Ask a Question, Change a Relationship

By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM

When you think of an important relationship in your life, do you recognize it as a living entity that is affected by the choices you make? From choosing to be in the relationship in the first place to choosing how you show up in the relationship, each choice you make has an impact on how the relationship develops.

When was the last time you took a step back and asked yourself, How are my choices affecting my relationship, and who am I in my relationship with this person? Taking a closer look at our choices and the roles we play in our relationships can help us grow as individuals and help our relationships thrive.

Our roles within relationships are determined by many different factors. Professionally, your relationships with your coworkers (and to your work) may be defined by the functions of your position and the reporting structure of your company. As a parent your role in your relationship with your child may be shaped subconsciously by your relationship with your own parents. Your role within an intimate partnership might have more to do with your ideas of how you are “supposed” to behave as part of a couple. In each relationship we personalize and mold our roles based on who we are and what we want.

Asking questions about the role you play in your various relationships can offer perspective and allow you to nourish your relationships. Try asking yourself the following six questions.

1. What do I want from the
relationship?  Companionship, intimacy, knowledge, fun—the list is long. Whatever your needs, be clear in your thoughts and actions. For example, if you seek companionship and your partner asks if you would mind if she went shopping with a friend on a Saturday, you might suggest that she might not go at a time that you traditionally spend together. Being aware of your needs allows you to express them in a way that is beneficial to your partnership.

2. Am I direct? Do you say what you think, not what you think your partner wants to hear? When we speak directly, from our hearts, we are easier to understand; the message is clear. For example, saying, “It makes me feel good when you ask me about my day,” offers your partner direct, specific information about what you need. What can you do to make your message more clear?

3. Do I choose my roles based on who I am and my values? Work with your partner to divvy up responsibilities. For instance, you may always have done the cooking in your home, while your husband has taken on chauffeuring the kids around to their activities; but your husband may actually like to cook but has never told you because he does not want to invade your turf. He may value cooking, while you value moving around and travel and would be happier behind the wheel, in his current role. Neither person is having his or her needs met. Ask yourself if you are honoring your values when making choices.

4. How is my relationship’s positivity index? One predictor of a healthy relationship that will endure is what John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, calls the 5:1 ratio. According to Gottman, relationships should have five positive touches for each negative one. Are you making the choice to offer positive touches within your relationships? Remember, even seemingly small gestures, such as a nod, a smile, or a compliment, can be powerful positive touches.

5. How do I react to repair attempts? Relationships are more successful when efforts to reconcile are accepted by the other person. If you are unhappy about an interaction, discuss the situation with your partner and look at it as an opportunity for growth, as a way of repairing the relationship.

6. How do my reactions affect me and my relationships with others? Before you say something in a burst of emotion, consider how your response will affect your relationship. We do not have control over what happens to us, but we can control how we react.

What powerful questions can you think of that might change your relationship?  

Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a certified coach and mediator who specializes in helping people navigate relationships skillfully. Denise has always fulfilled her passion for working with people. She brings a multifaceted background to her practice: she has more than 15 years’ experience in coaching and mental health as well as a background in outplacement consulting and financial services, and she has practiced in the United States and Europe. Denise’s experience includes: executive coach, Lee Hecht Harrison; behavioral coach in the pre-diabetic adolescent and adult weight-management programs, St. Luke’s Medical Center; private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic, where she worked with issues ranging from third-culture kids to marriage and family problems; crisis intervention work for New York University, Prague, and The International School, Prague; substance abuse therapy at the Bronx VA Medical Center; and inpatient therapy at The Paine Whitney Clinic. A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Social Work and of Franklin and Marshall College, Denise serves on the Board of Directors of the Idaho Mediation Association and is listed on the Idaho Supreme Court roster of custody and visitation mediators. Contact Denise at dkgcoaching.com.