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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: 201 Relationship Questions: The Couple's Guide to Building Trust and Emotional Intimacy
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According to Barrie Davenport, a certified personal coach and founder of several personal development sites, it is pretty ironic that we go through extensive training to build quality career paths or even drive a car, and yet we spend not a single second preparing for the most vital part of our lives – love. Not only does no one teach us how to be a good partner or how to nurture the health of our relationships, but we also don’t even feel like there’s any need for it. Fooled by rock ballads and Hollywood movies, even the least naïve among us seem certain that love must eventually conquer all.
Well, love doesn’t work that way. As with pretty much everything else, it is a skill that must be mastered. Rather than a feeling, it is primarily an action – namely, something you do every day and not something you are merely overwhelmed by. To be successful in math, you need to become an expert in equations; just as well, to be successful in love, you need to become an expert on your partner. In “201 Relationship Questions,” Davenport presents couples everywhere with a cheat sheet – that is, a list of probing questions to help partners uncover their deeper desires, needs, and fears. Get ready to hear a few of them, and learn why it’s important to ask them daily!
According to the Pew Research Center, the median age for marriage in the early 1980s was 25 for men and 22 for women. However, by 2018, the median age for first marriages reached 30 for men and almost 28 for women! Moreover, whereas divorce rates more than doubled in the meantime, the rate of second marriages dwindled from about 40% to 29%. So, not only do modern couples resolve to tie the knot later in life, they also tend to divorce more and remarry less than ever before. Blame it on freedom and progress. Simply put, love is no longer defined by convenience and traditional roles. At no point in history did people have so much freedom in choosing who to be with, and in what kind of relationship.
But if that’s the case, then what’s the problem? How is it possible that in an age when we have more freedom than ever to enjoy a healthy, loving relationship, we spend most of our time arguing and belittling our loved ones? Why aren’t we able to manage conflict and stress with our beloved ones efficiently? Why do modern relationships seem more difficult and painful than old-fashioned ones? According to Davenport, it’s due to a lack of empathic communication. In her words, “Whether our concerns relate to money, sex, kids, affection, career, or any of the various reasons we fight or get angry, when we don’t communicate our needs and discuss our differences in the spirit of love, things inevitably break down.”
If you want your relationship to work, you must really work on it. And there’s no better way to work on a relationship than honest communication. You have to talk about everything with your partner – your needs and your objectives, your dreams and disappointments. And you must also listen, really listen, to what your partner is saying, not only so that he or she feels heard and understood, but also because everlasting love is not something you happen upon, but something which happens when two partners become experts of each other. Indeed, when things get ugly, that’s how couples therapy tends to mend things, as it essentially aims to help partners get to know each other better. Needless to add, the most successful relationships do this from the outset, using proactive communication not to overcome conflicts, but to avoid them altogether.
Thomas Merton, arguably the most influential American Catholic author of the 20th century, once wrote, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise, we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” Indeed, most problems in a relationship arise because partners tend to be oblivious of each other’s real needs and boundaries. If they simply took the time to ask each other about them – rather than constantly trying to guess them – millions of quarrels could be avoided, and thousands of others would quickly peter out into peaceful resolutions. “Within the context of a relationship,” writes Davenport, “mutual questioning can provide all kinds of benefits, and also allow each partner to participate in the awareness and growth of the other.”
Just as love isn’t a feeling but an action, “201 Relationship Questions” isn’t a book but a project. It’s essentially a list of more than 200 conversation starters on 20 different topics, each of which Davenport deems challenging and crucial for mutual growth. If lack of meaningful communication is at the core of most relationship issues, there’s no better way to build a relationship than with strong, revealing questions. Conversations may be the catalyst to love, but questions are the catalyst to conversations. As stilted or awkward as the practice might seem, Davenport suggests meeting with your spouse or partner on a regular basis to debate some of the questions she lists. Not only should this protect your relationship from painful altercations, but it should also create a new level of intimacy between you and your partner. As a matter of fact, the two go hand in hand.
So, try to make a ritual out of these “mutual questioning sessions.” Set aside a few hours a week and reserve a peaceful spot in your house or a nearby restaurant. Grab a journal to take notes, and get yourself a glass of non-alcoholic drink. Then choose a relevant topic (such as personal boundaries) and decide on a related question, say: “Is there anything I do now that crosses your boundaries and makes you uncomfortable?” Flip a coin to see who will be the first one to answer, since it’s often more difficult to be in that position. Wherever you are, try to sit close to each other so you can touch and look at each other face to face. Also, give yourself plenty of time to respond. Rather than thinking ahead about your own answer, be fully present for your partner. If they reveal a request for a behavioral change from you, don’t brush it off. Rather, write it down. Set aside time to think about it. Remember, love is a marathon, not a sprint.
