Do you want to create a richer connection with your partner? To have those conversations that are intimate and meaningful? Are you shutting down opportunities for a deeper relationship with someone you love by the way you talk with them?
Wait, I’m sorry. Let me try those questions again.
How do you connect better with people? Recount a time when you had a meaningful conversation. What kinds of questions elicit a deeper engagement?
We all have conversations with people who are not gifted in connecting, and maybe we struggle to connect in conversations. Connecting through conversation is integral to any relationship, and our questions often determine the quality of that engagement. The key to asking engaging questions may be simpler than you think.
There’s a colloquial expression: it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Although the tone of our questions is important, the actual questions themselves are the key to engaging conversations. Read the first paragraph of this article again. How can someone respond to the questions in this first paragraph? They are all closed-ended questions, which typically prompt simple one-word answers, so what you say does matter.
My favorite Saturday Night Live skit comes from The Chris Farley Show, where he painstakingly struggles to interview his famous guests. He labors through interview questions that all begin with, “Do you remember…?” Leaving the famous interviewee to blandly respond, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
The point of the skit is to show how poor Farley is in interviewing his guests, barraging them with yes-or-no questions that cause the audience to feel the lack of connection or depth. It’s brilliantly hilarious, but also terrifyingly familiar.
All of us have been the one uncomfortably asking questions of the person we want to impress or connect with, only to find ourselves running the conversation into a brick wall. These types of questions narrow down the possible responses to a version of either yes or no. When you ask closed-ended questions, you lead your conversation partner down a path that severely limits opportunity for depth and connection.
So, in what ways are closed-ended questions a part of those conversations? How can we free ourselves from this limited way of speaking?
How to Ask Open-Ended Questions
There is a very simple strategy in how you talk with your loved ones that can enhance your ability to create better conversations—especially with your partner—and that is to ask open-ended questions. The idea of open-ended questions comes from Miller and Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing, which is a widely accepted form of dialogue that enhances the participant’s motivation to accept change. But open-ended questions are not only good for therapy; they are also key to fostering engaging conversations in our everyday lives.
To better enhance the opportunity for deeper, richer conversation, according to Miller and Rollnick, you have to work on your phrasing of questions. Open-ended means that the questions cannot be appropriately answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions do not begin with “do” or “did,” which generally prompt a simple answer; open-ended types of questions usually begin with these words:
- How did you…
- In what ways…
- Tell me about…
- What’s it like…
If you have a teenage child, imagine asking them this question at the end of the day: “Did you have a good day today?” Do you think that will prompt a thrilling conversation where your teen opens up to you about all their hopes and dreams? Of course it won’t. Instead, you could try: “In what ways did you feel accomplished today?”
Asking open-ended questions encourages the person you’re conversing with to think critically and therefore to be more engaging, because open-ended questions allow the respondent, not the asker, to control the response.
Try reading the second paragraph of this article again, and notice how the paragraph is entirely comprised of open-ended questions that require much more critical thought than the questions in the first paragraph. You are invited to self-reflect and to dive into descriptive answers that are ripe for follow-up questions. In using more open-ended questions in conversation, you invite people to talk with you rather than talk to you. That is the recipe for better conversations.
When it comes to romantic relationships, asking open-ended questions is especially important, and The Gottman Institute’s methods encourage couples to ask open-ended questions of each other on a regular basis to deepen their intimacy. Let’s imagine those moments in a romantic relationship where connection is difficult, where busyness is the norm, yet you long for a rich conversation with your partner like you used to have.
You turn to your partner and ask, “Do you feel happy with our relationship right now?” How does someone begin to answer this question when it might seem so reductive? Let’s reword this question to be more open-ended and see how it evokes conversation: “In what ways do you feel happy with our relationship?” This open-ended example provides a much more constructive setting to better know what is going well in the relationship.
Which brings us to this: better conversation is more vulnerable and more intimate conversation. It is very difficult to share your thoughts and emotions by answering closed-ended questions, but with open-ended questions, the door for deeper connectedness is flung wide open. Granted, you cannot force someone to be open and honest and share their deeper selves, but you can create an atmosphere that invites deeper connection.
