Richard Nicastro, PhD deconstructs communication in intimate relationships and the impact of relationship lethargy. Couples can get into bad habits around the kinds of questions asked and other blocks to truly engaging your partner.
Questions are a powerful communication tools we all use to engage others. Asking questions is so natural to us that we often overlook just how important they are in deepening emotional intimacy. While there are many questions we can ask one another, the most basic involves some variation of, “How are you?” or “What are you feeling?”
Of course the power of these questions differs greatly depending on circumstance and who is asking. When a grocery store cashier asks, “How are you today?” s/he probably has little-to-no-genuine concern for how you’re feeling apart from the transaction at hand. You’re likely to respond with, “Fine, thanks, how are you?” and likewise, probably do not care overmuch about the particulars of the cashier’s life.
This is not said to make you feel compelled to share more of yourself with people you meet just once or to coax personal details from them! Instead, it’s meant to get you thinking about questions and answers and how the depth and nuance will vary dramatically across the people and circumstances of your day.
Our responses to questions are often shaped by us following some kind of social protocol. (Indeed, unless the cashier happens to also be a close friend of yours, it wouldn’t be appropriate to volunteer details about the fight you just had with your mate…)
Questions as Gateways to Greater Self- and Other-Intimacy
When our good friend or partner asks about how we’re doing, an invitation is sent for a different level of sharing. In this instance, the possibility of a more intimate encounter is being opened for consideration.
Sometimes questions take us into familiar territory and our responses are quickly accessed and known to us. This is especially the case when questions prompt us to exchange simple information (“Do you know if Ted’s divorce is final yet?; “I heard you were offered a job out of state; are you going to take it?”).
But questions about our emotional life direct us inward. These questions require work. We are being asked to go beyond the superficial. These requirements involve self-reflection and efforts to connect with ourselves on a deeper level. In these instances, the question acts like a probe sent along the corridors of our inner world.
In doing this work, we may encounter something that unsettles us, feelings we’ve been avoiding (“Actually, I’ve been blue lately. I’ve just been feeling lost for a while.”). At other times our internal experience may be unclear or unknowable to us—“I’m not sure how I’m feeling, to be honest…” In this case we may struggle to find words to help clarify what is going on inside of us; a back-and-forth with ourselves that may bring into greater focus what we are actually feeling.
In these instances, questions are provocateurs, invitations to delve deeper toward the parts of ourselves that are kept hidden as we navigate throughout our daily lives. Of course, it depends on what we do with the questions asked of us that determine their ultimate meaning and significance. A question may not move us because it isn’t the right question, but a question may also fall flat because we don’t allow ourselves to be moved by it. We don’t do the inner work required by the question.
Couples ask each other questions all the time. These invitations to share ourselves are powerful determiners of the kinds of conversations we engage in.
But why do they so often flop?
Why do we end up responding superficially to our partner/spouse like we do to the cashier asking about our day?
Why Good Communication Skills Aren’t Enough in Intimate Relationships
When we’re enthralled in the newness of love, we ask each other questions all the time. Like waiting for our favorite author’s newest release, we eagerly anticipate the words of our partner/spouse—each exchange a new and exciting discovery about the person we want to know deeply and completely.
Curiosity and discovery are powerful connecting forces when love is new. Unfortunately, as time passes and some of us fall victim to relationship lethargy, we either become less curious about what is going on with partner/spouse (that is, we stop asking questions that invite sharing), or we stop doing the work required of the questions asked of us.
“Help! He Hardly Talks to Me Anymore”
“How would you feel if your partner said, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘all right’ whenever you asked her about how she is feeling or how her day went? Well, that’s all I get from Trevor. It’s like pulling teeth. So I ask again or I ask a different question and then he gets annoyed. Now I’m accused of pestering him. I’m tired of the superficial conversations. I’m seeking something more, but he fights me every step of the way. I’m emotionally starving…”
– Beth, married for eight years
Beth is trying to use questions to engage her husband. But it’s like her questions hit a concrete wall. Because of Trevor’s lack of responsiveness, Beth feels painfully isolated.
