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?
Kasey @theSpaSyndicate says
Thanks…I needed this.
I know who Charlie is, but I have never really read the blog. Now I think I may start reading it regularly.
I’m glad you liked the post, Kasey, and I hope you’ll find the content here worthwhile.
Chris O'Byrne says
Giving without expectation was a tough one for me. I told myself that it was okay to still want a “thank you” because I didn’t want anything else. It took a while to realize that I was still setting up the expectation of wanting something and that was hurting my relationship. Thanks for writing this post, you are spot on about the importance of these four questions.
Yeah, even that small expectation of a thank you can dilute the free nature of the giving. And, it’s hard to describe, but when you do give freely, it’s quite transformative for both you and the receiver, no?
These were on my list of things to take care with my partner. I “check” myself often to ensure I am not spiraling and living disconnected from those that matter to me. This was timely and a reminder to stay on track. Excellent advice. Thank you.
I’m glad it helped – thanks for feedback!
Hey Charlie! I really don’t have much to say on the subject (never really had a serious long term relationship), but it seems to me that the foundation of a great relationship is consistent communication. Express frustrations or nuisances that need to be expressed whenever they come up. Waiting too long for the communication to happen during a disconnection usually doesn’t end well.
Thanks for the tips! I might come back to this post within the year 😉
While a lot of the conversation above is about romantic relationships, the same questions apply to relationships with family and friends. In fact, they’re especially powerful for families just because there is already so much expectation and sometimes disruptive patterns. So, before you’re in that relationship with a special someone, you can practice this with your friends and family – and it makes nurturing a relationship with that special someone so much easier.
Archan Mehta says
One of the best things to do is just to go away on spiritual retreats…
Nobody’s life is perfect: all couples go through ups and downs–that’s just life.
Sounds like you and Angela need some down-time together every once in a while.
Spend quality time together, by all means. Colorado sounds like a plan.
Colorado is gorgeous with the mountain and natural beauty and the fresh air and the sunshine. Listen to some old, John Denver songs and chase away those moody blues. Schedule your time together in such a way that you can just be together.
Sometimes, it is important to be in the company of a significant other without talking. Silence can be golden. Value the power of saying nothing, doing nothing.
Just be together. Find a park and sit down; enjoy a nice picnic and play guitar.
Enjoying the simpler pleasures of life can find the beauty dwelling within you.
Otherwise, life can pass by very quickly in action-orientation and getting results.
In the end, the moments you will treasure are the moments when you were not chained to your desk taking care of business. Go outside and have a blast!
Dave Rowley says
Just four simple questions but there sure is a lot of ground covered here.
I find the first two the most difficult to practice, especially #2–Receiving without guilt or insecurity. I don’t think it matters too much that some questions are harder to work on than others, if you’re considering these and making a conscious effort you’re probably half way there.
Thanks for the post, I enjoyed thinking about these questions.
You’re absolutely right – it doesn’t matter too much which ones are harder (for you) than others because they’re all so tightly related.
Thank you for reminding us of the importance of taking time and using simple questions to get back in step. Today is my 19th wedding anniversary and I know that taking quiet time and remembering why we wanted to spend our life together is what has helped us stay on track when outside stress clouds the horizon. Acknowledging what counts is a relationship saving and enriching exercise.
19 years! Wow. Congratulations.
Thanks for sharing that with us.
Chris Edgar says
Thanks for this — practicing receiving can be such an important personal growth practice (heh, at least for me) — particularly noticing the sensations that come up in my body when someone is complimenting me or giving me something without expectation, and just breathing into those sensations without tightening up. It’s not always easy but it’s definitely been rewarding!
I’m glad you stressed the practicing bit, Chris, because I definitely underplayed that the point of asking the questions every day is that it develops the practice of the things in question.
Liz Huggins-Thompson says
This is pretty powerful stuff. The kind of question that affects true change in a relationship. The hustle and bustle of our days can easily prevent us from having an attitude of gratitude. Giving gifts is my love language. When they are rejected or poo-pooed, it’s a huge hurt for me. Learning to give without expectation of gratitude is my challenge. Being of a virtuous philanthropic heart is what is needed at this point for me. Giving just for the sake of giving. I like what you said. A hug can be just a hug.
A hug that’s just a hug is so much better than a hug that’s not just a hug. It sounds really funny to say, but you can feel it when it happens.
Thanks Charlie…I deeply resonate with these questions – particularly the one about authentically expressing what you want or need. There is a powerful freedom in cultivating the ability to ask for what you need – without obligating the other to be the one who has to fulfill that need.
Just as we learn to give without expectation, we can also learn to express our needs without expectation.
Exactly. And once we learn to express our needs, we find that we can meet them. And once we meet them, we can give to others. These things are so inter-related that it can be really hard to see them as distinct.
Lee Miller says
Charlie, I love this post not only because of its rich content, but mostly because of it shows your love and commitment to your wife. In the midst of your “rising star-ness” you know what’s important. Keep shining! Thanks!
Angela recently went to Florida, and when she returned, I said, “Honey, I’d get a lot more done without you in my life, but I wouldn’t be nearly as happy.” She knew exactly what I meant.
Whether I keep on rising or not, it’s all about people and being happy.
While I know I’m running the risk of echoing all these comments (and having come late to the discussion!)…wow.
You’ve articulated this well; These questions do bring to mind issues that I’ve had throughout various relationships. And especially in the family department!
It’s difficult to step away at times; for me more difficult when it’s somebody that you’ve always had the issue with…that doesn’t go away…But recognizing the situation for what it is will certainly provide insight for the future.
It’s never bad to echo good will, Niki – thanks!
And I agree that it is quite hard to step away, and it can be harder to let go than to cling to the hopes. This is just one of those occasions where good intentions can lead to worse suffering for all parties involved.
Sandi Tuttle says
Awesome advice! I just forwarded it to a bunch of people!
Such a wonderful read! it made my mind smile and my heart say, “I told you so”
I had such a bad day in my business but I still had to cook dinner for my ‘tribe’, when my son came home and called out, arms outstretched “what a fantastic awesome aroma in this house” It made me realise that I wasn’t a complete failure (had been looking for a noose an hour earlier). The uplifting impact was far better than the clinical “thank you for dinner”
Thanks Charlie, your altruistic perspective brings to light that people are imprisoned emotionally by ‘principles’.