Curiosity Saved the Cat

My friend, Hal Runkel, author of Scream Free Marriage, describes long-term marriage as a road bordered by the twin ditches of Boredom and Contempt. As long as we avoid either of those, we can stay on the lifetime journey together. Today’s post will explore avoiding Boredom, which can set in when we have the same old routines, same old conversations, the same old avoidance of  hot topics, and generally start taking each other’s presence for granted. Boredom opens the door to several giant killers of relationship. It can lead to affairs, and it can also throw us right over into the opposite ditch of Contempt, as we begin to think we know everything about our spouse and stop actually listening to them.

Avoiding boredom requires changing the one person you can control – yourself. Did your parents every annoy you by saying that “if you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring”? There’s a truth in that saying that we can be reluctant to face, especially when we’re in the throes of boredom. To begin with, feeling bored is usually accompanied by a focus on circumstances. “There’s nothing to do!” “He just wants to sit around and watch TV.” “We always do the same old thing.” “We’re too busy to do anything fun.” The common thread of all these complaints is that someone or something is to blame for my boredom, and if it’s my spouse, well, then the inescapable conclusion is that I’m stuck in a bad marriage.

Cover of "The Phantom Tollbooth"

One of the things I teach my clients, as a coach, is that feelings are not subject to judgment, but all should be welcomed as dear friends. They are caring guardians of our soul who bring  important messages to our attention. Boredom, for example, has an important message -  that I’m sliding into complacency and self-pity, which is dangerous terrain. It helps me to understand that I’d better wake up and pay attention to which direction I’m taking, because I’m headed toward the Doldrums, that colorless land visited by Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth where laughing and thinking are not allowed. And if my partner is the subject of my boredom, then that’s who I’d better wake up and pay attention to. My feeling of boredom is the helpful friend that tells me I need to revive my curiosity before the relationship is harmed.

One fascinating study I read showed that partners do not get better at avoiding miscommunication over time. In fact, they are more likely to have misunderstandings  because they begin to assume they know what the other means. What is needed instead is for us to keep in mind that our partner is really a mysterious stranger, a secret universe that can only be visited and explored, but never inhabited, by us. And in order to explore, we must cultivate a lively curiosity toward them that asks questions, and make a safe space for our partner to reveal their answers to us. Just as we longed to get to know all about them during the dating phase, we should continue to do so all through our relationship. Hopefully, our partner is changing and growing over time. The answer we got yesterday may be very different when the same question is asked today.

An important concept in Aikido, the Japanese martial art I practice, is mushin. It refers to a mind that is poised, calm, alert, and open to whatever will happen next. Just as a calm pond reflects what is around it, but sends a distorted image when the surface is disturbed, so our mind will distort our perception of reality when it is filled with expectation, judgment, or emotion. In order to have a clear picture of our mate, we need to practice mushin. Ask questions, have no expectation of the answer, listen with curiosity. When your receive the answer from this mysterious and fascinating other that you love, you may find that the problem was inside you all the time. And you will have gone from being a boring partner who is bored, to a curious partner who is fascinated with your beloved.

Do you have any suggestions for great questions to ask? Let us know!  Our suggestion for today: ask your partner what they like best about their life right now.

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