Plus, how to fix it.
While on a recent business trip, I treated myself to dinner at a nice restaurant. I couldn't help but notice a married couple sitting nearby. Other than the rings on their fingers and the man calling his wife "honey" once or twice, I didn't see any other evidence of affection, closeness, or any sort of effective communication between them.
After a brief discussion about the logistics of driving their son to his soccer tournament later that week, they barely spoke two words to each other. Both of them looked vaguely awkward and uncomfortable until their food arrived.
They ate in silence. As soon as the check arrived, the husband paid promptly and he and his wife filed out of the restaurant.
Provided with only the merest glimpse of this couple, I can only make a guess (and it might be way off), but I've seen that same scene play out many times over the years in my career as a counselor and a minister.
The neutral expressions, the distracted gazes, and the fussing with cell phones (instead of talking to each other) — all dead giveaways. This couple has clearly lost their natural curiosity about each other. Instead of growing closer over the years, they've grown apart.
Later, one or both may complain they feel "bored" or "lonely" in the marriage or relationship. When that happens, there is a good chance they'll end up going their separate ways.
Compare this couple's demeanor to a couple just falling in love. Remember the initial thrill of meeting someone new and wanting to know everything about them?
We wonder about them endlessly, and even when we think we've learned so much, the other person still seems so mysterious and intriguing to us. We crave knowing what they're thinking and feeling. We can’t get enough of them!
But as time goes by, we grow comfortable in that relationship and let the mundane get in the way. We stop being curious and we stop asking questions.
Now, the things about them that used to charm us start to annoy us. We can't think of anything to talk about because we believe there is nothing more to know or anything new to say.
But we're so wrong! While getting to know someone initially, we're in a constant state of discovery. Then, once we believe we've learned all there is to learn about our partner, we form a snapshot in our mind about who they are. That snapshot doesn't change.
And that's unfair. Every one of us continues to grow and change each day. Our partner is not the same person he or she was when we first met or even the same person they were last year.
Unless we remain curious about who they are becoming on a daily basis, our idea of who they are will stagnate with time.
Whatever we think we know, there is still so much more to discover (and appreciate) about those we love in our lives. But we must choose to remain fascinated by our partner, whether we've been married three months or 30 years.
Tapping into our curiosity is THE best way to keep the passion alive.
There is a way to cultivate our natural curiosity in order to rekindle the passion and romance in a relationship. The key is to practice elevating our levels of communication. Some types of communication cut off curiosity and others welcome it.
Here are the four levels of communication:
Level 1: Cliché.
This is when you run into an acquaintance on the street and ask, "Hi, how are you?" and they respond, "I'm fine, how are you?"
We're not expecting a soliloquy about their day or how upset they are after spending an hour on the phone with the cable company. That's because we're not genuinely curious about them; we're just being polite by acknowledging them in a friendly way.
Happy couples move past this superficial level of communication quickly and are on to the next two levels:
Level 2: Fact.
This communication level is about relaying information — asking directions, going over a schedule (like the couple who discussed the logistics of their son's soccer tournament), or relaying information about upcoming social events. It is used only for the exchange of necessary information.
While staying in this level of communication may keep us from ever getting into fights or feeling upset, it also guarantees we'll never feel deep love and connection with our partner.
Level 3: Opinion.
Many of us spend most of our time here with our friends and partners. We discuss politics, gossip about our acquaintances, complain about our boss, or proclaim that dinner was delicious.
While stating our opinions carries a little more risk than just stating facts or speaking in clichés, it doesn't get us the truest levels of intimacy or closeness we desire. To do that, we must go one step further.
Level 4: Feelings.
Opinions convey what's in our head, while feelings go deeper, communicating what's in our heart. There are no right or wrong feelings, but we often fall into the trap of correcting each other's feelings, the way a teacher corrects grammar. This allows us to avoid really connecting.
Out partner might say, "I'm kind of down today," and we quickly reply, "Oh, don't feel down. We've got a great weekend planned."
Without meaning to, we've dismissed our partner's feelings and this makes them feel unsafe to share at this level in the future.
The key to opening up this fourth level of communication is to allow our partners to express their feelings without our judgment. If we're tapped into our natural curiosity, we want to know exactly how our loved one feels and why, and we won't confine them to only the feelings we think they should have.
Keep in mind that our natural curiosity doesn't grant us permission to interrogate another person or intrude on their privacy.
Sometimes, it's best to leave a person alone when they're having a difficult time, at least for the moment. And other times, we set ourselves up for rejection when we insist on talking about feelings when our partner feels tired or distracted.
When we are feeling neglected by a busy partner, it's not ideal to bring it up right before they have to run to a meeting. It's better to ask, "Is this a good time to talk? When would be a good time?"
Something wonderful happens when we communicate our feelings with greater openness. Every once in a while, we break through to an even higher level of connection: silent communion.
Unlike the couple at the restaurant who looked utterly uncomfortable in the silence that permeated between them during dinner, "silent communion" is a mystical connection where barriers disappear and we feel entirely at ease and at peace just being in our loved one's presence. It is the fruit of enduring curiosity and our reward for staying curious.
Remember, if we cherish our relationships with partners and loved ones, we can't just skim the surface. Instead, we must set aside time to ask them how they're doing, what they're feeling, and stay open to feedback.
When we're willing to stay curious and communicate on a deeper level, we keep our relationships strong and our passion alive.
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