John Gottman, conversationally known as “the guy who can predict divorce with over 90% accuracy,” can get a pretty good sense of whether or not a relationship will last just by overhearing a couple’s conversation at a restaurant. How? Simply by being attentive for uncalled-for displays of negative emotions at the beginning of a difficult conversations. Couples who can’t go through a tough talk without criticism, contempt or defensiveness will never find happiness in love. Only couples able to deescalate negativity through positive affects have a chance of remaining together for the long haul. This must be one of the greatest benefits of Davenport’s mutual questioning sessions: by converting such tough conversations from unwelcome exchanges into deliberate rituals, these sessions are pretty much designed to deescalate negativity and smooth out lasting differences.
According to Davenport, the most important question partners should ask each other regarding the topic of disagreements and differences is, “What do I say or do that really pushes your buttons?” followed by, “What seems to be the recurring theme or themes in our conflict?” Not only do most couples argue about the same things repeatedly, but they also tend to push each other’s buttons in pretty much the same way. Understanding the nature of these “buttons” and patterns – even if not trying to get to the root of them – helps foster compassion, and even motivation to change. Both compassion and motivation should receive further boosts should you care to spend some time learning your partner’s “line crossing” words and behaviors. Afterward, make a mutual pact that you will avoid them at all costs. Davenport suggests putting this in writing, as nothing strengthens personal commitment better than getting a pledge down in black and white.
To go back to Gottman, if partners don’t want to diminish each other’s love, they must try to rebuild the connection between them not only after, but during disagreements as well. Hence, both must know the answer to questions such as, “What makes you feel heard and understood when we have conflict?” or “How can you best manage anger or frustration so we can talk calmly?” If you discover that you have a differing conflict style from your partner, then you must determine a new way that will work for both of you. You must also decide on what steps you should take in the case of an unresolvable issue – because, well, you’re bound to run into a few of the sort along the way. It’s wrong to allow such standoffs to remain untended. Mediators, counseling, and even straws – really, anything is better than inattention and indifference!
Even though they say that the language of love is universal, the truth is there are many different ways to express love emotionally. According to marriage counselor and bestselling author Gary Chapman, five of them stand out: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Each of these ways is as different from the other as English is different from Chinese. Consequently, if you want to make the person you love feel loved, then you must learn their primary love language. If he or she believes that love is mainly about spending quality time together, then, rather than making them feel loved, birthday gifts or loving words will only make them feel misunderstood and underappreciated. Hence, one of the most important questions you need to discuss with your partner is which specific behaviors and actions from you feel most loving to them – and vice versa, of course.
Since each of us expresses and feels love in different ways, it often occurs that in a relationship, two partners may have differing opinions on the importance of remembering anniversaries or the frequency of sex. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that both matter to most people, but the more important question is to what extent? No intimate connection is possible unless you know the answer. So, talk to your partner about matters such as these. In addition to asking them about their primary love language, ask them about their top five personal values as well. Delve a bit deeper and find out more about how they are prioritizing their individual values, and which of them they would be willing to sacrifice in support of your values as a couple. Only after making the distinction between individual and couple values will you be able to grasp what in your relationship undermines both.
As most psychologists would tell you, most of our values and beliefs are rooted in childhood experiences and traumas. That’s why it’s important to talk about past wounds with your partner. Ask him or her what their deepest wounds from the past are and find out how you can support them there. Never forget that the only way to get an honest answer to difficult questions such as these is if you are honest yourself. “An intimate, loving relationship requires vulnerability,” remarks Davenport. And that’s an important takeaway. Whatever the question from your partner, answer it the way you would if you were talking with a psychiatrist or your best friend. After all, if you and your partner want to turn love into a wholesome and long-lasting experience, then you should be everything to each other – friends, lovers, devotees, guides. And, yes, therapists as well.
As we already observed, “201 Relationship Questions” is not a book meant to be read alone, but a book meant to be talked over with your partner, time and time again. So, consider it a collection of great conversation starters – but, for better or for worse, not much more.
Don’t let petty fights kill your love. Sidestep them by addressing all issues and wounds proactively in weekly “mutual questioning” sessions with your partner. Empathic communication is the key to love.
Barrie Davenport is an American lifestyle coach, blogger, online teacher and bestselling writer. She has written a few books on her own, most notably “201 Relationship Questions”, but is be... (Read more)
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