This type of complaint is common for distressed couples: “We don’t talk anymore”; “She’s become so closed off emotionally”; or “I knew he was quiet, but this is different—now I only get one or two word responses from him at best.” In these instances, spontaneous conversation is a rarity and the questions we typically use to prompt someone into a discussion lead nowhere.
Why do so many of us resist the very questions that once felt like gifts? Have we simply failed to learn good communication skills or is something else going on?
Reasons Your Questions May Not Be Engaging Your Partner
I really don’t know what I’m feeling.
Sometimes (or maybe even often), we simply just don’t know what we’re feeling. There is no mystery here, no deep-seated reason for our emotional ignorance. But not knowing what we’re feeling shouldn’t preempt discussions about what we might be feeling.
Very often, in talking to another person, our feelings start to crystallize and take shape. It is the connection with another that deepens our connection to ourselves (and what we might be feeling). So rather than believing we should know what we’re feeling and bring these ready-to-be-communicated feelings into a conversation, we can use the conversation as a launching pad to greater self-discovery—to discover what we might be feeling.
I don’t want to know what I’m feeling.
“I don’t know what I’m feeling” may actually mean, “I don’t want to know what I’m feeling!”
When this is the case, questions that place a spotlight on what we’re feeling can stir anxiety and even anger. These questions are too provocative, maybe even too threatening. We may start to view the person asking these questions as an adversary, someone trying to force us to feel things we don’t want to feel.
A common example of this occurs when we’ve had a lousy day and just want to forget about it. Revisiting the day in conversation can feel like we’re tortuously replaying every painful detail. When this is the case, questions like, How did your day go? can feel like invitations to further pain rather than an intimate connection with your partner.
I’m coasting; I’ve gotten lazy and stopped doing the work.
So many of us quickly fall back to the, “I don’t know” retort, maybe out of sheer habit or, possibly, laziness. We’ve fallen into comfortable patterns. Relationship patterns that are easy and mindless. This common occurrence, our tendency toward inertia, is something we need to be mindful of and actively fight against.
The biggest tool in the fight against communication inertia is the realization that certain questions are supposed to challenge us. The fact that they make us uncomfortable or force us out of our repetitive, routinized lethargy is a good thing (even if we may not think so in the moment). There is no way around it, intimate conversation requires work. We must make the conscious decision to put in the effort inherent to answering questions that invite deeper self-reflection.
I’m angry/annoyed with you.
Have you ever tried to get an angry teenager to open up and talk about his/her feelings? It’s like emotional root canal. Anger and openness are at odds with each other (whether you’re a teenager or an adult). If we’re angry (or resentful) with our partner, why are we going to oblige him/her with the most intimate parts of ourselves?
Anger acts as an emotional barrier, a wall that creates distance. When unresolved anger or undercurrents of resentment exist, communication—and the openness required for sharing—will always be hobbled. The challenge for us is to effectively deal with the issues that are contributing to the barriers preventing greater self-disclosure.
I don’t feel safe sharing myself with you any longer.
Different questions require different things of us. Certain questions invite us to be emotionally vulnerable. To answer these questions, we have to open ourselves up, exposing the tender spots that exist within. To do this freely, there are certain relationship conditions that must be in place.
Here conditions that allow us to feel emotionally safe with each other are vital. When you anticipate judgment, ridicule, indifference, impatience or rejection, remaining closed off (even when an invitation for intimate sharing has been offered) makes sense.
When we no longer feel safe, when our partner is reckless with our emotions, then self-protection overrides intimate sharing. Here self-protection might look like verbal stinginess, but it’s designed to safeguard ourselves from the insensitivity of someone who doesn’t truly get us.
I hope this look at the common reasons meaningful questions and answers sometimes get stymied in intimate relationships has been helpful to you. The more we know why we might be behaving in a certain way, the more empowered we become to make conscious choices—choices that may challenge us to dig deeper and reach higher—for the benefit of ourselves and our relationships.