A couple is sitting in a restaurant. I notice them because, aside from a smattering of dialogue here and there, they mostly eat in silence. Their facial expressions are neutral, they’re fiddling with their cell phones, and when the check comes, they promptly pay and leave.
If it wasn’t for the wedding bands they wore, you’d think they were two strangers standing in an elevator rather than a married couple sharing a meal at a restaurant.
I’ve seen this couple many times. I know you have too. They’re the kind you look at while feverishly giving thanks that you aren’t them.
But then time passes. You get married or find yourself in a long-term relationship, and your conversations go from engaged, curious, loving, intimate talk to… logistical talk.
Slowly, we find ourselves stuck in a rut of talking about who’s picking up the kids or what we are having for dinner, or what we’re doing on the weekend. Gone are the late-night conversations, the stream of non-stop texting, the voracious need to know every single thing about each other.
Instead, we complain that we’re bored or lonely in our marriage or relationship. We feel misunderstood and unsupported. Essentially, we become emotionally disconnected from each other and we don’t know why or when it started; only that we woke up one day to find that we’ve suddenly become two people who share little more than banal dyadic conversations and mundane interactions.
When most of our conversations inadvertently end with a to-do list, is it any surprise that we aren’t interested in engaging with each other? Worse, we’ve fallen so far down the rabbit hole of mindless chatter that we’ve lost the ability to have meaningful conversations that don’t end in judgement, blame, sarcasm, or eye rolls.
The good news is that our relationships are salvageable. We can shift from small talk to having a deeper connection simply by changing the words we choose to talk to each other. It just requires a willingness to be open, curious, and vulnerable.
According to Brené Brown, a renowned researcher who spent two decades studying emotions, there can be no vulnerability in the absence of courage. In other words, in order to be vulnerable, one must be brave. These two emotions go hand in hand, and without vulnerability, connection is impossible.
Gone are the late-night conversations, the stream of non-stop texting, the voracious need to know every single thing about each other.
That is not to say that people won’t hurt you or break your trust. Trust is broken every day, and people are hurt by those they love all the time. Being vulnerable is grueling. Sometimes even excruciating. I get it. Standing in front of someone and saying, “This is me. These are all the dark, shamed, insecure parts of myself that I hate having you see,” and then hoping they don’t reject you, well, that isn’t exactly anyone’s idea of fun.
But it’s a chance you must be willing to take for the sake of a deeper connection. There are no two ways about it: we must lay ourselves bare, take down our defenses, and gather up our courage if we want the kind of relationship where games are no longer played, where we don’t have to wonder what they mean when they say this or that, where we don’t fear the consequences of our flaws or past mistakes on our current relationship, where we don’t have to become a watered-down version of ourselves to be fully accepted, seen, or loved. The bottom line is this: Embracing our vulnerability is the only way that we can truly connect with other humans.
When it comes to conversations in a couple, vulnerability looks like this:
Partner A: “Hi, this is me. These are my frayed edges, my mistakes, my fears, my affection. Please handle them with care.”
In return, this invites Partner B to say: “Oh, so this is who you are. Don’t worry; you’re safe with me. And since you trusted me with yourself, I’ll trust you with myself in return. Here – this is me.”
Many of us struggle to find ways to connect without realizing that the problem isn’t exactly what we are talking about, but the words we use in our dialogues. As the colloquial expression goes: It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Which is where open-ended questions come in.
Studies have shown that asking open-ended questions significantly impacts the quality of our relationship.
Open-ended questions (which sound a lot like what they mean) open the door to intimacy and closeness. Asking these types of questions requires more thought and more than a simple one-word “yes” or “no” answer.
In fact, studies have shown that asking open-ended questions significantly impacts the quality of our relationship. Why? Because when you ask this type of question, what you are really conveying to your partner is that you are interested in what they have to say, that you value them and their opinion. It communicates a feeling of respect to your partner. If open-ended questions stood for a message, that message would be: “Please share your thoughts and feelings with me. I care about your opinions and ideas, irrespective of whether I share them.” How powerful is that?
To get you started, here is a list of 12 open-ended questions that you can use as a cheat sheet when it comes to starting conversations that produce a more thoughtful response. Use these questions when you want to engage in a more meaningful conversation with your partner.
- What qualities do you admire most about me and why?
- In your opinion, what could we work on as a couple to improve our relationship?
- What would you like to do more of in our relationship?
- How do you feel when we argue or are in a fight?
- What do we argue about the most, and do you think we can find a solution to that problem?
- What is your greatest parenting fear?
- What is one thing you feel judged for as a parent?
- How would you like me to support you or have your back when you are disciplining or saying no to the kids?
- What are some strategies for us to help each other when the other one is losing their cool?
- What is currently stressing you at work?
- How can I support you when you’ve had a bad day at work or you’re going through a stressful period at work?
- What are your fears about your job?