Toward the end of last year, Angela and I had started to get out of sync with each other. It’s not that we were fighting or even spatting, but rather that things were moving so quickly that we weren’t communicating in a way that was effective given the new pace of our lives.
We went on a ski trip to Colorado, and since we live close enough to drive, we decided to make a road trip out of it. This gave us a lot of time to talk and figure out how we’d be able to stay connected with each other despite all the change going on in our lives. After we talked about it, we determined that most of our communication challenges boiled down to a few simple things.
We wanted to have an easy way to check in about those simple things, so we formulated the following four questions to ask ourselves (hopefully) daily. Here they are:
1) authentically expressed what you want or need?
2) received without guilt or insecurity?
3) given without expectation?
4) acknowledged the things that counted?
I’ll explain a little bit behind each question, but keep in mind that the commentary isn’t based solely on the challenges of our relationship. We’ve seen these things seep the life out of and destroy relationships in our friends and families, too, and we’ve also seen the healing power of truly loving, sharing, and connecting with those around you.
Have You Authentically Expressed What You Want or Need?
As much as I don’t like how overused “authentic” is nowadays, in this particular case, it fits. What happens so many times is that we either don’t express what it is that we want or need, or we express what we need or want in ways that makes the people we communicate with jump through a bunch of hoops to get to the core of what we actually want.
Other people can’t read your heart and mind, and you shouldn’t place the expectation on them that they should know by now. This is especially true when you’re growing and changing so quickly and what you wanted or needed six months ago might be different than what you want and need today.
It’s not being bitchy or selfish to ask for what you want and need, and sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your loved ones. If they don’t know what you want and need, they can’t help you get those things.
Have You Received Without Guilt or Insecurity?
This dovetails nicely with the question above, but it’s actually an independent consideration. It dovetails because it’s not uncommon for us to ask for what we want and need only to feel guilty that people are honoring our requests. This creates a counterproductive situation because we then become scared to ask because we don’t want to receive, and those around us don’t want to give because they’ll know we’ll feel guilty or insecure about receiving.
It’s independent, though, because we sometimes feel like we need to “repay” someone for the love and support they’ve given us, and that becomes a weird competitive or this-for-that exchange that makes things more stressful. You don’t want to be worried that every time someone gives you something you’ll have to pay them back or that you’re unintentionally placing a “debt” on them every time you give them something.
The whole point to giving and receiving is to love, support, share, and connect with each other; if you’re in relationships with the right people, giving and receiving is a win-win scenario instead of a win-lose scenario. If you can’t receive a gift for what it is, then you make it hard for people to love, support, share, and connect with you.
Have You Given Without Expectation?
Here’s the truth of it: if you give something with an expectation that the receiver will do something for you exchange, it’s not really a gift — it’s an emotional contract. Implicit emotional contracts are one of the most damaging things to introduce into a relationship.
The reason implicit emotional contracts are so damaging is because it poses an awkward tally system into a relationship. Every time you wish to give something, the potential receiver has to do the intuitive calculation about what the cost is and how it fits into the tally. If they’re “in the hole,” they’ll have to decide whether to accept the offer or to reject it. If they reject it, they hurt feelings, but if they accept it, they’re further in “debt.”
When you’re hurt, lonely, frustrated, scared, or sad, you just want to be seen and loved — you don’t want interactions to be recorded on an emotional balance sheet. And when you’re willing and open to sharing, you don’t want the crud of that balance sheet to get in the way of what you’re trying to give.
This question and the one above it removes the balance sheet and implicit emotional contracts so that you can give and receive without any baggage or requests. It keeps a hug a hug instead of a move on the emotional chess board in a tense relationship.
Have You Acknowledged the Things That Counted?
In loving relationships, there are a lot of thank yous, pleases, and sweet nothings to go around. That’s cool, but what you need to watch out for is that it’s possible for them to lose their power — like the air in between you and your screen, it’s easy to not see what’s actually there when it’s there all the time.
Furthermore, it becomes awkward to acknowledge every act of kindness and compassion. The gentle brush on your shoulder that your husband gives you as he brings you a drink doesn’t need gushing praise and thank yous — it’s part of the wholesome fabric of your relationship.
There are times, though, where your loved ones do things that deserve more than the mundane thank you and praise, and often times, they don’t know that what they did had special significance. The very same “normal” act one day might be something really special the next, depending on the context.
For example, Angela was having a really rough day at work last month and I couldn’t do much for her because what my schedule looked like. I decided I’d order her flowers since she recently let me know that she still likes to get flowers occasionally — this is something I didn’t know and thus hadn’t been doing. They got there just prior to her having to have a difficult meeting, but when she got home, she hugged me, thanked me, and let me know that it counted.
The simple phrase “it counted” let me know that what I did had particular significance for her, whereas a simple thank you might have been lost in the shuffle. It was also a clean gift to me because I hadn’t expected anything from her — I just wanted to help her feel better in the way that I could.
There are a lot of small things in a relationship that add up to it being a wholesome relationship, and something “counting” doesn’t depreciate those small things. It does, however, help you communicate that what you’ve just received went to the core of who you are and what you need.
4 Simple Questions Can Make a Big Difference
Asking, receiving, giving, and acknowledging — these interrelated acts are the bread and butter of our meaningful relationships and give us a safe haven to turn to when the winds get too strong. Despite their relative simplicity, it can be incredibly hard to remember to check in with yourself and your loved ones about them.
We’ve got these questions posted on our refrigerator and they’ve served us well, especially with all the growth and change that’s going on around here. They’re there when we get something out of the fridge, and it’s surprisingly easy to point to the kitchen and remind each other to ask the 4 questions. I hope they serve you nearly as well as they serve us.
Which of the 4 questions most represents what’s troubling you or that would make you feel loved, seen, and appreciated?