One of my counseling professors in grad school was fond of suggesting that you can be married to someone for fifty years and still only know a fraction of what makes them tick. The reality is that in relationships, and in life in general, we are far more ignorant than we think we are. This can be especially maddening in a relationship.
We desperately want our partners to be simple. We want them to fit neatly into our expectation or imagination of an ideal boyfriend or a perfect husband. Hollywood doesn’t help, our parents often don’t help, and the very real daily grind of work and life and play doesn’t help. As a result, we get really good at not rocking the boat. If we’re honest, we’re happy if our relationships aren’t complicated and generally void of conflict. I actually think that might be the definition of “settling down"—and code for boring.
Relationships can be exciting, thrilling, interesting, maybe even mind-blowing. The secret? Asking questions. Getting really interested in learning about your partner. Getting excited about what you might discover.
Asking questions is a skill, and it’s something anyone can get really good at. I have a friend and mentor who “collects” questions. He keeps them in a weathered Moleskine that is fat with investigations, interrogations, and inquiries. I love being with him because we’re always bound to discover something new about one another and ourselves.
Imagine if you were committed to discovering something new about your partner and yourself in your relationship. How much more meaningful do you think your relationship would be? Here are a few of my favorite questions to get you started.
01. What do you think?
This is my second favorite question for couples to ask one another, especially when asked with genuine curiosity. Partners need to be able to influence one another in a relationship. More importantly, the ability to accept influence, or taking your partner’s opinions and feelings into account when making decisions, is essential (especially for men) and the failure to do so is actually a predictor of relationship demise. Asking for someone’s opinion or insight doesn’t mean you have to apply it, but it will help your partner feel more connected and respected. Try asking “what do you think” the next time you feel stuck, or even the next time you feel sure. Who knows what you might discover.
02. What do we both want?
I love this question because there is something that you both want. Assuming you’re in a committed relationship, here’s what I know for sure: You both want the relationship to get better in some way. But when we’re in conflict, we usually begin to focus on what divides us. Even if you begin arguing about what type of vacation you want, there’s some mutual goal you want the vacation to accomplish. What is that? Start there. Most conflict is about misunderstanding. If you can rise up to the level of understanding what you have in common and what you’re both chasing, you can skip a lot of wheel spinning and time wasting. Doesn’t that sound good?
03. If we tell a great story later, what will have happened?
Most of how we think about our lives is through the stories we tell. It’s not even really the experiences we have; it’s how we reflect on and report those experiences. Happy couples have a shared narrative of the past and a positive one too. For this question, I think it’s helpful to stay with the vacation theme. Consider this: If you’re on the plane returning from a trip, and you look at each other and say “Yay Us! What a great vacation!” what will have made that possible? What story will you tell one another about that vacation? This question works best if you ask it before you ever leave home. Ask yourselves what makes a great story you can tell later...could be after a vacation, a fight, a visit with the in-laws. Just get ahead of it so that you don’t become a passive character.
04. On a scale of 1 to 10, how connected do you feel to me right now?
I like scales. They help orient us, even if that orientation is arbitrary. There’s nothing scientific about a 1 to 10 scale in the moment, but it can help you locate yourself and the health of your relationship. But imagine that he says 5 and you say 7, so you as a couple are averaging a 6. You then have an opportunity and actually a responsibility to ask a follow-up question: “What has to happen in order to drive our number up even just a little bit?” Wouldn’t it be good to know exactly what you could do to feel more connected and known? (Pro tip: Do that thing.)
05. Are you trying to ask me a question?
This is one of those “meta-questions”—a question about a question. Sometimes we get derailed, unfocused, and even incoherent, especially during conflict. Remember, most conflict is about misunderstanding. What if you stopped long enough to discern what bids for attention are underneath the conflict. What’s the ask? What’s the desire or need that is struggling to be expressed? When you’re stuck, get curious. Ask a question. This is what collaborators do. They work together to discover a solution. Do you want a collaborative relationship?
Remember, we know a lot less than we think we do. Whenever you feel certain about your partner. Or whenever you find yourself wondering what makes them tick, try rocking the boat a little. Ask questions. Start with these and collect more. Let me know if your favorites. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always curious.
This article is adapted from the free eBook 20 Questions for Deeper Connection.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan