3 Questions to Ask your new Significant Other

Communication is a complicated thing. I’ve attended a few workshops on the topic and I have to say that they were not exactly what I expected. I need something concrete. I think trying to teach communication of feelings or reading people as a general skill occasionally results in assuming that all people will respond similarly to direct or indirect communication. It assumes that all people are similarly readable or that all people are capable of interpreting interactions the same. It further assumes that everyone is dating someone who is neurotypical. There are some questions you might want to ask in a relationship before making the mistake of assuming.

1. If I have something important to communicate to you, or something serious I need to ask you, what medium do you prefer to receive that through?

Weird question right? Not as weird as you would think. People process learning in all kinds of ways. Some people are auditory learners, some visual, in this way you are asking how they prefer to have important information presented to them. The second thing you are asking is what kind of space they like to have in order to respond. For some people, asking a question or bringing up an issue in a written form might be preferable. This gives them time to process and respond in a way that works for them. For others perhaps a phone call would be better, this might be best suited to someone like my friend J who can’t help but have her thoughts written all over her face. Sometimes one needs a moment to process through an initial poor reaction and get to a better place.

I had a partner (S) who preferred three days to a week to process stuff, although the presentation of the information or question itself was unimportant. Is that annoying? Well sure I guess it could be, but when you think about the difference between the explosion of anger or emotion S would have without it, and the calm conversation he can have after he processes his feelings thoroughly, why wouldn’t I give that to someone if they knew that’s what they needed?

Then there’s me. Theoretically I want to have a conversation in person. I want to read expressions and body language. I want the option of physical comfort during a difficult conversation…but I’ve also been known to (literally) run away when I felt like I was about to say something I’d regret or was overly stressed out. Making allowances for every way a person might need to communicate, and room for pleas of temporary insanity (at least that’s the route I went post running away), is part of being in a relationship.

It may seem like what I’m advocating is compromising in the extreme, bending to the whims of your partner to keep the peace, but that isn’t the case at all. What I’m suggesting doing is taking turns. You’re communicating how to meet your needs as you’re receiving how to meet theirs and then finding a way to meet them both. Example: K needs time to process via text. Important information was provided via this medium, important questions asked, vital responses given. At a later time I wrapped up that conversation in person, because that’s what I needed.

2. If you are upset, how will I know and how would you like me to handle that?

I first heard this question from a friend of mine during a discussion about what path one should take to transition a casual relationship into a serious one. This is an absolute lifesaver if you think it through. It doesn’t matter who your partner is, what their gender is, what their personality is, this is a vital question. I’m almost willing to bet that their answer to this question does not match your own, so this is going to take some work and understanding.

Some people’s reaction to stressful stimuli is impossible to miss, but even these people have varying ways which work best for their partners to cope with the situation. If someone is a much more difficult read, a partner needs a bit more guidance in knowing that something is in fact wrong. It’s useful to hang out in a person’s life long enough to catch on to their ticks, but this question is a shortcut to having more sensitivity to their feelings. It should be painted that way. You are trying to make sure that their needs are met, it’s that simple. Perhaps they need some time to process the question and get back to you…see above.

One of the interesting phenomena I’ve witnessed in relationships is that people who need to walk away often are paired with people who need them to stay. I’d suggest that the person who needs to walk away consider very carefully whether or not they really must on a particular occasion, and that the person who needs them to stay thinks through what the outcome of them staying might be.

Generally if a person needs to walk away when they’re upset you just have to let them. If you know that you need to walk away you simply need to assert this firmly, not angrily, and do so. Letting someone walk away may be intensely uncomfortable for you personally. This may not be how you handle things and the urge to go after them may be almost overwhelming- but the health of your relationship may fare better for it. If your partner is likely to walk away, but in fact would like you to follow them and show your concern that should be part of the discussion in regard to this question; so be specific in your follow up questions and in the statements you make yourself in regard to your own needs. This is about taking the guess work out of the situation, not remaining mysterious.

3. What was the biggest communication problem in your last relationship?

I think this is an important question to ask because often hind sight is 20/20 and we repeat patterns which we are the most familiar with.

Maybe there was a commonly repeated pattern of one partner trying to solve another’s problems when all they wanted to do was vent for example. That’s a good thing to talk about. Sometimes the answer is as obvious to us as it is to our partner — but we’re annoyed or angry about something and we need to just get it out. Venting after a hard day is something that a lot of people need to engage in, but coming home and dumping things on your partner can be a negative in your relationship. A helpful way to have your needs met while being considerate of your partner is setting a time limit for the vent. Everything gets out of your system in five minutes for example and then you start your night.

Perhaps there was a failure to communicate expectations. Partner A thought they had implied something was an expectation, but never explicitly stated it, and would frequently become angry when partner B failed to live up to officially unknown expectations or crossed unknown boundaries. This is often the type of guesswork that one partner tests another partner with. We’ve all either done it or seen it. ‘If they really knew me they’d just get it’. Nope, sorry dearie, they won’t. This isn’t a gender gap issue in my mind, this is a different people processing life differently issue. If they care about you they want to please you, they want to understand you, and happiness lies in helping them see how that will best be achieved.

Nobody likes to rehash things that happened between themselves and their exes, and yet these are conversations that I tend to gently bring up as many times as it takes to get a full enough picture to see any pot holes before I hit them head on and try and take a different, hopefully more successful course. Asking your partner what they think needs to be done to avoid those pitfalls and coming up with a plan of action seems like a no brainer. Who wants to relive a past failed relationship? Outlining expectations explicitly is also reasonable and will go far in getting you what you want. Bringing work sheets and plans of action with you to the talks you have with your partner on the other hand… okay so I know some people who do it and if you’re a power pointer more power to you.

These questions, and any they may have sparked for you while reading them that are relevant to your particular situation, may well be the difference between a successful relationship and a failed one. There are people out there who think they are absolutely terrible at relationships when the primary problem is that no one asked the right kinds of questions and they failed to have insight into how they communicate and how they need to be communicated to. It takes adjusting to each individual partner, but it is not your responsibility to take solely upon yourself to make communication happen; both sides need to be willing to take turns. The end result of having these types of conversations before important topics or disagreements come up is that you’re equipped to handle it in a way that is most comfortable for your partner and therefore most promising for the future of your relationship.

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