Home > Couples, Family Therapy > Couples Therapy Lesson 3: Asking Your Partner the “Magic Question”

Couples Therapy Lesson 3: Asking Your Partner the “Magic Question”

It is important that you and your partner know how to recover well from a fight.  Do you feel safe to stop being angry or defensive or withdrawn?  Do you trust each other to make up?  Can you risk being vulnerable again?

Small children tend to recover from fights well.  My young son, for instance, on the heels of a temper tantrum, states plainly “I need love!” when he is no longer angry and wants affection.  It never fails to elicit a positive response.

Children, whose needs are consistently met, are able to move confidently between anger and their desire to reconnect.  Why?  Because our DNA ingrains in parents a nurturing response to children’s vulnerable pleas.  We are quick to forgive even the most hurtful comments (“I hate you!” or “Go live in another house!”) when our children reapproach us with vulnerability.

But the angry partner who holds a grudge, pouts, withdraws, or simmers will not be met with such sympathy.  His behavior will likely elicit a ‘fight or flight’ response when it appears unsafe to make up.  And it is difficult to reconnect with your partner when you feel that you are warily circling each other as combatants rather than intimates.

Finding a vulnerable space is key to making up with your partner after an argument. You need to create a dynamic which sees past and forgives your partner’s adult, aggressive behaviors, and uncovers the wounded child crying out in pain.  This allows you to tap into your ingrained, nurturing instincts and reconnect.

Knowing your partner’s inner wounded child can be very helpful in this process.  If you have engaged in the exercise outlined in my previous blog entry, you should have a sense of your partner’s most sensitive issues.  This information (and compassion) can guide you in asking what I call the “Magic Question.”

The Magic Question is a gesture indicating that you want to put down the boxing gloves.  It shows that you care about your partner’s wounded child needs.  It is a verbal bridge going to the very core of your partner’s childhood experience and coming back to heal what is paining them in the present.

For instance, if your partner had parents who were dismissive of her every need, she will likely get very triggered when she is feeling unsupported.  Of if your partner had parents who were very critical, he will likely resent feeling judged.  If these two were in a relationship and fighting, the woman, whose needs were never attended to, might have a tendency to get enraged or shut down in the face of an unsympathetic response, while he, who constantly feels criticized, might get angry or withdrawn in the face of her vocal (or what he what he interprets as) silent condemnation.   The argument, that starts off on a concrete issue (e.g. someone late, some chore not finished, or some request unheeded), spins out of control because these sensitive buttons are being pushed.   The content of the fight (the actual words being spoken) are not addressing the core issues.

The Magic Question allows the couple to extricate itself from this whirlpool and hone in on the acute problem fueling their negative responses.  The Magic Question is formulated as follows:  “What can I do right now so that you will feel ____?”  The blank should be filled in with what you know is most important to your partner.  For instance, “What can I do right now so that you will feel supported/empathized with/that your needs are being listened to?” would be ways to formulate the Magic Question to the woman above.  “What can I do right now so that I can state what is bothering me without you feeling judged/criticized/like nothing you do is ever good enough?” would be good questions for the man.

When I work with couples, natural responses to the above might follow in the vein of (for the woman): “Just spend ten minutes listening to me without reacting.”  “Repeat what I have said so that I know that you have heard me.”  “Tell me that my concerns are important and legitimate (even if you disagree on their solution).”  Or responses from the man: “Tell me three things that you are pleased I did before criticizing my behavior.”  “Tell me that you still care for me, even though you are unhappy with this particular thing.” “Please comment on my actions and not on my character.”

One problem that I see again and again in my practice is that couples are not attuned to taking care of each other’s sensitive, core issues.  When dating, they often coo over each other like mother hens – anticipating needs, making romantic gestures, and showing infinite patience.  These behaviors reassure the other that, like a loved child, they will be taken care of.  But as the relationship progresses, these behaviors fade into the distance.  And when a fight is brewing, they hyperspace into a distant galaxy.  Suddenly, this person, with whom you are supposed to be so intimate, feels like a stranger or an antagonist.  And the relationship feels very unsafe. Reconciliation seems so difficult.

But if you can ask the Magic Question, you are making an important gesture to your partner.  You are conveying that you want to soothe the inner child, to reassure him that he will continue to be taken care, and to convince her that she will be safe.   And if you can deliver on the request made in response, you have opened the door to changing the argument’s whole dynamic, creating emotional empathy, and forging reconciliation.

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Categories: Couples, Family Therapy
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