When you ask your spouse a question, do you get one-word replies instead of a conversation?
Here are the relationship complaints I hear in my coaching practice:
- My spouse doesn’t talk to me about anything personal. All our conversations are about the details of living: bills, kids, and schedules.
- I find out about my spouse when we are out with friends. I hear my spouse tell a story about their life that I’ve never heard. Suddenly I feel lonely. Why didn’t my spouse tell me that story?
- Or, my spouse doesn’t listen to me. I’ll be talking, and my spouse is looking at their phone, or is trying to fix my situation, or, worst of all, their face is blank. Even after I tell my story, I can’t see any expression of recognition on their face.
These are the complaints when your friendship needs a tune-up. Do you resonate with any of these examples? If so, this week’s habit is for you.
Today’s habit for your happily ever after is to ask and answer super specific questions so you can either banish the ghost or at least make the ghost in your relationship more visible and friendly.
What is “the ghost?”
Last week we talked about The Saboteur. The Saboteur is critical and controlling. The saboteur shows up when The Partner—who’s great at helping with everyday details—feels over-worked or under-appreciated.
While the Partner handles life’s details, The Friend is great at fostering understanding and a place of belonging in your relationship. When I talk with couples who are struggling because there’s a lack in their friendship, it’s most often because that friend doesn’t appear. My clients feel ghosted in the closest relationship of their lives.
The Ghost appears when The Friend has gone to sleep. Our task this week, is to wake up that friend so you feel less lonely and more connected to your spouse.
The friend in your relationship as you’re falling in love
When you’re falling in love, The Friend is wide awake. You want to know everything about your spouse and your spouse is eager to hear about you.
You stay up until 3am listening to the story of your spouse’s Aunt Ida. Your spouse is transported to a warm hug as they tell you about the sugar and butter that Aunt Ida stirred to create toffee as she sang songs from every musical under the sun.
You tell your spouse about the trip you took to Alaska after graduation. You tell your spouse about the frozen lake you walked across and how you heard the thunder of the ice breaking and loosened your belt in case you had to dump your pack and bolt.
That’s early in your relationship.
Why does that friend in your relationship go to sleep?
You reach a point of comfort.
You’re comfortable because you know each other’s stories. You know how you fit together. You’ve found that magic place of belonging. Ahhhh. You and your spouse have vowed to create a home that is as sweet as Aunt Ida’s kitchen and as rugged at the Alaskan mountains.
Blissful comfort like this is one of the primary reasons it’s so wonderful to fall in love. But this same comfort is also the breeding ground for The Ghost.
Do you remember back in episode 9 when I talked about the three zones of living? Comfort zone, growth zone, and panic zone. That episode focused primarily on how we negotiate the panic zone, but now I want to talk about some of the dangers that the comfort zone poses to your relationship.
Comfort is lovely. We all crave comfort because it’s so comfortable. It’s easy.
And it can be deadly to your relationship.
How comfort kills your friendship
That sounds so hyperbolic. I want you to be comfortable in your relationship as much as you want to be comfortable. I just want you to be comfortably awake rather than comfortably snoozing through life.
We are alert in the growth zone and hyper alert in the panic zone, but in our comfort zone, we can get lulled to sleep.
We are predisposed by something called loss aversion. We stay alert if we fear a loss. We also stay alert if we’re striving and growing. There’s a unique bond created when you and your spouse are reaching for a shared goal, or even when you’re surviving a crisis together. These states of alertness keep us connecting with our partner.
But we want to be comfortable. We don’t always want to be hyper alert: either fearing loss or striving for a potential future.
That’s why this week’s habit for your happily ever after is to tell your spouse something super specific about your day or your week. And the second half of the habit is to listen when your spouse tells you something super specific about their day or their week.
Why does this help? Because specificity wakes up your friendship and keeps your curiosity vital. This is the concept of going deep rather than wide.
To illustrate that, let me tell you a story about the opposite: How the ghost of disappearance haunts your relationship by hiding in the shadows of generalizations.
The Ghost Who Arrives Because of Exhaustion
Jessica and Denzel have been together for 7 years, but they only got married a year ago, just after they bought a house.
Their lives were aimed at buying that house for 7 years. They’d get dressed up and make a nice dinner at home, proud of themselves for saving money by not eating out. They spent those dinners talking about the house they wanted, the way they’d decorate, and the garden they’d plant.
Enough of those fancy home dates added up and they had enough money for a down payment.
They are proud of the house they bought, and feel settled. But they also feel just a little bored.
There’s no getting dressed up anymore because they aren’t trying to save. The conversations filled with plans have gone because now they have all they dreamed of.
