Ask Maranda: How can I have meaningful conversations?

Ask Maranda is an advice column focusing on mental health & creativity for self-identified weirdos, queerdos, fuck-ups and artists.

Becca Manner, age 26, asks: I have depression, anxiety and OCD. I recently dumped my boyfriend and for the same reason I’ve dumped a couple past boyfriends. These people don’t seem able to keep up with me intellectually. I don’t feel like this should be difficult. I’m smart, I’ve read a lot, but the only formal education I have is a GED and a yoga teacher training certificate. When a romantic partner can’t keep up with me intellectually I end up having to explain what I feel are very basic things. Then my anxiety skyrockets and my OCD goes into overdrive which causes me to be even more critical of their concepts, grammar, etc. I feel like I’m being overly picky, analytical, harsh or superior and I am often told that I am. I don’t want to be these things and I know there are other people out there with brains, but I’m constantly being made to feel that my expectations are too high, that if my partner is good to me, who cares if they’re not smart? But I do care. How can I have a meaningful conversation with someone if they don’t know anything of meaning and/or don’t understand what I’m talking about? So my question is: Am I completely off the mark here? If I’m not, how do I protect and nurture my desire for intelligent people in my life?

Dear Becca,

First things first, I’d like to talk about cultivating a healthy acceptance of alone-time, and a deep understanding that being alone need not mean feeling lonely. As someone with myriad mental illnesses, I often feel unable to connect with other humans. Even while having conversations that go beyond small talk, I still feel potentially misunderstood, especially if me and the person I’m talking with have different experiences or different grasps on language.

Sometimes I feel like my expectations are too high, too. I often find solace within books, creative projects, and friendships, rather than romantic relationships. It’s important to be comfortable being alone, and to always be learning more about yourself, so you can be confident in drawing the kinds of folks you want to be with closer to you. And, in getting to know yourself more, you might also become less critical of other people’s perceived levels of intelligence. It’s possible that the people you’ve been involved in relationships have their own fears and habits and social conditionings holding them back from deeper conversations, and they may feel just as frustrated as you.

While there’ve been times when I’ve felt “too smart” for someone, there’ve also been times when I’ve felt “too dumb” for someone, so I feel like I can speak from both sides. I dropped out of high school in when I was fourteen, and got (and am still getting!) my education through zines, books, pen pals, mental hospitals, recovery groups, and the Tarot.

It’s possible that the people you’ve been with who “can’t keep up intellectually” simply have different methods of understanding and communicating. For example, when I want to have a serious conversation with my partner, I often feel unable to say what I need to say face-to-face, so I write an email instead – and it’s not necessarily that what I want to say is complicated, or scary, or anything, it just feels easier for me when it’s written. When you’re communicating with a romantic partner, what things do you like to talk about? What do you mean by “having to explain basic things”? Are you referring to emotions, literature, spirituality, politics…? Have you told romantic partners about these feelings? If so, how have they responded?

When you meet new people, be upfront about skipping small talk! You’ll likely find that they feel it’s just as tedious as you do, and from there, you can move on to more meaningful conversations. Also, think about the kinds of questions you’re asking during conversations with new friends or potential partners; ask open-ended questions (“What did you think of that book?”) instead of yes-and-no questions (“Did you like that book?”), and be patient and open with their answers. Also, try writing a list of qualities you’d like to find in a potential partner (and a list of reasons you want to be in a relationship anyway)! Keep it with you, or keep it somewhere in your home where you’ll see it often and reflect.

Spend time in libraries, go to zine and lit readings, poetry slams, and workshops. Keep a diary. Go to free lectures and speaking events on all kinds of subjects. Write a ridiculously honest OkCupid profile!

Advicingly Yours,

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3 Responses to Ask Maranda: How can I have meaningful conversations?

  1. prospector16 says:

    Becca and Maranda: I like all that Maranda says, and I don’t write with their flair and creativity, but I wanted to add some comments that might be useful.

    It is very important to be able to connect with a partner on an intellectual level as well as an emotional level. That does not mean same intelligence or knowledge, but it means that both partners feel a connection. It might be helpful to try to let go of the focus on intelligence and instead focus on a partner with whom you can engage in mutually rewarding conversation/discussion/debate -i.e. you can have an awesome evening together just talking.

    I am reasonably intelligent (at least enough to get a PhD if that counts for anything in assessing intelligence). I can discuss a broad range of technical topics (e.g. electronics, computers, physics) in reasonable depth, stronger in some areas than others. However, before the onset of depression, I had never given a thought to feelings, emotions, the mind, any psychology topic, and deep questions like “why am I here.” In fact I did not even recognize that I could be aware of my thoughts and thinking. I was my thoughts and thinking! So if you wanted to engage in a discussion of mindfulness or philosophy, or psychology, I might have appeared to be brainless. I was interested though, and I learn quickly, as I have done since becoming depressed. Sometimes helping a partner to learn can lead to a partner who knows as much and thinks as deeply as you desire (or maybe more).

