Reflection 82: Intimacy — Not Changing the Subject

Make no mistake about it. The mainstream culture’s way out of balance emphasis on the values I call “compete and win, dominate and control” thoroughly infiltrates our most intimate relationships.

At one level, this reality is reasonably well acknowledged, with most of us recognizing its manifestation in patriarchal patterns or in highly conflictual, “War of the Roses” type relationships. But the infiltration of compete and win values into our intimate relationships, go far deeper than is commonly recognized.

This Reflection provides a key example, examining:

  • Our culturally reinforced habit of reflexively changing the subject, even in our intimate conversations;
  • The price we pay as a result; and
  • The powerful positive effects that result when we commit ourselves to breaking this unfortunate habit.

Despite years of work with couples – and on my own marriage – this congenital “change the subject” reality never occurred to me until recently. The reason, I think, is because of our deep, culture-wide confusion about what intimate relationship is all about; a confusion that, not surprisingly, has slowed my own growth since, as one of my formative teachers, Vikki Reynolds, once memorably said, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”


Intimate relationships are different – very different – from the more “strategic” relationships that are the norm “out there, in the real world.” See Reflection #44, Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships.

In a typical strategic interaction, a department head convenes a staff meeting at 1 pm and a vigorous exchange ensues. Now, at 2:59, the department head ends the discussion, makes her decision, and the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.

In an intimate interaction, by contrast, a husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now, at 2:59, with no meeting of the minds, what happens? The decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.

The difference? The priority, in the first scenario, is on achieving a goal – getting something done. And the relationship is authoritarian: What the boss says goes. For these reasons, it is fully in tune with the culture’s predominant compete and win values.

The second scenario, however, is very different. Here, the highest priority is on the relationship itself, on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship. And there is no boss, no subordinate, no winners, no losers. In other words, done right, an intimate relationship is antithetical to and, ultiumately, deeply subversive of the culture’s predominant values.

Unfortunately, high schools and colleges don’t teach us how to conduct the intimate relationships around which most all of us organize our lives, focusing instead on what they (presumably) see as the more important stuff. And so, expected to “just know” how to do it, we seldom reflect on how different our intimate relationships are from our other, “out there, in the real world” relationships – or on the implications of those differences.

The result? We muddle through. And muddling through, we import into our interactions with our loved ones the compete and win values in which, living in our culture, we are so deeply immersed.


One very pertinent example of this phenomenon is our tendency, even in our most intimate relationships, to change the subject, quickly and repeatedly; a habit of mind that, because it is so engrained in our taken for granted ways of being, more typically operates entirely outside our awareness.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical keeping in mind that, while I am dealing with a married couple, the principles I describe are applicable in any intimate relationship.

A woman comes home after a busy day at work and, noticing the dirty breakfast dishes, still in the sink, says to her partner in an irritated voice: “Why can’t you clean the dishes?”

Here are some of the typical responses that have been reported, over and over again, by women in my practice (and, regrettably, have come out of my own mouth as well):

  • “Those aren’t my dishes. I cleaned mine”; or
  • “Its no big deal. Why do you have to criticize me?”; or
  • “You’re one to talk, how many times have I had to clean up your messes”; or
  • With body language that reeks of annoyance, silent attendance to the chore.

And, needless to say, similar scenarios regularly unfold in reverse as well, with the woman in the reactive role.

With a moment’s reflection, most of us will realize that these responses are unlikely to promote loving interactions as the evening proceeds. But few of us understand the fundamental trap that we have fallen into: We have unwittingly replicated the culture’s compete and win values in this, their most intimate relationship.

Here’s how.

The woman’s irritation brings with it an implicit assertion of domination and control. And he, rising to this provocation, seeks to turn back her perceived bid for control by:

  • Avoiding responsibility (responses 1 and 2);
  • Invalidating her right to feel the way she does (response 3); or
  • Signaling a refusal to submit with reluctant compliance (response 4).

