THE BLOG
09/30/2015 05:44 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Want a Better Marriage? Use These Two Potent Magic Words

A huge percentage of marital distress stems from misunderstandings. Misunderstandings often occur when partners guess, assume they know, or interpret each others' thoughts and feelings instead of asking. All of these habits signify marriage problems ahead.

Asking how and what questions makes a better marriage by preventing needless upsets.

Joe and Linda were nearing the end of a couples therapy session. Linda looked down to find where she had put her purse when I noticed that Joe had glanced briefly at his cell phone, then frowned.

I asked Linda my usual closing questions, "So what's your take-home from this session? What stands out for you?"

"Maybe our problems are not all Joe's fault after all. I definitely need to learn to ask Joe more questions. I've been assuming I know what he's thinking and then feeling hurt when I believe my misinterpretations."

Linda turned then to Joe, saying movingly, "I love you Joe. And I want to be a better marriage partner for you."

I then asked the same summarizing questions to Joe. Sounding distressed, Joe answered, "I'm sorry, I'm not really here."

Having seen Joe's frown in response to his text message, I immediately understood. Right away though Linda's face fell. Tears welled up in her eyes. Joe had been tuned out when she had been declaring her love for him!

"What or how...," I gently prompted Linda, seeing her imminent rage.

Linda looked at me with confusion. Then, turning to Joe and taking a deep breath to calm herself, she summoned up the skill of asking how and what questions that we had worked on in the session.

"Joe," Linda said quietly. How come you're 'not really here'? What are you thinking about instead? What's your concern?"

"I just received a text message from work, " Joe responded. "Our sales were down this quarter, way worse than I'd anticipated. I'm devastated. And real worried."

Linda looked back at me, this time smiling shyly. "I'm beginning to get it about what and how. I had immediately interpreted Joe's "not really here" comment as meaning that he doesn't care about my love for him. Instead of assuming I know what Joe is thinking when he has a negative look on his face or a peeved sound in his voice, I need to ask, to ask with what or how."

How and what questions also make a better marriage by enabling you to clean up after needless upsets based on misunderstandings.

Earlier in the session Joe and Linda had relied on what and how to turn a prior major fight into an opportunity to enhance their loving connection.

"I felt sad when you left for your business trip so abruptly last week," Linda started explaining to Joe, re-introducing discussion of the huge argument, ending with threats of divorce, that had prompted them to seek therapy.

"I did not leave abruptly!" Joe responded defensively, the same as he had at home. "I said an especially loving and long goodbye with you. That wasn't abrupt!"

"Hold on," I intervened. "Joe, find out what Linda meant by abruptly."

"Did you mean..." Joe started.

"What or how...," I prompted him. We had discussed earlier that what and how invite information flow. "Did you..." "Are you..." "Have you.." by contrast, invite either brief yes/no answers, or defensive responses like "Of course not!"

"By abrupt ," Linda explained, "I meant that I loved all the fun we'd had together that morning. I loved how affectionate you'd been toward me, and happy the kids always are when you're home. After you left the difference felt so stark. Also, I'd misunderstood what time you would be leaving. I'd thought you weren't leaving until after dinner, so when you drove out the driveway instead in the mid-afternoon, I experienced that also as abrupt. "

"Wow." Joe responded. "I'd thought by the word abrupt you were criticizing how I'd said goodbye. Phew. I can see that I'm hyper-sensitive to anything that sounds like criticism. I'm beginning to love those magic what and how words. They clear up what's an attack and what's not."

In sum: Use the magic words what and how for a better marriage.

Aim to avert needlessly upsetting interactions by asking instead of assuming the worst about what your loved one feels and thinks. Use what and how questions also to clean up after an upset by clarifying find the miss -- the missing information, miscommunication, misunderstanding, misperception or mistake. That way instead of holding grudges you can heal and move on. Connection renewed!
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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a graduate of Harvard and a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of the interactive online marriage skills program, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.