    I also find it helpful to actively work on accepting that each person is unique. We know that, but accepting it at a very deep level can be challenging. I find that many people cannot engage in deep conversation on spirituality, mindfulness, meditation, who am I, etc. but they are journeying through life along a different path, different but no less interesting to me. We use different terms, concepts and whole philosophies. At first there may be conflict, miscommunication, and attempts to steer each other onto each other’s path. By accepting that we are each unique, we can each continue to journey along our own paths but share our journeys and learn from each other. It opens up a whole new world to see life from a different philosophical, (religious, cultural, etc.) perspective.

    So back to your question. If you feel that you are “being overly picky, analytical, harsh or superior”, then it would benefit you to work on change so that you don’t feel that way about yourself. In the past I have sometimes resorted to picking apart the other’s sentences for grammar and word choice, as well as analyzing and picking apart the logic flaws in each phrase, sentence, and point made. That didn’t help the relationship and was ultimately driven by my urge to “win”. Discussion and conversation are not about winning or losing, but about sharing and exchanging thoughts and feelings.

    An expectation that your partner must be someone who you love, respect and connect with is not too high an expectation. You have a need to connect on an intellectual level, that has not been met with your past boyfriends. You make your own choices about what you seek in a partner, and over time these choices may evolve. Listen and consider suggestions from those you trust (e.g. that your expectations are too high), but ultimately be confident in making your own choices. If you feel a strong need to be able to carry on a deep conversation on certain topics, then that’s a fair criteria to look for in a partner and you are not expecting too much, but rather filling your own need.

    You ask “How can I have a meaningful conversation with someone if they don’t know anything of meaning and/or don’t understand what I’m talking about?” I think that I provided one response to that above in talking about myself.

    You ask “Am I completely off the mark here?” No. You understand what you want in a partner. Perhaps examine that more closely to see if it really is something that you “need” in a partner or if it is just something that you would like. Do you need it immediately or could you wait for your partner to learn and catch up and possibly surpass you. There is no right or wrong when it comes to what we seek in a partner.

    In answer to “how do I protect and nurture my desire for intelligent people in my life?” I defer to Maranda who has given excellent suggestions. In particular, look for events, talks, courses, etc. where there will be discussion of the kind that you seek in a partner. That can include talks at universities that are open to the public (don’t be intimidated).

    Finally, keep an open mind, be optimistic, and keep looking. It’s worth taking the time to find “the right” partner.


  2. Becca says:

    Thank you Maranda and Richard!

    What I am referring to in intelligence is basic grade school stuff. I’ll give you an example:
    Ex: I studied eastern European history in college. I think that Ukrainia is very interesting.
    Me: Actually, it’s the Ukraine, not Ukrainia.
    Ex: You knew what I meant! You always have to analyze everything!


    Me: Which restaurant do you want to go to, the Mexican one or the Japanese one?
    Ex. Yes, that sounds good.
    Me: That doesn’t answer my question.
    Ex: What question?
    Me: Which restaurant do you want to go to? I gave you two options and asked you which one you preferred.
    Ex: The Mexican place! Geeze, you gotta pick everything apart!

    I will get very OCD when my anxiety and depression is high so I’ve told people that if I’m being picky they should realize that I’m seriously stressing out and it’s not personal. The conversation and activities should be kept relaxing. I usually warn people before they see/talk to me that I’m stressed and want to do relaxing things. If I am instead engaged with in order to antagonize me/ criticize me then it can result in me getting sick and possibly having an anxiety attack.
    The past two boyfriends had absolutely no interest in learning new things and I got tired of always feeling like I was teaching. I’d suggest we read a book together or take a class but there was never any interest. I asked that they share something with me, teach me about their world, but they said there wasn’t anything to know or I already knew everything about them. So, finding interesting things to talk about together was difficult. One had gone to school for art so I tried discussing favorite art techniques. He just shrugged and said, ‘I dunno, I just do it’.
    When I’ve expressed my feelings of frustration there’s been a general response of apathetic disinterest.
    I will say that in the last relationship I was abused and disrespected emotionally and physically, so, ya know, not a winner overall.
    I have many great, close friendships but realize after what Maranda said (as well as coming out as panromantic/demisexual) that I don’t even really want a romantic relationship. I was just following what I thought was expected of me. I have always been happier and healthier being single. Like Maranda, I enjoy being alone and finding solace in books and creative ventures.

    I hope this fills in some of the gaps.
    Thank you thank you thank you!!

  3. Meghan Marie says:

    I have had the exact same problem throughout my entire life!!!!!!!!! It’s the most emptying/dissatisfying experience. I say hold out for someone who will meet you not just eye to eye but mind to mind. You will thank yourself even if it’s a long road to get there.

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