Open-ended questions require us to be engaged in what we are saying. And when we are engaged in what we are saying, we create better and more meaningful conversation.
The Gottman Card Decks App
Need some guidance on how to ask open-ended questions of your partner? Download our free Gottman Card Decks, a relationships app that includes our popular Love Maps, Open-Ended Questions, and more virtual card decks to help you and your partner connect and deepen your intimacy.
When a family member—a spouse or a child—misbehaves or breaks your heart, the most natural reaction is to ask, “What did I do wrong?”
Wrong question entirely.
A therapist friend of mine, who has worked with thousands of couples in heartbreaking situations, always asks such people, “When God created the perfect world for Adam and Eve and even that wasn’t enough to keep them from sinning, do you think the Trinity asked, ‘Where did we go wrong?’”
When God blessed David, called him out of nowhere to make him a man of significance, put him on a throne, and David responded with adultery and murder, do you think God asked, “What could I have done differently?”
When Jesus lived as the perfect Messiah, giving Judas copious amounts of wondrous teaching, perfect counsel, and absolutely the best example anyone could ever demonstrate, and yet all that proved not to be enough for Judas, did Jesus ask, “What did I do wrong? Why did Judas stray?”
A near universal response for wives who find out their husbands have had affairs or been dabbling in porn—in fact, I’ve heard this from just about every wife I’ve talked to whose marriage has been marred by this—is, “What’s wrong with me? Am I not pretty enough? Am I not creative enough in bed?”
Wives, it’s never about you. Sex can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to either spouse thinking they have to be more beautiful, younger, more creative, and better “mechanically” than anyone else in the world or their spouse might be unfaithful. Think about that line of thinking for just a second—that’s not marriage, that’s not real intimacy. It’s sick to even consider all that as necessary for a spouse to be faithful. It turns sex into an ugly performance instead of a cherishing act.
Thinking that we can be such good parents or such good spouses that our loved ones will never stray is to think we can “outdo” the Trinity. You cannot, as a parent, create a perfect Garden of Eden experience for your kids, but even if you did, they’d mess it up. You cannot, as a partner, be a truer companion than Jesus, but even if you were, you’d face betrayal.
There may be a time, later, when you reflect on what you could have done better, as a parent or a spouse. We can all improve, and the Bible urges us to grow in every area. But that’s different than thinking you can be such a good parent or such a good spouse that your loved ones will never stumble. “We all stumble in many ways.” James 3:2
If anything, the real answer to “What did I do wrong?” is, “You were born in sin and you live in a world where every family member has been born in sin.”
God’s remedy to this isn’t you, it’s Jesus. His grace, his forgiveness, his wisdom, his power, his redemption—that’s the ultimate solution. As much as we’d like to be, we’re not the answer; Jesus is.
So let’s stop wondering, “What did I do wrong?” and start asking, “How can surrendering to Jesus’ grace and presence help us find our way back?”
(This blog has been re-posted from Gary Thomas’s blog. Used with permission.)
“Trust is essential.
According to one researcher, trust is the cornerstone of every relationship. But how do we become trustworthy? And how do we regain trust in someone when they’ve done something to betray our trust?
As essential as trust is for healthy relationships, trust is also tricky. In my counseling training, I was taught, “Trust is the result of trustworthy actions.” This is a handy description, but it needs some nuance to be effective. The obvious question is “What are trustworthy actions?” The answer may seem easy at first blush, but relationships of any length quickly reveal that what one person conceives of as trustworthy activity often goes unnoticed or underappreciated by the other.”
Read the full article at Desiring God.
There are so many ways to instantly communicate with anyone right at your fingertips. But despite this age of heightened connectivity, an increasing number of couples come to me citing device usage and social media as an issue in their relationship. Excessive device usage acts as a barrier to quality communication, which leaves partners feeling ignored or unimportant.
Many of us have experienced sharing a significant story with someone and they grab their cell phone halfway through the conversation. Attempting to share the highlights of your day with your partner but they have their nose buried in their Facebook feed? Trying to relay a story about your son but your partner is flipping through Instagram?
