Do you know your significant other?
I mean, do you really, truly, deeply know who they are as a person?
I’m a victim of the How Trap. The How Trap is when you know how someone is because you ask what they are doing, what they have been up to and follow them on social media, but you don’t ever get to ask the deeper questions. Put simply:
I don’t want to know just how you are. I want to know who you are.
Sometimes we feel like we really know someone, but on the surface we are only familiar with the day-to-day. For example, when my husband and I get really busy, we can go days without asking any questions beyond logistics-type questions. We see each other at the end of the day and ask “How was your day?” and we go through what we did and what happened. We talk about plans for the weekend and updates from friends we saw on Facebook.
The other day, I had this big Aha moment. I realized we were talking, but we weren’t sharing.
I think this happens with couples, friendships and especially parents and their kids. We get so wrapped up in the day-to-day that we are lucky to get to the ‘how are you?’ but we very rarely get to the ‘who are you?’ Especially when you have known someone for a long time, we forget to ask how they have changed. We let the deeper questions fade away.
The Science of Intimacy:
Psychology Professor Dan McAdams has studied what it takes to truly know someone. He believes there are “three levels of knowing” and that these are the three stages people progress through to become intimate friends, lovers or companions.
- Level 1: General Traits At this level, you get to know someone’s general personality traits. Specifically, where they fall on the Big 5 spectrum: how high or low they are in Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. See our overview of the personality traits here.
- Level 2: Personal Concerns This is where someone gets to know a person’s goals, values and motivations. They also get a broader picture of the decisions and attitudes that shape their life.
- Level 3: Self-Narrative Finally, when you truly know someone, you know the stories they tell themselves about themselves–how they have made sense of their journey and purpose through life.
The question is: How do you move through these three levels? Level 1 is easy–typical conversation can help you with this. Level 2 can happen naturally as you live with someone, travel with someone and have shared experiences. But Level 3 only can be done purposefully–with the right questions in a safe space. This brings me to the 36 couple questions.
The 36 Questions:
Social psychology researcher Arthur Aron of the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University in New York developed 36 questions to help people break through each of the intimacy levels. You can do these with your partner or with friends. I highly recommend them to parents and teens. Keep in mind:
- Vulnerability brings people closer. The point of these questions is to have sustained, escalating and reciprocal self-disclosure. Take time having both people answer the questions and truly listen to the answers without judgment.
- There is no such thing as rapid intimacy. I would NOT recommend doing these all in one sitting. One per dinner perhaps or one per car ride. Take your time, savor them, expand on them and see where they take you. One of my friends and I answer one of these each week.
- Okay, here are the questions for you. Feel free to print these out or email them to a friend.
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a perfect day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- Take four minutes and tell you partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What do you value most in a friendship?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are living now? Why?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
- How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Tell your partner what you like about them: Be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
- Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
- Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
- Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Bonus: The 36 Questions in Action
Check out these real life strangers asking each other the deep stuff. You won’t believe what happens at the end:
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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