Do you know the right questions to ask your significant other?
I mean, have you really, truly, deeply asked the best questions to get to know them as a person?
I’m a victim of the How Trap. The How Trap is when you are stuck only asking “How are you?” and nothing more. In the How Trap you get caught up in day-to-day logistics and check-ins.
I don’t want to know just how you are. I want to know who you are.
You know you are in the How Trap if:
- Most of your questions start with “how.” Like “how are you?” or “how are the kids?” or “how are you feeling?” or even, “how was your day?” These only touch the surface.
- You don’t make eye contact while you speak. You are doing the dishes, driving or cleaning up the house when you speak. This means your attention is not going deep.
- You rely on social media posts to check-in. Do you feel like you already know everything that is going on in your people’s lives because you follow them on social media? Sometimes this gets you caught in the how trap.
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 and with the right questions in a safe space. This brings me to the 36 couple questions.
How to Ask the 36 Questions
Grab a Partner
Find your significant other, friend, parent, brother, sister, travel buddy, stranger you met online… really, ANYONE you want to get a little closer with! Make sure they are interested in completing the 36 questions with you.
Find Your Space
Find that quiet place where you won’t be interrupted for at least 45 minutes to an hour. The last thing you want is to be interrupted by a phone call from your landlord!
READ: You do NOT have to do these all in one sitting—in fact, I recommend against it. Sometimes, intimacy takes time to build up. So start with 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.
Focus on the Means Not the End
The questions are categorized in three different sets, with each set of questions a little bit more personal than the last. You’ll take turns with your partner asking these questions, and both answering the questions.
It’s important to NOT skip the questions, even if you know the answer to them. 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.
It’ll look something like this:
- Person A asks the first question.
- Person B answers the first question.
- Deep discussion! Aha moments! Surprises!
- Person A answers the first question.
- Deep discussion! Aha moments! Surprises!
- Person B asks the second question.
- And so on…
Not Polite to Stare
When you’re finished asking the questions, there is ONE more step that the original experiment suggests:
Stare in your partner’s eyes for four minutes.
This step is completely optional, but according to a 2019 study by Japanese researchers, eye contact activates the special parts of our brain responsible for empathy. If you really take the time to look into your partner’s eyes, it’ll be a special finish to your round of questions!
Just make sure to blink… otherwise, that’s just a little bit creepy.
The 36 Questions
These 36 questions were developed 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!
You can even print these out or email them to a friend!
Set 1 Questions
- 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 your 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?
Set 2 Deep Questions
- 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?
Set 3 Deeper Questions
- 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.
Do The 36 Questions Actually Work?
To find out if the questions actually work, let’s turn to the creator of the 36 questions—a psychology professor named Arthur Aron.
“I looked for the research on love, but there was almost none” — Arthur Aron
Because there was a lack of love in the scientific community, Aron wondered: What’s the best way to create love between two people?
So after numerous tests, he came up with these deliciously intimate questions to bring strangers closer together.
And when he put these 36 questions to the test, he found that…
Pairs of strangers who asked these 36 questions felt greater closeness than strangers who simply engaged in small talk.
How about couples in a long-term relationship? When I asked my husband these questions on a Friday date night, it was immediately a step up from the usual “how was your day” spiel. We were both hooked as we fired off these questions back and forth! And the best part?
We both learned something new about each other.
That night, we finished dinner saying to each other, “Wow! I didn’t know that about you!”
And we aren’t the only ones that felt that way.
Here’s What Others Say About the 36 Questions
- A woman asked her boyfriend of five years the 36 questions.
What she said: “I realize that this dialogue is entirely new for us, and that I’ve learned something about my boyfriend.”
- A millennial woman asked these questions with a stranger she just met online.
What she said: “The 36 Questions warp speed two strangers into intimacy and vulnerability before they know whether or not a relationship is even possible.”
- New York Times writer Mandy Len Catron tried it at the bar with her university acquaintance.
What she said: “You’re probably wondering if he and I fell in love. Well, we did.”
In Aron’s original experiment, two participants of the experiment even got married! They also invited the entire lab to their wedding ceremony.
So are you ready to try the 36 questions yourself? Maybe you’ll even fall in love!*
*results not guaranteed.
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!