ICYMI: In last week’s column, I talked about how a book by Dr. John Gottman called The Science of Trust helped me pry my relationship out of gridlock and towards dialogue. The tl;dr version is “amusement, laughter, affection, empathy,” the longer one involves insects and patio furniture. This week, I’m talking about the importance of asking questions.
A few years ago, I had my mind blown and my heart broken by the essay For Lovers and Fighters, by Dean Spade. In it, Spade tells us:
“One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends—try to be respectful and thoughtful and have boundaries and reasonable expectations—and to try to treat my friends more like my dates—to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together.”
It was such a clear breakdown of the energies we put into friendships vs. romantic relationships. The light it shone on my failures in both areas hurt to look at. I’d been impatient with the struggles of partners the way I never would have been with a friend. I had mentally planned a future with someone on our third date, while assuming my friendships would chug along forever.
One of my frustrations with the world of self-help books is the focus on evaluating and saving romantic relationships, even though this is only one type of relationship most of us have. This focus reinforces romantic primacy that is everywhere in our culture. The ratio of romantic movies to movies about friendships is probably 10-to-1, and there is a good chance that the friendship one is about stuffed animals. I know dozens of people (myself included) who have gone to couples counselling, but I know exactly one friend-duo (shout out to Jess and Natalie!) that has done the same.
It was slightly vindicating to read in this book that we should have been devoting our energies to friendship all along. The exhaustive research of Dr. John Gottman uncovered that it’s crucial for couples to have a strong friendship at the core of their romantic relationship anyway.
The foundation of that friendship relies on our ability to build “love maps.” (Since this section is only about friendship, please apply these next bits to your friendships as well.)
“A love map is a roadmap you create in your mind of your partner’s inner psychological world. It is the most basic level of friendship. The fundamental process in making a love map is asking questions and remembering the answers—keeping them in working memory.”
This is something I have always been scarily great at. I involuntarily build maps for people within moments of meeting them. It’s a survival skill leftover from my chaotic childhood, bolstered by a lifetime of abandonment issues. When I find myself talking to a new person, the inventory begins: What are their needs? How could I be part of meeting those need? What are their dreams in life? Can I make these dreams come true?
With strangers, I sometimes feel like I’m the sober, feminist, socialist Don Draper, telling folks how I will fill in gaps they didn’t even know they had. With loved ones, I am able to sincerely help solve problems, because I have done the emotional labour of internalizing as much of their inner-world as I can.
Because of my own ill-gotten instincts in this area, I can find it anywhere from infuriating to devastating when others don’t do the same for me. While on a date, I have angrily texted my friends, “He hasn’t asked me a single fucking question” from a bathroom stall. At a family event, I have been completely crushed when my partner asks, “Which side of your family is this Aunt from again?” after I’ve explained it three times. So it was a huge relief to me to have the importance of love maps echoed by Dr. Gottman’s work.
But building love maps is harder than I expected. Some people seem really lost when it comes to knowing how to get a sense of their partner’s internal lives.
Enter these cards, which are sort of a companion to The Science of Trust. I bought them from the Gottman Institute website, and they turned every road trip into a very intense version of The Newlywed Game as I flipped them over one at a time and J answered:
What are some of your partner’s hopes and aspirations?
What are your partner’s worries and stresses at the moment? Do you know?
What are some of his or her dreams, values, and goals?
What is your partner’s mission statement in life?
When you are in therapy because of a rupture in trust and connection, these questions are terrifying. The stakes feel so high. But honestly, hearing J’s answers to these questions was like managing that first deep breath after having had the wind knocked out of me. There was just something about hearing him talk to me, about me, that was revelatory. Especially since, as it turned out, he did know most of the answers.
You know how sometimes you think something, but you think you know it? That was absolutely where I was at with regards to J’s feelings. I didn’t think he’d stopped caring about me and listening to me, I knew it. So it was hard at first to process what was happening as he rhymed off publications he knew I wanted to be published in, explained why I was worried about my sister, reflected on what my lifetime of not-drinking meant to me, and expressed admiration for how much I think about my community.
As he answered my questions, so deftly, I realized that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do the same for him. In all of my terror and flailing, I’d lost sight of his love map. So we started over (we’re always starting over), and I answered the questions this time, and he let me know what parts I was missing, or misunderstanding. I heard about how he was afraid he was never going to be a good partner again, and his worry that maybe everyone would be better off without him.
I needed to make space for these truths and re-examine my own. This re-examination helped me step back and wonder what else I could be wrong about, like the narrative I had built where no one had any interest in keeping promises to me, and that I was just an obstacle to everyone’s happiness.
Sometimes losing certainty can be the best feeling in the world. And sometimes you just have to ask the right questions.