Shift Away From Autopilot Mode
Relationships can get into autopilot mode whether or not we can clearly see and feel it, A common line often heard in couples therapy sessions: “I know them better than they know themselves. OR I’ve been with them for so long I know what to expect.” It can be a strength in your relationship to know your partner very well and ideally our goal is to have a solid understanding of our partner. It’s also important to leave room for what else may be happening and changing within the relationship or with the individuals within it. Moments when someone thinks, “oh here we go again” are all telling signs of how relationships can get into fixed patterns, beginning to operate on their own. We, as humans, adapt to what is happening in our environment. Our relationships can adapt to certain ways of being, too. It’s almost as if relationships can operate much like a bike getting stuck in one gear. And that one gear may not work too well in those uphill types of situations but the bike tries to function in that gear anyways. Individuals within relationships change over time and relationships can change over time as well. We can use curiosity as the superpower in relationships to change the gear towards greater understanding as the individual(s) and the relationship evolves and changes. Curiosity may seem simple at first glance, but it may be helpful to think of it as a process to practice.
So what exactly do we mean by curiosity? Curiosity is coming from the place of not knowing and having the desire to learn or better understand something and/or someone. Curiosity could be an approach in your relationships to help find moments of novelty and greater connection.
“Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost.” – Kahlil Gibran
Think about all of the things that have been said and not meant in your relationships. What comes up for you? Now think about what was maybe meant but was not said in your relationship(s). What was happening there? Starting with just asking these questions is already opening up space for curiosity, even around our own experiences. While we may naturally want to assume we know what is meant or what will be said and/or happen, there’s so much more that can be found in the space between. Curiosity helps us focus on the space between, both in our relationships with others and in our relationship with ourselves.
When we think of how curiosity can be used as a superpower in relationships, let’s first acknowledge how we (as individuals) are separate from our relationships. The relationship can be considered its own entity, itself. If we think of relationships as being a separate entity from ourselves we can take a step back to observe the relationship as if it’s a movie we are watching play out before us, rather than remain as an ‘actor’ within the movie. Watching the ‘movie’, we can be curious about all of the moving parts, the plot lines and the individual changes of the characters involved. If your relationship(s) feel stuck on autopilot, tension, discomfort, disconnection, or just feeling mundane, curiosity may be able to kick the relationship into a different gear. It’s playing those reels back and being curious:
- What was happening in that scene between the two of us?
- Why are the relationship plot lines set in place the way they are? Example: If each week there is minimal connection between you and your partner, what’s contributing to the disconnect?
- How were the relationship habits formed? And why?
- What used to happen in the relationship that isn’t happening now?
- What ending to this scene in your relationship(s) movie is expected, anticipated,and/or desired?
- What life events (baby, loss, new job, etc.) have happened that have impacted the way the relationship works?
Curiosity as an Individual Compass
You can benefit from a stance of curiosity towards the individual experiences within your relationships as well. This can be curiosity about your own individual experience and/or the individual experience of your partner. Curiosity can act as your very own compass into the many layers of the emotional experiences felt by each individual in the relationship. Curiosity may be more natural at the beginning of relationships versus once you’ve been settled into one for a while. It could be that the intensity of individual experiences changes as trust and familiarity are built within the relationship and as two people adapt and learn how to relate to one another. It’s natural for individuals to evolve and change as the relationship grows but it may feel less natural to notice the change (maybe subtle) as it unfolds in front of you. Here are some questions to be curious about:
- What about me remains the same? What about my partner remains the same?
- What is different about me now? What is different about my partner now?
- What am I experiencing and feeling, and why?
- What is my partner experiencing and feeling, and why?
- What is happening within me that is similar to what I’ve felt before?
- What is different about how I feel now?
- What is the story I am assuming is happening here with my partner or withmyself? Is it true?
- What more could be impacting the way I or they feel in this moment?
Start with Asking What If?
Curiosity may not come naturally for some and the good news is, that’s ok. Part of curiosity is coming from the place of not knowing and wanting to know more, so if this feels like a new approach you want to know more about, great! Start with trying to observe the space between what is happening and your natural reaction or response to it. Here’s a tip: the next time you assume you know the ending of the ‘movie’ playing out in front of you. Pause. Pause and wonder as if you didn’t know through the lens of “What if?”
- What if what I am thinking is happening here, isn’t?
- What if there is more happening that I haven’t considered?
- What if the storyline I think is playing out isn’t?
- What if this assumption I am making here isn’t accurate?
- What if I could learn more to help shift into the gear for greater understanding and connection for myself, my partner, and my relationship(s)?
Curiosity as a Practice
This may be tricky as it’s natural for us (and oftentimes more comfortable) to do what we’ve always done or what’s worked before. Getting to a place of curiosity can be additionally difficult when there is high conflict in the relationship. Conflict can become the norm and it can be challenging to be curious when feeling intense emotions. Calming yourselves down physiologically can help you be able to engage in curiosity as a way to slow down the escalation to allow space to learn more. The process of actively moving to a place of not knowing, even when upset, is part of developing curiosity as a superpower. To offer an in-the-moment guide, if you will, on how to bring in curiosity as a superpower in your relationship(s), consider using the acronym, COAL, from Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight:
C: Curiosity – Have a genuine desire to learn more about yourself, your partner and your relationship
O: Openness – Try to be open to the experience as it is, without judgment
A: Acceptance – Accept how you feel, how your partner feels and the experience of your relationship in the moment
L: Love – Lean into yourself and your partner with compassion
The “C” for “Curiosity” will help start the process of changing gears to allow space to explore (with openness, acceptance and love) what’s evolved and/or changed with the individuals within the relationship – or how the relationship is operating in current time. What if there is more to learn and more to understand about the current moment and/or experience? COAL can help offer a supportive approach to processing the evolving nature of your relationship and the individuals within it.
Curiosity for Greater Connection
Curiosity can be our superpower to help us strengthen connections by honoring the growth, change, and adventure within ourselves and our relationships. While getting settled and secure in relationships sounds comforting, that same comfort can also create patterns where relationships begin to operate in one single gear. Relationships and the individuals within them have so many more gears to explore. Curiosity helps us change gears and seek more love, understanding and excitement, in between what is being said and what isn’t. Curiosity may begin within ourselves but it can be brought into relationships to create many versions of the relationship over the course of its lifetime. Curiosity can also help us honor and embrace different versions of the individuals within the relationship(s). Lean into not knowing, even if it feels unnatural, and see what can be found. Curiosity can grow and evolve, too.