Jessica, who’s a teacher, was able to cut her work hours down and now she mostly works from home, tele-communicating with students who have special needs. Denzel comes home from his software sales job because he no longer needs the uber-driving for extra cash.
It’s a comfortable life, but all the conversation in their relationship has evaporated
Denzel used to ask every day about the kids in Jessica’s classroom. But he hasn’t asked once about all the changes Jessica had to learn in order to switch to remote teaching.
He walks in the door, and Jess doesn’t wonder how he is. She doesn’t ask about his day. She just looks over her shoulder, “I’ve gotta connect with some kids who didn’t get their assignments today.” Denzel is happy she enjoys her job. But he feels lonely. He thought owning a house together would make them feel more connected.
Denzel and Jessica each feel ghosted, even as they live together. Even as they live in the same home. Even as they share a bed. They’re lonely even as they pass the ketchup. There is no loneliness as profound as the loneliness inside your marriage.
Isn’t it fascinating that the thing that brought them so close together: saving for and buying a house and sharing responsibilities has now created such loneliness in their relationship? It’s the curse of comfort.
This is ghost territory: the underdeveloped Friend: When you’re not revealing who you are—your day, your dreams—and you’re not listening to who your spouse is—their day, their dreams.
When you or your spouse get lost in routine, a new kind of exhaustion kills your curiosity: the exhaustion of boredom. Boredom kills curiosity, and curiosity is at the heart of cultivating a friendship with your spouse.
This is where habits help.
You’re comfortable enough with each other that all those urgent feelings that inspired curiosity are gone.
Jessica now has the kitchen inspired by Aunt Ida, but the urgent hunger for a bigger life was quenched and there’s no longing. There’s nothing scaring you like the thunderous cracks on the lake that made you loosen the belt on your backpack.
That’s why I created a question you can rely on to keep you connected during seasons of comfort, stasis, and even boredom.
Here’s that magical question for your relationship:
“Tell me the whole story about ____” then fill in the blank. “Tell me the whole story about how you sell software.” Or “Tell me the whole story about what you read with your students today.”
Remember last week, when we were talking about the saboteur—that overly zealous partner– and I gave you a similar question, “Tell me the whole story about everything that’s on your list.” Or “Tell me the story about these tasks I can’t see.”
The questions when you’re dealing with the shadow side of the partner and friend are similar, but a just a little bit different.
When your spouse is deep in Saoteur territory, there’s a risk of resentment building. One or the other of you might feel taken for granted. That’s why the “whole story” question focuses on the list or tasks. A specific inquiry about the invisible work lets the partner feel seen and melts that Resentful Saboteur.
With the friend, it’s different. When your spouse has been ghosting you—either consciously or unconsciously—a distance is growing between you. A distance created by comfort and boredom.
Saboteur = too much; Ghost = too little
With the saboteur it’s too much: too much cooking, shopping, cleaning. Whereas with the ghost, it’s too little: too little excitement, togetherness, or adventure.
The too much of partner-tasks builds a wall of resentment between you and your spouse. The too little of the ghost creates a distance of isolation that’s difficult to bridge.
But you can bridge this distance with a habitual question, “Tell me the whole story about ___: blank: Then fill in that blank with things like your day, your extended family, your job. The more specific the better. Tell me the whole story about the toffee you used to make with Aunt Ida.
This question banishes the ghost by beckoning the friend. The friend who wants to keep synthesizing the past, dreaming about the future, or enjoying the day at hand.
The Ghost whose too comfortable needs very specific questions:
Denzel, who knows that Jessica bonds in the kitchen, could ask, “Tell me the whole story about the spices in these cupboards.” Or “Tell me the whole story about the flavors of kids you have in your classes right now.”
Jessica, who knows that Denzel is an adventurer, could ask, “Tell me the whole story about the sales process. How is it like exploration?”
These questions go deeper into who Jessica and Denzel are. She’s a nurturer. He’s an adventurer. When you ask specific questions that go to the heart of your spouse’s character, not only do you know them better, but you encourage your spouse to expand in ways that are natural to them.
One way to wake up the friendship in your totally comfortable relationship is to be curious about how you or your spouse can go deeper into what creates that comfort.
The ghost haunting the relationship of Denzel and Jessica is totally-comfortable-Ghost. This is a truly common ghost in adult relationships, but it’s not the only ghost.
Other relationship ghosts
I’m gonna describe three types of ghosts I see in clients’ relationships. I’m curious which ghost you most relate to:
1. The Leaky-Faucet who drones on and on about their bad day…day after day, but you never feel like you KNOW them. Drip. Drip. Drip. But no satisfying drink of water. The Leaky-Faucet ghost talks a lot, but there’s no intimacy shared. Just pestering, annoying complaints without energy to create solutions.
