The longer we’ve been with our partners, the more we may assume we know everything there is to know about them. (Of course we don’t. Because we are ever-evolving. There’s always something new to learn, to explore, to understand. People change their minds, their careers, their beliefs, their hobbies. Different circumstances shape us differently.) Or maybe we don’t even think about this because we’re so focused on managing day-to-day tasks. Which might very well keep us very busy.
But, “how can we love someone we don’t know?” said Lily Zehner, EdD, MFT-C, a Denver-based therapist who specializes in sex, intimacy and relationships. “To love your partner is to truly know them.”
What does it mean to truly know your partner? According to Zehner, it means understanding them and knowing their “whys.” This includes knowing what makes our partners tick, what makes them happy and what triggers their fear, she said. It means knowing “why they do the work they do, why they live the life they live, why they are who they are.”
How do we discover this or keep discovering it? How do we go beyond the surface and dive deep? Zehner shared four suggestions below.
Approach your partner and your relationship from a place of curiosity, said Zehner, who helps clients connect emotionally, sexually and intimately. In fact, she believes that curiosity is the glue of relationships. Because “it is what keeps us connected on a deep level” (especially since, again, we’re continuously evolving). When we’re curious, we’re open to learning and growing, which is what fortifies our bond with our partners.
Specifically, Zehner suggested getting curious about daily conversations and interactions with your partner. Get curious about their dreams, successes, failures and fears. Get curious about why they feel anxious, angry, sad or excited. Get curious about why they want what they want and their perspective in a conflict (before making assumptions and jumping to conclusions). Talk to them. Ask them.
Ask open-ended questions
Consider what you can learn about your partner that you didn’t know before, Zehner said. When asking questions, make sure to listen intently. Listen to “see [your partner] and hear them, not to respond.”
If you’re not sure what to ask, Zehner suggested starting with these questions:
- What work would you be doing if money weren’t a factor?
- If you could only choose three things to take from our home, what would they be and why?
- Would you rather have more time or money in your life?
- What is the most important thing to do on your bucket list before you die?
After your partner has responded, answer these questions, too. “[T]his can unfold into a lovely conversation.”
When we play, our defenses lower, Zehner said. “There is a lovely openness that allows us to see each other in a way that we often don’t get to see in our daily grind.” What does play look like? Zehner considers play to be “anything that brings us laughter, adventure, fun, creativity, physical movement and/or an experience that allows us to learn something new.”
For instance, whenever she and her husband are waiting for their food at dinner, they play hangman. Play also might be learning to rock climb or taking golf lessons or attending a pottery class together. It might be dancing every morning or playing Monopoly on Sundays. “In the end, play is defined by you and your partner.”
Observe your partner in his or her element
For instance, Zehner loves to watch her husband coach people at their CrossFit gym. “I get to see him in a free, happy, passion-filled mood. I have learned so much about him from sitting and watching how he leads, interacts, helps and shines in his element.”
What is your partner’s “element”? Is it volunteering with kids? Playing in a band? Playing a sport? Whipping up a delicious dessert? Coaching a baseball team? Giving a talk? Whatever it is, go and watch your partner in action.
This also helps if you’re struggling with feeling attracted to your partner. “This experience can provide an opportunity to see a confidence, an ease, a power that may not be present in other areas of life.” And it can remind you about the parts you were attracted to in the first place, she said.
Getting to know our partners beyond the surface starts with getting curious. It starts with carving out some time to be together, to listen to each other — without distractions. To play. To watch and witness. It starts with realizing that our relationships grow when they are nourished.
Couple playing chess photo available from Shutterstock