When Jan and Andy came to see me for marriage counseling they were, like many couples, coming to me for different reasons. Jan wanted them to get out of the loveless rut they had been stuck in for several years. She wanted them to be in-love again and not just roommates. But Andy wanted out of the marriage and his goal in coming to me was to get help splitting up in the least painful way. He respected Jan and cared for her and did not want to hurt her more than he already had. But he had no interest in being romantic, affectionate, or “in-love”. He just wanted Jan to understand him and why it was best for them to separate. They had done a good job of raising their children who were now independent adults. After thirty-eight years of marriage, Randy wanted to live the rest of his life on his terms. He had moved out of the bedroom and was strongly inclined to move out of the house.
When a couple comes to see me I sometimes have different goals for their relationship than they do. If they have children, if they are not physically abusive, sexually unfaithful, or addicted to harmful substances or situations, then I strongly favor working to improve the relationship even if one or both partners think it is best to go their separate ways. But ethically I have to work with the couple’s goals.
In cases such as Jan and Andy’s, in which there are conflicting or different goals I have to work with the goals of whoever seems to have the least interest in continuing the relationship. And in Jan and Andy’s case I started with Andy’s desire to be understood by Jan.
As therapy progressed, several important things were happening in our sessions together and in Jan and Andy’s interactions at home that turned their relationship into a loving, affectionate, friendly and even passionate partnership with a secure and exciting future together. But Jan and Andy both identified one thing that helped them to turn the corner and reconnect as lovers. It was a simple communication exercise that I gave them. It is an exercise that I give to most of my couples and I want to give it to you.
It works for couples that are stuck in a rut and seemingly unaware of how to escape. It doesn’t matter if the rut is one of silence, meaningless small talk, or recurring conflict. This simple exercise, used several times per week for 10-20 minutes each time, will help a couple get out of the rut and into conversations that connect them as lovers.
The exercise consists of fifty-two questions that range from mildly personal to quite personal. The questions can be asked in any order and each of you can “pass” on any question you prefer not to answer. Take turns choosing and asking questions of each other. Whoever asks a question is the designated listener. When you are the listener, focus all of your attention on your partner, ignore your own thoughts and feelings, and respectfully paraphrase what your partner says until s/he is satisfied that you fully understand what s/he said.
What will happen is that you will open up your hearts and minds to each other and if you really listen to each other, two important aspects of intimately connecting with each other will grow. One, you will increase you acceptance, understanding and care for each other more, and, two, you will increase your sense that you can count on each other to listen, respect, and understand you.
- If I told you that I secretly diverted $1,000,000 from the bank account of a large wealthy corporation ito the bank account of a charity that feeds starving children, what would your thoughts and feelings be?
- Who is one of your favorite relatives and what do you like about that person?
- In what ways would you like to be similar to any of your parents or grandparents?
- What is one of your fondest memories of elementary school?
- What has been one of your favorite vacations and what did you enjoy about it?
- What do you enjoy about your daily work?
- What is one of the best dates we have been on and what did you enjoy about it?
- If you had twenty-four hours to spend $10,000 on tangible objects or services for yourself, what would you buy and why?
- If you had to trade lives with anyone in the world for one month, who would it be and why?
10. What is one of your hopes or dreams for your future?
11. What do you think you would miss the most if we had to live in another country?
12. Who is one of your closest friends and what do you admire about that person?
13. What is an important quality that you have learned from our relationship?
14. In your opinion, what are the purposes of sex in marriage?
15. What do you hope people remember about you after you die?
16. What qualities does a person need to have in order for you to trust them?
17. Why do you think having children is an important part of life?
18. How do you want your life to be different in five years?
19. What was your parents’ relationship like when you were young?
20. How do our differences strengthen our relationship?
21. What advice do you think one of your siblings or parents need to receive and heed?
22. What do you like and dislike about the way your family of origin relates to each other?
23. What is one of the biggest risks you have taken and how has it worked out for you?
24. If you had to start your life over from any previous year, what would it be and why?
25. What do you recall about your earliest awareness of sex?
26. If your life has been a lesson what is something that you have learned?
27. When you were a child which one of your parents was easiest to talk to about personal feelings and what was is about that parent that made him/her easier to talk to?
28. How would you like our relationship to be different from your parents’ relationship?
29. How would you like me to comfort you when you are feeling hurt or sad?
30. How would you like me to respond to you when you are feeling angry at me?
31. What was a challenge that your parents had in their relationship and how did they deal with it?
32. How do you feel about getting very old?
33. How would you like for us to prepare for old age?
34. How do you think I feel when I cry around you?
35. How do you feel when I cry around you?
36. What is a challenge you are dealing with and how can I be more supportive to you?
37. How open do you want us to be with each other about our sexual relationship?
38. At what point in your life have you been closest to giving up?
39. How do you feel about the passing of your childhood innocence and idealism?
40. How would you like our sexual relationship to be better in one year?
41. What did you think were the attitudes of your parents about sex when you were growing up?
42. What personal shortcomings are you most interested in changing in yourself?
43. What hopes or dreams have you had the easiest time giving up in life?
44. What hopes or dreams have you had the hardest time giving up in life?
45. What hopes or dreams would you like to resurrect?
46. What do you suggest that I do to enjoy our relationship more?
47. What is something new that you would like to add to our relationship?
48. If you were to talk more openly with me about your thoughts and feelings, what is one thing that you might say?
49. How do you think our relationship would be affected if we had to give up sex for a year?
50. What do you recall about your earliest feelings of sexual arousal?
51. What topic would you like for us to discuss more openly?
52. What would you like for us to do so that we can feel more connected when we are apart?