Once people get past the early romance phase of a relationship, it can start to run on autopilot to an unhealthy degree.
In short, people stop paying quality attention. Both to their partner, and to how they themselves are showing up in the relationship.
Fortunately, if you get better at asking the right questions, your relationship will improve rapidly as a result.
The following self-reflective questions, when asked honestly, will 10x the connection in your relationship in a matter of days. Ask yourself these questions, once every few months, and your relationship will always be improving.
1. How am I doing as a partner lately?
The first, and most important step, in this process is to become deeply honest with yourself.
Have you been phoning it in in your relationship as of late? Have you been taking them for granted, even to a small degree? The point here isn’t to wallow in guilt or make yourself overly wrong… it is simply to acknowledge your overall levels of prioritization of your relationship.
Have you been making a point of loving them in ways that make them feel loved? Touching them lots? Surprising them with dates? Carrying out tasks that make their life easier? Thanking them regularly for ways in which they make your life better? If not, it’s time to turn the trend around.
Your relationship will flourish to the extent that you invest energy into it, and you can only do that after you have gotten honest with yourself about the ways in which you have neglected to do so.
2. What do I arbitrarily withhold from my partner in our relationship?
Are there ways in which you withhold your energy from your partner? Either because you feel stretched thin with all of the responsibilities you have in life, or because, sometimes, you secretly feel like punishing them from a place of disowned anger?
Regardless of the root causes, this is something worth looking at.
Do you withhold sex, or physical intimacy from your partner? Do you withhold your presence and/or willingness to listen to them talk about their day? Do you withhold financial resources by being the one who controls the cash flow and keeps your partner in the dark?
Whatever things you withhold from your partner, see if you can locate the reasons as to why you do so. And then reflect on whether or not those reasons are actually serving you, and if they might be worth questioning, and shifting to something more productive.
3. When was the last time I surprised my partner with something thoughtful?
Every person on the planet has the opposing needs of certainty and variety. In a long-term relationship, your certainty needs are inherently met to a high degree by simply having consistent access to your partner. But our needs for variety can often dwindle the longer we are in partnership (unless both parties are consistently putting energy into mitigating the entropy that can settle into long-term partnership).
Variety is the spice of life, and all that.
What are some ways that you could surprise your partner with things that register as love to them more often?
One practice that I use, in my own life, is I have a running list of things that I want to eventually surprise my partner with. Currently, I have about forty things on my list, and my partner knows about none of them. Some of the things are gifts I know she will love. Other things are date nights. Other things are acts of service that I know will be appreciated. And anytime I learn something new about her, or see a thing that makes me think of her, I will add it to the list. Not only does this give me valuable fodder for unexpected moments of love and closeness throughout the year, but I never have to stress about what we will do for birthdays/anniversaries/Valentine’s Day’s/etc., as they come up. Try it out! It really works.
4. What does my partner love, that I haven’t prioritized enough of lately?
While surprises are nice, it’s also nice to reprioritize things that you already know register as love to your partner.
Do they love to have your fingers run through their hair? Do that more.
Do they appreciate being complimented on a variety of things? Tell them directly, or write up a note of 100 things that you appreciate about them.
Do they love it when you make them a really elaborate and delicious meal? Bust out the cookbook and work your magic.
The things that work for people, generally always work for them. Just because something isn’t new, doesn’t mean it won’t be impactful.
Give them more of what you already know they love, and you’ll both be happy that you did.
5. In what ways have I been overly selfish recently, and what can I do to change that?
We all occasionally slip into patterns of selfishness in our relationships.
Heaping piles of responsibilities slowly take over and claim our mental bandwidth, and we wake up one day to realize that we’ve been neglecting the health of our relationship for longer than we’d care to admit.
Again, the point of this question is to be specific, and honest with yourself.
Are there ways in which you turn inwards when you should be turning to your partner? Such as solving all of your own problems internally without ever seeking your partner’s counsel. Or having your body’s sex life exclusively be self-pleasuring when instead you could start physically engaging with them more often.
Have you been pouring 100% of your time and energy into external entities (hobbies, your career, your children, etc.) and, perhaps, some re-prioritization of your significant other is in order?
Nothing can grow without direct nourishment. Get clear and honest with yourself about where your energy is going, and then reclaim some of said energy to feed the garden of your relationship.
6. If I had all of the time, energy, and money in the world, and my partner’s birthday was next week, what could I plan to make them feel the most loved, seen, and appreciated, to the highest degree possible?
Maybe one of the rationalizations you have used as to why your relationship hasn’t been as much of a priority lately is that you feel pressed. Pressed for time, for cash, for energy. But, nine times out of ten, (especially for the type of people who have the ability to be reading these words right now) these things are just excuses. Limiting beliefs that aren’t serving you.