2. Or maybe you’re more like The Dominator who always knows everything about everything and shuts down any potential stories that their spouse might share. “Oh, that’s where you’re wrong…” The Dominator digs a trench around them of lonely silence because it’s no fun to talk to someone who has a comprehensive knowledge of everything on planet earth. When you’re told you’re wrong enough, you don’t want to engage even when you know you’re right.
3. The Show-off who just needs the attention: telling jokes, telling stories, serving up fact. Look-at-me. Look-at-me. Look-at-me-now! The show-off creates a ghostly absence of relationship because The Show-off wants all eyes to be always on them.
We all have ghostly moments in our relationship. The trick is to identify when you’re most likely to become a ghost so you know where to intervene with your “tell me the whole story” habit.
Key: the two skills of The Friend are listening and revelation
Those skills can be each taken to extreme. Some people only reveal. The only time they listen is to find another invitation to reveal more about themselves.
· Maybe their coping strategy when they’re uncomfortable is to chatter.
· Maybe they don’t have much empathy developed so the only person who matter is themself.
· Maybe they feel responsible for filling the empty space with words.
Some people only listen. The only time they reveal…well, some people just can’t figure out how to talk about themselves.
· Maybe they’re observers by nature.
· Maybe they don’t feel like what they have to say is worthy.
· Maybe they feel powerful only when they know more than they reveal.
The impact of The Ghost’s hidden nature is that you can’t get close because either you’re sharing nothing, or you’re talking AT each other but not hearing each other.
When you become a ghost, are you more likely to stop revealing? And hide from conversations with your spouse? Or are you more likely to stop listening and babble on and on without listening to your spouse?
Don’t wait for your spouse to ask you the question
You can answer a question that hasn’t been asked. That’s called engaging in conversation.
Whether you and your spouse are in the beginning stages of your relationship, or you’ve been together for decades, the only person you can change is you. But the best news about that fact is that when you change yourself, you change the dynamic in your relationship.
All by yourself you can shift the relationship you have
Little by little. Habit by habit.
I’m not telling you that you are the only one responsible for your relationship. Not at all. But I am saying that you are powerful in your relationship and that the only way for you to have the relationship you want is to become the person you want to be in that relationship.
Then fill in the blank. Here are some examples of how to fill in that blank. As I read these examples, notice how your body feels as if I’m saying this to YOU because I’m interested in you.
- I wanna hear the whole story about what you learned today about what’s happening in the world: your tiny world, or the universe. Tell me.
- I wanna hear the whole story about the best thing you smelled today.
- I wanna hear the whole story about what surprised you today?
- I wanna hear the whole story about protein did you eat today?
Now wait, really? There’s a whole story about protein? Maybe not so much in your life. But my husband is super keen about protein right now. He wants to tell me how he managed to eat all the protein he was seeking, and he wants to know if I’m eating enough protein.
Examples of super specific questions
I wanted you to hear this super specific question because your spouse geeks out about something. What is that something? When you ask about that something that is fascinating to your spouse, it’s like saying I love you. I love you and I want to hear all the details.
Here’s some more:
- I wanna hear the whole story about the other dogs you saw today when you were taking ours for a walk?
- I was noticing how green everything has become outside. There are a zillion tiny buds on the catapula tree that are this yellow-green and they all look so happy. I wanna hear the whole story about the best green thing you saw today?
- Today I had a client thank me because I’d changed her life. I wanna hear the whole story about the most rewarding moment of your day?
- I wanna hear the whole story about what you struggled with today.
You might wanna give up on the listening, throw up your hands, and say, “It doesn’t work. My spouse is never gonna talk to me.”
Please let me encourage you to keep asking. Listening and revealing are the two cornerstones that make a strong friendship and these skills will help to banish the ghost from your relationship. But these skills don’t magically appear overnight and they need to be honed.
Strong listening is a relationship skill you can build
Tender revelation is also a skill you can build. Concentrate on you. Work on changing you. That way, you become a better listener, a more revelatory revealer.
Keep circling back saying, Tell me the whole story. What else is part of the story you haven’t yet told me?
Why does this help? Because stories are relationship currency. When you share your individual stories with your spouse, they become part of the relationship bank: Your together memories.
You’ve been around a couple who tell the same stories over and over. And you’ve seen one person in the couple tell the other person’s story as if it’s their own. This is a shared history.
Super specific conversations will cement the feeling of belonging in your relationship. Ask super specific questions. Tell super specific stories. Then your shared history will be filled with super specific details.
You will find your happily ever after in those shared details.
When does The Ghost tend to show up in your relationship? Text me today at 970-210-4480 and let me know.