Think back to when you first met the person with whom you’re in love (or, for those currently “loveless”, the last time you were in love). There was tremendous excitement in learning as much as you could about the person – what she looked like when she was a baby, who his best friends are, what her favorite dessert is, or the football team he roots for. Or, more generally, what she cares about, what he’s insecure about, what she’s afraid of, what his long-term goals are.
Over time, as you learn more about the person, curiosity dims and is replaced with familiarity. That familiarity can provide a great source of comfort and safety in a relationship. But in relationships that are rocky it can be a path to hell as patterns of conflict become deeply ingrained, one action or comment leading to an all-too-predictable cascade of charges and countercharges (“You always…..”; “you never…..”).
What’s one antidote to this problematic pattern? Curiosity. Demonstrating interest in your partner (or, for that matter, anyone) is a sign of caring and affection. It also leads to a fuller understanding of behaviors that have become annoying, and that are often the trigger to the cascade. That fuller understanding will help you make sense of those annoying behaviors, “detoxifying” them for you.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. Your wife insists on setting the table somewhat elaborately before dinner – placemats, candles, salad fork and dinner fork. Initially her care in making the setting of the meal beautiful was endearing, a sign that she felt you were special. Now, years later, you have been enlisted in setting the table and you resent it. On most nights you would be happy using a pizza box as your plate. Rather than simmering with resentment, you might consider asking her what prompts her to place such importance on the table setting. Perhaps it brings back fond memories of mealtimes with her family when she was a child. Or maybe it represents an oasis of beauty and serenity in a life that’s too often disorganized and frenetic. Whatever the answer, practice asking followup questions: “What were some of your favorite foods as a kid?” “Did the family always eat together?” You might even want to consider joining with her in her ritual by contributing – perhaps a bouquet of flowers for the table – rather than stiffening against it.
Second example: your boyfriend invariably spends Sundays glued to the television watching whichever of the ball sports is in season. You like sports, too, but in moderate doses. Instead of haranguing him about his preoccupation and its resultant inattention to you, consider demonstrating curiosity by asking him what are some of the things that most turn him on about sports. Or when he first became interested. Or what are some of his particularly delicious memories related to sports.
Face it – you are highly, highly unlikely to change a set pattern of behavior in an adult. But, just as in judo, blending with your “adversary’s” direction of motion is far more effective than directly opposing it. That’s the tactical way of looking at curiosity – it will help you avoid frustration and conflict on a case-by-case basis. In a broader sense, however, cultivating curiosity will deepen the connection you have to your significant other and help strengthen the bond between you. It may even result in diminishing the frequency of the behavior you find disturbing – when someone expresses genuine interest in what you do you are more likely to feel close to them and perhaps even want to engage more in mutually enjoyable activities.