Curiosity Is Key

A UT Health Austin social worker shares strategies for engaging in healthy dialogue with your significant other

Reviewed by: Benjamin Ehrenfeld, LCSW
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A young man and a young woman sit outdoors on a stoop engaged in conversation.

Communication is said to be key to successful relationships. As such, many of us have made an effort to learn how to better express ourselves and sharpen our active listening skills when engaging in conversation with our significant other. But have you ever thought about how curiosity can play a significant role in maintaining a healthy relationship?

“It can become very easy to think you know your partner as well as you know yourself,” says Benjamin Ehrenfeld, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in UT Health Austin’s Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center within the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, “but people are constantly changing and evolving. If you are only in a relationship with the idea of your partner in your head, it is easy for challenges to arise that could have been prevented. The key to a healthy relationship is to remain curious about your partner and invite your partner to be curious about you.”

Inviting Curiosity In

“There are two major misconceptions about healthy communication,” explains Ehrenfeld. “The first misconception is that what we intend to communicate is the only thing we are communicating in a given time. This simply isn’t the case, as more often than not, we communicate more than we intend to, sometimes sending contradictory messages.”

We’ve all been there. One minute we’re sharing our frustrations, and the next, our significant other has become widely offended by a look we didn’t know we were giving or a tone we didn’t know we were using. This is where Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication comes into play. In the 1970s, Professor Mehrabian’s studies around effective face-to-face communication revealed that 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, while 38% is through tone of voice, and the other 55% through body language.

“The second misconception,” continues Ehrenfeld, “is that our intentions matter more than our effects. While Intentions are important, how a message affects your partner matters just as much, if not more.”

Conversations are a two-way street, and establishing open communication is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships. However, this may prove difficult if the message being perceived isn’t resulting in the desired outcomes. Instead, focus on being just as curious about what you are understanding your significant other to be communicating as you are eager to invite curiosity about whether your intentions and the effects of those intentions are matching up.

Leading With Transparency

“Part of being curious about your partner includes addressing certain “non-negotiables” early in a relationship,” shares Ehrenfeld. “Be upfront about what being in an intimate relationship means for you. This allows you an opportunity to set your boundaries while also allowing your partner an opportunity to acknowledge those boundaries are in place and give informed consent to being in that sort of relationship. Consent plays a major role in relationships, which is where being transparent becomes important.”

Establish what’s important to you in advance so that you can communicate these needs with your significant other. Be open to the possibility that certain non-negotiables may become less important as your relationship evolves over time. It’s common for new priorities to emerge over the course of a relationship. As your curiosity persists, you may discover new things about one another that will lead to making adjustments to boundaries that have been put in place.

“Just as you are going to discover new things about yourself all the time, you are also going to discover new things about your partner,” says Ehrenfeld. “There are some things that may have been a non-negotiable early on in your relationship that are no longer a non-negotiable. These types of conversations may pop up over the course of the relationship, and it’s important to understand that any changes to the relationship are not an indication that the other person has been hiding anything. There are just some things you and your partner won’t know until you’ve been in the relationship for some time.”

Engaging in Healthy Dialogue

When faced with a disagreement, try to be welcoming of new information and receptive to feedback regarding how your intentions come across to your significant other during conversation.

“Disagreements are inevitable,” explains Ehrenfeld. “If you spend enough time with a person, you’re going to discover things you disagree about. There will also be points throughout your relationship where you are going to disappoint them, and they are going to disappoint you.”

Strategies for engaging in healthy dialogue during an argument:

  1. Keep close to curiosity: Be curious about what you are understanding to be the problem as well as what your significant other is understanding to be the problem. Explore whether the intentions and the effects of those intentions are matching up.
  2. Identify what problem you’re trying to tackle together: Do not try to figure out whether you or your significant other are the problem. Remember that the problem is the problem. You and your significant other are people. You are not the problem. Your significant other is not the problem.
  3. Prioritize effects over intentions: Stay focused on the effects of your intentions by acknowledging the effects your intentions have had on your significant other and working to ensure your intentions do not have that effect in the future.

Understanding Your Limits

“Something I’ve learned personally is to avoid having serious conversations when you’re tired or hungry,” shares Ehrenfeld. “It is important to make sure that you and your partner’s bodies are taken care of before you tackle challenging subjects.”

Ever been accused by your significant other of being “hangry?” Maybe you’re the one who has experienced a “hangry” significant other? This significant drop in mood or change in irritability is an emotional response to the body’s unmet needs. Before you and your significant other tackle a serious issue, be sure that you both have recently had something to eat and drink. If necessary, call a brief recess for some nourishment and return to the subject matter 15-30 minutes after you’ve eaten.

Efforts to further healthy communication should also be mutual. “Open communication is useful if both people are committed to it. If your partner does not make the same sort of effort, your relationship may be facing bigger issues,” warns Ehrenfeld.

If you are receiving care at UT Health Austin, you can ask to speak with a social worker.

To make an appointment with UT Health Austin, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.