If there were no limits, how would you make them feel the most loved?
Sure, you might not be in a position, today, to fly them in a private jet to Paris for a romantic month long sojourn where all you do is eat croissants and have their favourite musician serenade them under the stars… BUT, I bet there are some creative things you could do, within the financial and time limitations you have that would absolutely blow them away.
A date doesn’t need to cost $800 to make them cry tears of joy. You don’t need a twelve hour chunk of time to get the spark back in your connection. If you deploy deep, honest thoughtfulness as to what registers as love to your partner, you can do a lot with a little.
Brainstorm out a full page of ideas (of gifts, date ideas, acts of service, etc.) and see what gems fall out of that beautiful brain of yours. Then, schedule it. Whether you tell them in advance (and what level of detail you tell them) is entirely up to your discretion, and should be calibrated to how much your partner loves surprises versus how much they love to have a sense of anticipation.
7. What thing, that I do not particularly like doing, could I do, to bring a disproportionate amount of joy to my partner’s life?
Are there things that you know your partner loves, that you don’t love doing? I bet there are! Since, you know, regardless of how compatible you are as a couple (hashtag couple goals), you are not the same person.
Write out a list of things that you know your partner loves, that you don’t love as much, and do one of those things once per quarter.
Obviously, if they are things that cross genuine boundaries for you and you would never do them in a million years, that’s not the place to start. Your partner won’t have fun if you’re simmering with anxiety or resentment the whole time. But if there are things that are only mildly uncomfortable for you, but super fun for them (ex. watching a certain type of movie, eating at a certain type of restaurant, going on a certain date night), and you can mitigate your dislike of the thing by being able to relish in your partner’s enjoyment of it, then do those things every once in a while.
Examples in my own relationship: I don’t enjoy flying on airplanes, my partner does (so we fly). My partner loves going to poetry slams, I don’t (but I love her and I love watching her face at poetry slams, so we will go). My partner loves camping, I’m afraid that a bear will eat me when I fall asleep (so we will go camping occasionally). You get the point. Both, of the kind of things you should be looking for, and also how neurotic I am with my highly irrational fears.
8. How have I been unreasonably rigid in my relationship, and what more loving action could I take?
Romantic partnership is one of the biggest challengers of our ego that exists. We are constantly having our partner reflect us back to ourselves, simply with the consistency of their presence in our lives. Because it is our ego’s primary job to maintain a sense of separateness and autonomy, there are times where our defence mechanisms can overstay their welcome. Specifically, we can realize that we have been too rigid, or stuck, in certain patterns of behaviour or thought.
Are there ways in which you feel you may be unnecessarily rigid in your relationship (or in your life in general)? If so, how are those things ultimately serving you? Is it possible that they used to be more necessary than they are today?
Now, left unattended to, these themes might soften on their own. I believe that age softens all of us, and any harsh edges that we have tend to erode with time. But if changes to the most deeply held aspects of your identity are inevitable, why not give your partner (and yourself) the gift of additional flight-time with the less rigid version of you?
Perhaps you identify as someone who just isn’t good at expressing yourself (when this might not be the case at all, it is just a leftover belief that you inherited from your family system) and so don’t communicate with your partner as fully as actually want to. Or maybe you have strict rules around themes like sex, communication, alone time, etc…. and, upon reflection, it might serve you to have those boundaries be more dynamic than needing to be so black-and-white.
Whatever this process looks like for you, expect that it may be quite confronting for your ego. Our ego wants to hold on to the most tightly held parts of our constructed identity with an iron grip… and these parts are often the places where we (and our partner) would benefit the most by us embodying the opposite of those beliefs, even if only at a scale of 1-5% change.
9. What escape-hatches do I engage in, and how can I seal them off further?
Here’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough…
There are these things that people engage in, that are ultimately just sneaky ways of leaking their relationship energy outside of their relationship. I call these things escape-hatches. Not because they are things that people necessarily use before they end their relationship… but because they are things that people use to not be as in their relationship as they could be.
Here are some examples.
– Numbing the pain of a stagnant sex life by watching porn on a daily basis
– Flirting with someone at work because you feel undesired in your relationship
– Spending too much time at work so as to avoid the tension you’ve been experiencing with your partner
– Complaining about your partner to your friends/family/coworkers instead of talking to your partner about those things that you are bringing to others
The theme here is avoidance. Engaging in escape-hatch behaviours are all ways that you get to avoid doing difficult things, and instead, off-gas some of the tension that you feel with a short-term, band-aid fix that ultimately doesn’t serve you or the relationship.