Well, the message seems clear – their phone is more important than you are at this moment. Over time, this can be very problematic, leading to feelings of rejection and separateness. You may even start to believe, “Why bother?”
Recent research indicates how cell phones are affecting our relationships. In a study titled “My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone,” Meredith Davis and James Roberts suggest that the overuse of cell phones can lead to greater dissatisfaction within our most important relationships. According to their study, which included 145 adults, excessive device usage decreased marital satisfaction.
An additional study by Chinese scientists assessed 243 married adults with similar outcomes. This study posits that excessive phone usage not only decreases your marital satisfaction, but it also contributes to a greater likelihood of depression. And even more concerning is that 86% of American adults constantly check their devices for social media updates, email, and text messages.
The implications are clear; our most important relationships can be dulled and diminished in favor of screen time. But you and your partner can work together to overcome excessive device usage and reconnect with face-to-face time together.
The Importance of Bids
Drs. John and Julie Gottman assert the importance of “bids” in healthy relationships. A bid is an attempt at seeking attention, affirmation, and/or affection to positively connect with your partner.
For example, at a meal together you might say, “I can’t decide between the fish and the steak” to your companion. Although the content of the statement isn’t incredibly important here, it’s a simple attempt to connect with your partner in that moment. Your partner could keep perusing their menu and ignore you, or they could accept your bid for connection and say something like, “They both sound good, but didn’t you just have steak the other night when you tried that new restaurant down the street?”
If your partner responds positively in that very small interaction, they are being mindful that you want to connect with them and are “turning toward” you. Dr. Gottman’s research suggests that successful couples turn toward each other about 86% of the time, and accepting your partner’s bids requires paying attention, which is something you can’t do if you’re using your phone.
Too much screen time may also prompt trust issues. Is your partner communicating with someone else? Are they messaging with an ex through Facebook? Social media may blur the lines of what is acceptable behavior and it could potentially lead to an emotional affair, so make sure to have a conversation with your partner about what is off limits and why.
A good rule of thumb: use real world boundaries as a guide. If you wouldn’t have that conversation with a Facebook friend in real life with your partner by your side, it’s probably best not to do it online, either.
Spending Device-Free Time Together
You should make it a priority to spend quality time with your partner without your cell phone. But before you make any rules, you should examine your own phone habits first and discuss the issue with your partner calmly and respectfully.
James Roberts, in addition to his co-authored study above, also wrote “Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?” He explains that “if you need to improve as well, approach your partner that this is something you need to tackle together. If you point the finger at your partner without taking responsibility for your own behavior, it won’t go over well.” Like Dr. John Gottman suggests, it is always best to express how you feel and what you need by using a soft start-up.
Once you and your partner have that discussion, try taking 30 minutes together, face-to-face, as a trial run without phones. Notice how different your interaction and conversation feels when you can see each other’s facial expressions and make eye contact, which will give you an indication of how much more connected the two of you may be when spending time device-free. Express how you feel after those 30 minutes, and try to build that routine into your daily life with your partner.
Outside of 30 minutes of daily device-free time, silencing your phone during dinner, or even leaving it in another room, is a good habit to get into so you can focus on the meal and on your partner and/or family. You can make an agreement with your partner on when and where smartphones will be allowed or not, and there are apps that you can use to monitor how much time you’re spending on the phone, especially if you’d like to cut back on device usage overall.
Despite these suggestions, some of my clients will say, “But I have to be plugged in for work.” The importance of staying connected to your job is understandable, especially that more and more employers expect their employees to be accessible outside of work, but you can set boundaries for work-related phone use, too. You could try using a “do not disturb” feature on your phone to silence alerts and phone calls, but you can also allow certain contacts (like your boss) to get through in case there’s an urgent issue that needs your attention.
Whether you use your phone for work or leisure, it’s important to make an effort to spend more time face-to-face with your partner. All it takes is to be present, look your partner in the eyes, and have a real conversation. Once you feel more connected to them, you’ll know that it’s worth the effort.
