over one thousand questions relevant to relationships . . . trialled and tested by a core group of couples from a diversity of backgrounds”. One of you is selected as “round leader” and asks the other the questions on the card. You must not interrupt the answers — that means no verbal retorts, eye-rolling, sighs or other forms of body language. You may ask a “follow -up” question if you want to explore your partner’s perspective, but the person who answers “owns” their answer. You are simply there to listen.
Why the need for such a game when a couple can just sit down and talk? Busy lives and the encroachment of technology on relationships — so many impersonal forms of communication — means that finding the space for one-to-one chat is harder than ever. Also, people in long-term relationships often develop “hot buttons”: tender spots in their relationship that if touched can cause hurt or anger. Therefore many important subjects become off limits.
I tested the game with my wife Rachael over three half-hour sessions. This was not an easy decision. We both were aware that we were putting our private life into the public gaze to a greater extent than even I, as a journalist and novelist who often uses family as writing material, would normally balk at. We have been together for 15 years and sometimes fall into many of the traps that people do in long-term relationships. We acknowledge that our communications skills can be patchy. As for hot buttons, there are plenty of those so we approached the game with some trepidation.
And not without reason. Within minutes, Rachael began to cry over the first question, “How do you demonstrate love?” It was clear that this game wasn’t going to be in the same league as Mousetrap for some innocent family fun. There were, all the same, plenty of laughs. The cleverness of the game is that it intersperses the trivial with the serious. You might go from “Is there something for which you would like to ask forgiveness?” to “Do pets play an important part in your life” — a question that had Rachael giggling before she vocalised it. My answer: “Yes. They get on my f***ing nerves.”
Another question and answer that made me laugh: to Rachael, “Could you manage a relationship that increased your wealth/power/personal status even if it lacked in love?” “What?” said Rachael, “ if I was with an old billionaire? I could definitely forsake love in the pursuit of financial gain, so long as he was impotent.”
The game is not really about conversation but about listening. Quoted in the accompanying leaflet is a line from theologian David Augsburger : “Being heard is so close to being loved.” So what did I hear? First, the sound of my wife’s voice. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it — its softness and music. Somehow the context of the game made me conscious of it once more (especially listening back to the recording I made of our conversation for this article, a strategy I suggest anyone might find beneficial).
More uncomfortably I found myself put on the spot, repeatedly. I admitted that I had not always been as loyal as I should have been in answer to the question “Being married is like having someone permanently in your corner: does your loyalty have a limit?” The answer: “I’m loyal physically but I don’t think I’m loyal enough to you in social situations. Sometimes I can’t resist scoring points.”
In response to the question “What is your relationship with your partner’s work?” I had to confess I had been insufficiently respectful of it (she’s a literary academic and as a novelist I’m suspicious of literary theory). My answer: “My attitude to your work has not been a healthy one. I haven’t given it enough due respect. That’s a real shortcoming.”
I also discovered — or was reminded — that Rachael was sometimes unhappy. At times she felt unsupported and isolated (as a writer I can be very introspective). She was bored a lot of the time. She also believed I was an A-grade bulls***ter with more opinions than knowledge, which was not quite how I saw myself. It was painful to listen to — but perhaps it was healthy to hear. It also emerged how much the past was a defining factor in our current relationship. Rachael admitted that she found it very hard to “forgive and forget”, but we both took to heart the quote on the card: “A marriage is a union of two forgivers.”
Possibly the most difficult moment for Rachael came with the question “Do you have any tips for a successful blended family?” (I have two children from a previous relationship.) “I would have a lot of tips for a successful blended family for someone else,” Rachael said. “I just don’t heed them myself.” Her tips included: “Be welcoming, be open. Be all the things I haven’t been.” She said this so ruefully that I felt tenderness towards her instead of the irritation I so often feel when the subject is raised.
At the end of the process I asked Rachael what she thought of it. “I enjoyed it. The game isn’t a discussion — and that’s good. I like that it can be both light and serious and that no one is setting the agenda. You’ve owned up to some things that I’ve not heard you say before and that’s quite brave. I’d play it again and not just for some article. It brought more clarity. If you want to go there you can: you can cry or be angry or happy and nostalgic. It’s very freeing.”
I asked Rachael one more question, then added one of my own — not strictly allowed but the rules allow for improvisation. “Which word describes you best as a couple — for example, playmates, sidekicks, teammates, lovers, allies?” Rachael didn’t hesitate. “Combatants.”
Which left me with just one question to ask. “Who won the game, then?” We both laughed, as we did often during the game. That laughter answered more of the questions and, hopefully, more encouragingly than most of the words did.
And now it is your chance to play. . .
Do you speak to each other in at least as pleasant a voice as you use to your friends?
How do you envisage spending the “retired” years of your life?
What is the greatest fear, rational or otherwise, that you hold for your partner?
How important is it to present a united front in public?
Do you know why your significant other fell in love with you?
Would you like to change anything about your physical relationship?
How close to being the partner of your partner’s dreams are you?
Where and when are you in your element together?
Are you ever haunted by the ghosts of exes and if so how do you deal with it?