So, getting painfully honest wth yourself, are there any ways in which you leak your relationship energy to people or things outside of your relationship?
Do you complain about your partner to other people, instead of having a potentially challenging and decidedly adult conversation with your partner directly?
Do you leak your sexual energy elsewhere (via porn, flirting, making extended eye contact with strangers, etc.) because you are too afraid to calmly, lovingly sit your partner down and tell them, “It is hard for me to bring this to you, but I wish we engaged sexually more often, and I want to figure out a way that we both feel good about that brings our physical connection back”?
If there are ways that you leak your relationship energy into unproductive habits, then there’s no better time than now to stop, cold turkey, and get into a greater sense of alignment. If you want a world-class, highly-functioning relationship, it requires you to have difficult conversations. Both with yourself, and with your partner.
10. What specific thing can I apologize for quicker, when it comes up in the coming weeks?
On the topic of ego-led rigidity… what are the most consistent arguments that you and your partner have? And could a good percentage of those fights be completely alleviated by you simply owning your part in them and apologizing quicker than you historically have? If so, it could cumulatively save you from months of tension and stress throughout the course of your lifetime.
Now, it’s important to remember that old habits die hard. If this is something that you have been digging your heels in around for years (or decades), then this proclivity isn’t just going to roll over and die overnight. This is why I added the “when it comes up in the coming weeks” part. If there is something that you can be especially stubborn around, then it’s all the more important that you hold that theme in the front of your mind in the near, short-term future… so that when the situation presents itself again, you can try deploying the opposite strategy (apologizing, letting go, acquiescing, seeing the bigger picture, choosing harmony over needing to feel correct) than the one you generally have (digging in your heels, needing to be seen and validated as correct, etc.).
11. What change can I make in my personal/professional life that will have the greatest positive impact on my relationship?
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of only pondering your relationship when trying to improve the strength of your relationship. But just like a world-class Olympic runner shouldn’t only obsess over his running technique (opting instead to also pay attention to their diet, sleep habits, recovery program, etc.), so too should you look to where your energy is going in your life overall.
Are there friends you have that, for the last several years, you have only felt drained by having out with… and, in fact, they’re so draining that each time you spend time with them you have to debrief how awful your experience was with them with your partner? Consider not being friends with those people anymore.
Do you pour so much time and energy into your career/a specific hobby/binge-watching Friends reruns that you don’t have a generous amount of energy to put into your relationship? It might be worth questioning (and reprioritizing) your values hierarchy so that your partner gets more of the best side of you, and not just the leftover energetic scraps.
Analyze what a normal week looks like for you, and see if there’s any energy you can reclaim from low-leverage behaviours that can be more effectively used by being rerouted into your relationship.
12. If I were never allowed to say the words ‘I love you’ to my partner, ever again, what actions would I start incorporating into my daily life so that they never doubted that they were deeply loved by me?
This is a valuable thought experiment that I believe everyone would benefit from.
While this obviously isn’t an either/or scenario, and I am not at all suggesting that saying I love you to your partner is something to be avoided, I have absolutely worked with couples in the last ten years when it has sometimes been the case where the couple said the words ‘I love you’ several times a day, but didn’t really follow up with demonstration in their actions.
So… if for some reason, a curse was put on you and your mouth became fundamentally incapable of ever again saying the words ‘I love you’, what would you have to do, on a daily basis, for your partner to know that they were undoubtedly loved by you?
Would you do more household chores? Would you touch them more, or differently? Would you plan more spontaneous date nights? Would you listen to them talk about their day with a higher quality of attention and presence? Would you more regularly tell them explicit things that you appreciated about them? Would you spend more time with them than you currently do?
Whatever things jumped out in your mind when you first read the question, do more of that.
On a micro scale, you can even try this as a short-term experiment. Try not saying ‘I love you’ to your partner for a week, and then show up more fully with your actions and other expressions of love. Obviously, only do this if you feel like you could get away with that kind of timeline. The point is not to arbitrarily punish your partner without them knowing… the point is to flood your partner with other demonstrations of love, especially if you have historically leaned on the words too heavily, in situations when actions may have spoken louder.
Self-Reflection Is Sexy
The primary value in these questions is that they make you look inward and do some deep, honest searching.
Ultimately, you are the wisest, most intelligent guru that your relationship needs. Sometimes, you just need to stumble on some helpful arrows that point you back into your own heart.
Spend some time with these questions, let them reveal what needs to be revealed, and then take action on the things that they mine out of you.
And, if you have read this far, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for loving intentionally. Thank you for making your relationship this much of a priority. The world benefits from your generosity of spirit, and it is so appreciated.
Dedicated to your success,
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