Most of us identify strongly with our own thinking and intelligence, so it can be natural to trust your brain to figure it all out. If you could just “get to the bottom of it” or “understand why this happened” you’d have your answer and solution, right?
Well, unfortunately, no.
Psssst, here’s a secret: there is no bottom when the question is “why?” There might be endless fascination digging up details and hypotheses and formulating opinions and articulating theories. And maybe at some point you’ll reach a kind of bottom in the form of a “conclusion you can live with.” Mostly, however, you’ve generated a pile of unkind, unhelpful, and often only-partially-true information that I like to say is basically a pile of manure- good only for fertilizing a garden.
When we’re talking about relationship trouble, this route almost always destroys relationship. And maybe that IS the solution you’re digging for.
If so, keep at it. Knock yourself out. Go at it until you wear yourself out or you come up with a story that helps you exit the relationship feeling “quite justified, indeed.”
But if your objective is saving a marriage, improving a relationship, creating a healthier family system, or maybe just being happier, then I have an alternative for you.
Thinking shapes relationship
The questions you give your brain are the ones it will keep working on. That’s why you have to give your subconscious (and your conscious mind) the right question to answer.
The best questions start with the word “how” and are driven by your deepest desires. Don’t cheat at this and try something like “how do I understand why this happened?” or “how do I get to the bottom of this?” Clever, but still not helpful. 😉
It could take some reflection and work to find your best “how” questions. Begin by listing all the things you really want. For example:
- to feel seen and heard
- this pain to be over
- to stop having the same conflict over and over
- to stop having the same conversation over and over
- to get beyond this
- to get back to the way we used to be
- a way out of this mess
- an escape from the misery
- my partner to look at me with love
- to be respected
- to feel strong and independent
- to be able to make a choice
- to stop being “the bad guy”
- a good marriage that feels good
- more peace and satisfaction
You may have more or different desires. Notice, not a single one of them has anything to do with “why” things are the way they are.
Now, pick your top FIVE. What are the most pertinent and pressing desires right now? Which desires are most intense? Pick them and then just insert the word “how” in front of them. Here’s my example:
- How can we stop having the same conflict over and over?
- How can we get beyond this?
- How do I make a choice I can live with long-term?
- How can we experience a good marriage that feels good?
- How do I experience more peace and satisfaction?
Then write those puppies down. Memorize them. Rehearse them. Have them handy anytime a “why” question pops into your thinking… and replace that “why” question with all the appropriate “how” questions.
Right question = Right answer
Here’s what happens when you start asking a question you can work with: you get answers you can work with. “How” questions are process questions and as such, the answers will suggest real action you can take. This is so much more productive than amassing a pile of manure that ends up being (mostly) negative in nature and downright unhelpful- except for fertilizing a garden, as I said. (In this metaphor, your relationship is NOT the garden.)
When you head into couples counseling or individual therapy aimed at improving how you show up in relationship, don’t let a therapist keep asking the “why” questions. In fact, fire anyone who keeps asking “why?” You need someone who will help you ask the right questions so you can get answers that actually move you forward. You want help that will actually get you somewhere instead of stuck in thinking mode.
First, realize that ALL therapists are naturally interested in “why” questions. Um, hello, we all STUDY human behavior. We all PAID a significant amount of money to have an excuse to ask the “why” questions to our heart’s content. But hopefully, the therapist you employ has enough sense to know that answering the “why” questions doesn’t provide any information on how to live a better life or how to have a healthier relationship.
Secondly, no matter who you hire, don’t expect them to be your only source for answers. They’ll help. AND you will get answers from various places, sometimes unexpected sources. This doesn’t mean your therapist is not doing their job. That’s simply how the brain works. If you pose a question to your big, beautiful brain, it will keep looking for answers everywhere it collects information. You can bring that information to a good therapist and ask that they check your thinking and application.
Now you: start by listing all your heart’s desires. What do you want to experience, to have, and be in life and relationship? Then, pick your top five and turn them into “how” questions.