Katie Golem, MSW, LSW
(Katie Golem is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist based in Chicago, IL. Working with both couples and individuals, she is passionate about helping others thrive. She also loves to write – you can find her blog here: artemiscounseling.com. Article originally posted at https://www.gottman.com/blog/smartphone-might-sabotage-relationship/. Reposted with permission.)
I have often heard it said by pastors, pastoral counselors, therapists, and everyday people that a couple is “in a dead marriage.”
Affection in Marriage
Marriage is a covenant or an agreement, a contract between a man and a woman originally established by God. The Bible says of marriage: “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.” (1 Cor. 7:3)
Many in my care over the years have read this verse and seen only the physical aspect of the word “affection”. But in my understanding it’s more than just about sex: It’s also about true love and devotion to one another, under God!
Philippians 2:1-5 focuses on relationships in general (not just marriage), but can still be applied to marriages: Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.
This passage teaches us the “unconditional love” concept that counters the selfish, self-centered, “what’s in it for me?” approach to marriage that can kill the physical as well as the spiritual devotion necessary for oneness. This unconditional love also wrecks the mindset that withholds loving the other person until they know what they will get back from the other partner. Instead, the cross of Christ is given as the example of how we love each other.
A Dead Marriage
Unfortunately, this Biblical plan doesn’t always play itself out in marriages.
Most surveys, including one in 2012 by the CDC, puts the divorce rate in America for first marriages between 40-50%. This tends to be true for Christians and non-Christians alike.
I wonder how many folks really didn’t fully understand the concept of Christ-like sacrifice and selflessness was what they were signing on for in marriage, the huge reality of the life-long commitment they were agreeing to. Maybe after finding out how much commitment was needed, they were not truly willing to do as they promised. I want to be clear I’m not just talking in the physical sense, e.g., sexuality, but also the responsibility to love and care and nurture one another in every way. In our marriages, do we care for each other, about each other, love each other?
Breathing Life into Marriages
The Apostle Paul clearly recognized that living souls are in need of true love and care. I believe he was alluding to various Old Testament statues (such as Exodus 21:7-11) when he wrote 1 Corinthians 7:5: Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Paul was answering questions about sexual relations in a godly marriage between husband and wife in the above passage. And while sexual relations are important to a healthy marriage, the bigger problem I find today is the condition of the heart of one living soul and their ability or reluctance to truly love their spouse. The Bible addresses this in 1 Peter 3:7-9:
Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered. Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.
In marriage, you cannot have a vibrant physical relationship described in 1 Cor 7 and “be of one mind, having compassion for one another…as brothers [and sisters]” without having person-to-person oneness. The unconditional love taught in Philippians 2:1-5 kills the selfish, self-centered approach to marriage so that oneness can occur. So it comes down to truth, God’s love through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and with “one mind, having compassion one for another” we do the work which at times seems difficult and we do it out of love and for the life of our marriages.
Dr. Tom Miller, C.Ph.D.
Counselor, Day Seven Ministries
Don’t let your wedding day be the last day you truly appreciate your spouse.
When my wife and I got married, more than twelve years ago now, we were convinced that we would have a happy life together. Our courtship was exciting, and our wedding day was a dream. Little did we know that a switch flipped in both of our heads on the day we said “I do.” Indeed, the very next day—the first full day of our married life—my wife and I would begin taking each other for granted.
It’s only in looking back that I can understand what happened early in our marriage. At the time, the change was so gradual that we didn’t even notice it.
Before our wedding day, our focus was each other, having fun, and building our love. After our wedding day, our focus began to shift. Without realizing it, I viewed our wedding day as the finish line in the courtship race, and I had won the prize: my wife’s love.
It was about six months into our marriage when I discovered that we had actually lost something when we said our vows. As each month of marriage passed, the slow decline in our relationship continued. I still couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong, and though we weren’t yet at a terrible place, I looked to the future, and I did not like what I saw.
I called three friends of mine, all of whom had been married for more than twelve years. I thought they all had good marriages and would be good people to get advice from.
