You may have heard about the “36 questions” to make you fall in love. While I have not conducted that experiment, I don’t doubt that people feel closer when they get to know each other. But exactly what kinds of questions can help existing couples learn to operate on a deeper level?
While we all seem to understand that it’s important in romantic relationships that we are experts on each other, I am surprised sometimes by couples who have been together for decades and have not learned some important facts and tips about their person. Below is a list of things I ask couples when working with them to see how much they know about each other and how to “operate” their partner. We refer to this as “building the Owner’s Manual” for your partner.
- Can you name 4 things that will make your partner smile? (this can be something you do, like hug them, or a topic, like kittens, or a memory, like a time you guys went hiking…). This is important because if your partner has had a hard day, or if you just accidentally upset them, knowing how to flip their mood can be a great skill for you. Plus no one likes being in a bad mood, so if you can help them out of it they will be happier as well!
- Can you name 4 things that will put your partner in a bad mood (even though we know you would not do these things on purpose!). This one is more designed to help you avoid things when needed. Let’s say that you are just about to leave for a romantic weekend getaway. This would NOT be the time to bring up something that you know will annoy your partner or darken their skies. Or if you are at a gathering and someone brings up something in the conversation that you know is distressing to your partner, knowing this allows you to try to change the topic or make up an excuse to get your partner out of the situation. This helps our partners feel protected by us.
- Who was your partner closest to as a child? This lets us know whose behavior we can model if we want our partner to feel loved. Maybe their parents were absent a lot due to work but they had a loving grandmother. If that grandmother tended to scratch their back while they watched TV, we can “hack” into this bodily memory by doing the same thing. This links the positive feelings associated with that memory to us!
- What is your partner’s biggest fear in life? This is important to know because if that fear gets triggered our partner is going to be the worst version of themselves. They may need our help to get back to feeling OK. So if your partner’s worst fear is abandonment, you can anticipate that going away for a 2 week work trip is going to be stressful to them. That way you can help your partner by talking about it ahead of time and coming up with a plan to help them feel connected to you, lessening their core fear. That also makes our partner feel like we are sensitive to their Achilles heels.
- Name 4 things on your partner’s bucket list. If you know this you can look for opportunities to fulfill it, or at least come close. Our partner’s need to feel that we are an asset in their lives (and vice-versa) and what better way to prove that than helping them achieve a life-long dream? Remember even if you can’t take them on an around-the-world tour, you may be able to subscribe them to a travel magazine for their birthday or watch travel shows on Netflix with them.
- Does your partner have an overarching theme/value/principle/belief system in their life? What is it? This can be a philosophy, like Buddhism, or a religion, like Christianity, or a principle, like kindness, or a moral prescription, like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or even an overarching goal like financial security or learning new things. What drives them in their life? What matters? Knowing this helps you live in alignment with their core values. We don’t necessarily mind if our partners have different taste buds, biorhythms or music tastes, but it can be hard if we run roughshod over our partner’s deep values. Knowing them helps us be tactful in these important areas and maybe even share in some of the mutual areas where we align.
- Did anything unusually frightening or upsetting happen in your partner’s childhood?
- If so, how can you help them to avoid feeling like that is happening again? This could be a parent abandoning the family, being in a bad car accident or any variety of traumas. Again we want our partner to feel protected by us, so if we know about when they have been scared in the past we can better anticipate when they will be scared in the future. Being there to comfort and reassure our partner sets us up to look like a positive resource and safe person.
- If your partner were crying or upset right now what are 4 things you could try immediately to help lower their distress? All primates can be regulated by touch, vocal prosody (sometimes called motherese, or using a lilting tone to your voice), eye contact and proximity (getting closer to the person). These are the strategies we use with crying babies or a scared animal. And they work on our partners, too! Make sure that you know which strategies work for your person and get good at deploying them. You want to be seen as someone who can provide emotional relief in times of stress.
- What was bedtime like for your partner when they were growing up? Did they have rituals? Did anyone tuck them in? OK, this may sound weird, but even as adults bedtime is important to us. It marks the end of the day and is also a time when we are needing to trust the people close to us as we drift into unconsciousness. Think about how you “put your partner to bed”. If your partner had a nice bedtime ritual with their parents growing up, see if you can hijack parts of it. You can read to your partner before bed, scratch their back or ask them about their day. If your partner did not get tucked in as a kid it can be even more important that you do something at nighttime to help them settle in. It’s a way you can help repair the neglect or disappointments of their own childhoods.
- Did your partner suffer any big losses as a kid? Who supported them with those? How do they receive support? Again this can be a good learning experience for both what to do and what not to do. If they had parents who were able to help them through losses like their dog dying or a grandparent passing away, then listen to how their parents comforted them and use some of those tools. If they did not receive comfort or support around losses, pay extra attention to supporting them now in adulthood. Ask them what feels helpful to them when they are going through loss?
This is just a sample of the kinds of questions that can be useful in learning how to best “operate” your partner and manage them skillfully. You need to be a “whisperer” of your partner (think “horse whisperer” or “baby whisperer”). Sit down when you have some time together, face to face, and explore these questions with each other. Remember the goal is to be curious. If it turns out you have been doing some things “wrong” that’s OK! There is nothing more complex on the whole planet than another human being. So we are not expected to know automatically what works for our person. Be patient with each other as you build each other’s “manuals”. Over time you can learn your partner on deeper and deeper levels and be more efficient and effective with your interactions and communications. It’s work but it’s worth it!
If you find yourself needing help with these exercises or want to get more support for your couple-ship remember that you can get a relationship coach! I recommend the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). You can find PACT therapists here. We also offer couples counseling through our practice and give free 30-minute consultations to see if it’s a good fit. Please feel free to contact us.
Best wishes in your connections,