Four Questions That Will Improve Your Relationship

Have you ever had a moment of connection with a stranger? I'm not talking about a romantic or sexual connection (though those are nice too), but more of a quick smile as you pass on the street, or a one-off joke shared while waiting in the grocery-store line, or some other brief, shared experience that made you feel that stranger was actually special and could have, in other circumstances, been a friend? I love those moments, which are few and far between, because they make me feel like the universe of potential friends is bigger than I'd thought. I've always wondered why those moments happen - why they happen with one person and not another, or at one time and not another.

Photo: RichardBH

I recently came across Katherine Schafler's post How to Change Your Life in One Second Flat, in which she discusses her belief that we are always asking four questions of everyone in our midst - everyone we have relationships with, from casual acquaintances to our romantic partners. These questions, which she says come from Maya Angelou (though she doesn't cite exactly where), are constant requests for acknowledgement and affirmation on a large and small scale.

The four questions are:

  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I'm here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. Can I tell that I'm special to you by the way that you look at me?

Anyone who's ever been in a romantic relationship with someone who's slowly checking out will understand what she means by these questions: I have had relationships with people who, as the romance neared the end, didn't seem to care whether I was even in the room or not, or cared if we went together to a party or apart, or only spoke to me to say something critical. I've done the same to partners that I was slowly pulling away from.

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Schafler notes that patients from her practice come in and complain that they walk into the bedroom and their partner barely looks up from the phone. Or they get their kid dressed and ready for school without really acknowledging them or making eye contact. Taking a moment to let someone know that you see them, that you care that they're there, that they're enough, and that you think they're special is the nitty-gritty of what makes a good relationship good.

I have a friend who is a master at making me feel good about myself - she asks me questions, seems sincerely interested in the answers, and treats me like I am a special person who has unique things to offer her as a friend. I've always thought she had unusually good social skills, but now I realise that she is (unconsciously) always answering these four questions that I'm (unconsciously) asking.

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Schafler is not the first psychologist to note that these kinds of requests are the foundation of solid relationships. John Gottman, a psychotherapist whose research can be used to predict which couples will stay together and which will divorce, calls these requests bids: "[A]ny attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection." Not every bid will be answered, but what matters, according to his research, is that you answer the bid affirmatively 85 per cent-ish per cent of the time. (Couples likely to divorce were at more like 33 per cent.)

This holds for all kind of relationships, even fleeting ones. For whatever reason, one of you made a bid, and the other person gave their full attention for a moment or two. I like this strategy because it helps you consider what you give, rather than what you take, and helps you take control of improving your relationships. It might not change your life in one second flat, but it might make the wait in the grocery-store line a little more fun.

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