My first friend urged me to get over it. No one is happily married, he said. My second friend explained to me that this is what happens in marriage: The initial passion fades away, and you end up bickering for the rest of your lives. My third friend told me the key to surviving marriage was to have low expectations—very low expectations.
Devastated by my friends’ advice, I feared that I had ruined my life by getting married. But my marriage took a turn for the better when I was asked to teach Pre-Cana, a course of marriage consultation that couples must undergo before they can be married in a Catholic church. My initial reaction was: Are you crazy? I’m not suited to teach this. But in the end I accepted the challenge.
This was a game changer for our marriage. As we did our homework to prepare to teach the class, my wife and I felt the trend of our marriage shift in mere days.
Research by marriage specialists such as Dr. John Gottman, author of the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and Bill Doherty, professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Minnesota, provided practical suggestions for how to strengthen marriage, which were simple enough that we were able to easily apply them to our marriage.
In a life-changing talk, Doherty makes an important point about marriage. He explains that the natural trend of marriage is for romance, affection, appreciation, and communication to decline over time, not because couples start to dislike each other but because they become too comfortable together.
Doherty explained that it is important to choose the right person, but it is also important to have a strategy to stay happy. His big phrase is “the intentional couple,” by which he means you need to be aware of what you’re doing, and you need to have a plan to nurture the positive in your relationship.
Couples with marriages rich in habits, rituals, and traditions will be better suited to avoid the trap of taking each other for granted and will keep the positive side of the relationship nurtured over time.
Here are three important rituals that saved my wife and I from taking each other for granted and drifting apart.
01. Create a habit of reunion every day.
According to Doherty, the most important moment in your marriage is the moment of reunion—it’s how you greet each other. If you consistently greet each other well, you will look forward to seeing each other. If you are inconsistent about how you greet each other, you can lose that sense of excitement. If you criticize each other at the moment of reunion, you can become fearful of seeing each other.
In need of a daily ritual in my own marriage, I remembered something my parents did that had made a strong impression on me when I was a little boy. My parents did it very rarely, but occasionally after dinner my father would ask my mother to dance.
I made a commitment right then and there to dance with my wife whenever I greet her. Now the first thing I do when I get home is to find her, and tell her, “I have to dance with you.” On days when I work too late, or am traveling without her, I make up for the missed opportunity by sending my wife a video kiss from my iPhone. Once we even danced via Facetime.
The consistency of greeting each other well has completely transformed our marriage. Every day of our marriage has romance and affection in it, and my wife and I are always excited to see each other.
02. Set aside two minutes of undistracted communication every day.
Gottman has found that two minutes of undistracted communication can be more important than spending a whole unfocused week together as a couple. Even though I am not a morning person, I resolved to wake up a little earlier each day and have breakfast with my wife.
Having breakfast is not our morning ritual, as Gottman has found that even the food you’re eating is a distraction. It’s when we are finished eating that I slap my knee and invite my wife to sit on my lap. We then ask each other what our days will be like.
Right from the beginning of the day, we have a ritual to nurture the romance, affection, and connection in our marriage, and we have found that this feeling persists throughout the day. Two minutes of non-distracted communication, while dancing at the moment of reunion, serves to refresh this daily connection.
03. Practice an appreciation ritual every day.
Sadly, couples tend to take the good in each other for granted very quickly—and can even stop noticing the good that the other is doing—while focusing more and more on the petty failings of the other.
Inspired by the research of Gottman, we began to incorporate an appreciation ritual into our daily lives. We’ve learned to say thank you throughout the day. And we end each day before going to bed by sitting together, with the computers off, and thanking each other once again for all the big and small things we’ve done for each other that day.
When we first started this ritual, we were stunned to realize how much each of us was doing for the other during the day. I had become so focused on my petty complaints about my wife that I had forgotten what a good wife she was. Our thank you ritual to end the day has helped us become much more tolerant of each other’s failings.
Most couples allow their marriages to decay slowly over time, often without realizing it. But this wasn’t my marriage’s fate, and it doesn’t have to be yours. Daily rituals keep the sense of connection strong in marriage and assure that romance, affection, and appreciation are a part of your married life every day.
By Peter McFadden, Verily Magizine