In an intimate relationship, the ultimate goal is not to dominate, control, or win. It is, instead, to create nourishing and mutually supportive intimacy; that is, to fully see your partner and to be fully seen; to have all that you are, lovingly held by your partner (and vice versa).

In furtherance of this goal, your initial, highest priority as you talk with your partner should be on taking in all that he or she is saying – that is, on listening. And this understanding leads directly to this simple, but vital guideline:

When he or she speaks, never change the subject.

Instead, stick to the issue your partner raises – in our example, getting the morning dishes cleaned. Listen fully. And, importantly, let your partner know that he or she has been fully heard. Then, and only then, think about adding a thought of your own (and then, perhaps, if the issue is a sensitive one, only after you have asked if a change of subject is ok).

So, while a mea culpa (“I’m sorry”) or the offer of corrective action (“I’ll to get them right away”) would certainly be constructive, the essence of the “never change the subject” is this simple statement: “You’re right, I didn’t get to them.”

Note, moreover, that this directive needs to be applied especially when your partner’s words are somewhat provocative, as in our example. Doing so offers the prospect of a meaningful healing moment for your partner since, underneath her annoyance, is almost always a deeper emotional wound – fear of not being appreciated, seen, or heard by you, a panicky sense that with so many things to do she’s losing control, etc.

What is so cool about this “don’t change the subject” guideline is that, as the listener, you don’t have to analyze or, even, understand your partner’s deeper emotions. All you have to do is give yourself over, fully and warmly, to the issue your partner has raised trusting that, in making that choice, you are likely to be soothing his or her deeper needs and longings.

On the flip side, notice how the more typical compete and win reactions, outlined in our example, are the very opposite of our “never change the topic” injunction. Instead of discussing the issue she has raised, the partner in our example shifts to another topic entirely, by either:

  • Talking about what he did that morning (response 1):
  • Critiquing her current behavior (responses 2 and 3): or
  • Trumping her subject of choice by raising (nonverbally) a topic of his own, namely his annoyance with her (response 4).

So, the good news about “never change the subject” is that it does double duty:

  1. Firmly redirecting us toward a more intimate way of relating to our partner; and, at the same time,
  2. Pulling us decisively away from problematic behaviors that our mainstream habits of mind can so easily evoke.


In closing, here are a few caveats to keep in mind as you apply this guideline.

First, “never change the subject” works best when it isn’t deployed in a tit for tat way; that is, where your willingness to persist is not dependent on your partner doing so in return. On the other hand, intimate relationships thrive on mutuality. So if your partner in intimacy persists in this (and, possibly, other) behaviors that are destructive of intimacy, you may need to rethink, not the wisdom of the injunction but, rather, the wisdom of pursuing deeper levels of intimacy with this person.

Remember, also, that “never change the subject” is not a magic cure for all that ails our intimate relationships. To the contrary, it needs to be appropriately applied in a complex context that includes many other important considerations.

This qualifier is especially true when it comes to the choices women make in their relationships with men. While we have made important strides when it comes to patriarchy, these patterns – themselves an important manifestation of our culture’s compete and win mindset – remain deeply imbedded in our relationships.

For this reason, if a man’s commitment to “never change the subject” is tepid or non-existent, a woman’s unilateral persistence may simply enable his patriarchal ways. At that point, others strategies or, even, a re-evaluation of the relationship may be called for. For a more general discussion of this vitally important topic, see Reflection #61 Woman, Boundaries, and Sex; and Reflection #69, Moving Beyond Patriarchy.

More broadly, intimacy works best when what I call the four pillars of a successful relationship are in place: (1) trust, (2) shared values, (3) a priority commitment to your self and your partner, and (4) an ability and willingness to work on the relationship. Reflection #33 Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important. Limitations in one or more of these areas will, in turn, qualify the ability of a couple to follow through on this “never change the subject” guideline or, if they do, to reap its rewards.