When we interact with our partner, we may jump to conclusions, make assumptions and judge them — without our partner even uttering a word.
We may assume our partners are late from work because they took on another project — like usual. We may assume they forgot to make dinner because they don’t care.
We may judge them for certain habits, decisions or behaviors. When we approach our partners in these ways, it’s easy to misread a situation, hurt their feelings and spark a fight. In our haste, we might never find out that they had a bad day, got a flat tire, stopped to grab dinner or received important news.
What’s more helpful is approaching your partner with curiosity. In fact, curiosity is key for romantic relationships, and helps to cultivate intimacy, according to Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in couples therapy in southern New Hampshire.
Curiosity opens up a dialogue between partners and a possibility for acceptance, she said. It helps couples navigate conflict, cultivate a stronger connection and prevents the above approaches, which only lead to resentment, anger and a whole host of misunderstandings.
Being curious with your partner means being curious about their world, instead of assuming you know what they’re thinking, feeling and experiencing. Because when we assume, we cut off from who our partners really are, Bush said.
Below, she shared four ways readers can cultivate curiosity in their relationships.
- Penny for your thoughts. In 75 Habits for a Happy Marriage Bush’s book with her husband Daniel Arthur Bush, they include an exercise called “penny” (as in “a penny for your thoughts”).Whenever you say “penny” to your partner, they share exactly what they’re thinking in that moment, without censoring themselves.
- State of the union. This is another exercise from 75 Habits, which involves rating the state of your relationship from one to 10 (one being “I’m on the brink of divorce” to 10 being “honeymoon heaven”). Regardless of the rating your partner gives, be curious. (Though it’s hard, try not to take it personally, and instead remain open.)For instance, if your partner says “four,” ask: “Why is it only a four for you? What would make it a higher number? How could we improve things?”
- Open-ended questions. Open-ended questions invite conversation, Bush said. She gave these examples: What three interesting things happened at work today? What is the hardest thing for you about our recent transition (e.g. getting a new job, getting fired, moving, having a new pet, having a baby)?In other words, instead of asking, “Did you like the movie?” and eliciting a yes or no response, ask your partner, “I’m curious, what did you think were the best and worst parts of that movie?”
- Self-reflection. It’s also helpful for partners to reflect on a situation on their own. For instance, you might journal about why your wife got upset when you made a specific comment, “allowing yourself to consider a variety of options,” Bush said. You might consider if your wife has felt this way before or heard this remark in her childhood, she said.The key is to “look for layers of complexity and how the past influences the present…[because] there is more than meets the eye in any given situation.”
Again, curiosity is all about “trying to tap into [your partner’s] experience of the world and not assuming you know what it is,” Bush said. Doing so helps you navigate conflict more effectively and build your bond. It cultivates intimacy, and helps your partner “feel loved, important and special.”
* Bush explores using curiosity for all relationships in this helpful post.