Relationship problems are a natural part of life, and usually stems from either or both parties’ insecurity. Many people think that if they understand the source of a conflict, they will find a solution more easily. Sometimes, asking “Why?” helps, but often, it can cause more harm than good.
Because “Seek and you shall find”. When someone asks us a question, we activate a mechanism in the brain that searches for an answer. It will not rest until it finds one.
Questions are like playing “fetch” with a dog. Ask, and your mind’s “dog” will search for the “ball” (or “stick”).
Have you ever tried to remember an acquaintance’s name, or the name of a song you only know the start of? Somehow, the answer will only come to you a few hours or days later! Well, it took your “dog” that long to fetch the answer, but it did.
Sometimes, asking “why” is good for the relationship
Some questions help us move forward, while some block us from doing so.
Asking “why?” Is not always bad. It’s only bad when we ask it in relation to behaviors we don’t want to encourage, or when it prevents our partner from expressing their feelings.
If you need help processing your feelings and understanding your own motives, you can ask yourself, “Why do I want to take that job?” or ” Why do I want this relationship?”, “Why do I want to be with this person?” or ” Why do I want to go on vacation?” Your “dog” will play fetch and bring you answers.
These are good questions, because they help you relax and inspire action. They hold no judgement, and can help you gain a sense of security in your decisions.
We need plenty of these kinds of “why” our relationships.
But sometimes, asking “why” causes relationship problems
“Why?” is a bad question when someone has done something you would rather they didn’t. For example:
- Why do you talk to me like that?
- Why can’t you clean up after yourself?
- Why don’t you ever invite me to go out?
- Why do you always come late?
These are perfect examples of misusing the question “why?”
Because when you ask someone why they’re being abusive, why they’re yelling, or why they’re being rude, their “dog” will fetch. Sure enough, they will find an answer. And, trust me, the answer is not going to help anyone.
“Why” triggers justification
Because asking “Why?” activates our justification mechanism.
We, as humans, desperately need to believe that we are good. When someone tells us we’ve done something bad, we look for a way to explain our behavior as something a good person would do, so we can continue to believe that we are good, despite what we’ve done.
So, when asked “Why?” we come up with justification for our undesirable behavior. In fact, every time we hear the question “Why?” it reinforces the undesirable behavior, because we get another chance to justify it.
If we are sailing in the sea of discomfort and pain, asking “Why?” only gives us a heavy anchor that prevents us from moving forward
Let me give you an example. Your partner is yelling at you, and you ask, “Why are you yelling?”
Your partner then looks for an answer, and finds it. And when they tell you their reasoning, they hear themselves justifying their yelling.
You don’t want to know why your partner was yelling. And you definitely don’t want them to explain to themselves why they did that, so don’t give them a chance to.
Because this is how we are programmed – to justify our actions, thoughts and feelings, whether they are good for us or not.
I work with many couples that repeatedly ask “Why?” about things they don’t want to encourage, and they don’t understand why they’re having relationship problems.
Asking what’s brought us to this situation leads to the exact same dead end.
If we search for the reason that got us into our conflict, our relationship problems, or the hard feelings we have for each other, we’ll find the reason. Because the “dog” starts running as soon as we ask “why”.
Sarcasm causes more relationship problems
Another thing that’s not useful in effective communication is sarcasm. Sarcasm is often delivered as a question with a statement hidden within it.
For example, when you say, “Why did you think it was a good idea?” it’s a statement in disguise. You’re actually saying, “I don’t think it’s a good idea”. So just say it! It’s better than your partner justifying a bad idea.
When you say, “Why are you behaving like an idiot?” it’s not a question. You’re actually saying, “I think you’re behaving like an idiot”. If this is what you think, it’s better to say it plainly, rather than risking your partner trying to justify the behavior.
“Why?” is an important question when we want people to think about their answers, consider their motives and develop mindfulness. When they do things we don’t want them to keep doing (or thinking or feeling), asking “Why?” will do the opposite.
End your relationship problems
So, what should we do instead?
It’s better to ask:
- What can we do to make the house cleaning easier for both of us?
- How can we get to being happy and kind to each other?
- What can we do to talk to each other with respect?
Because the brain will search and will find an answer. But this way, it will find helpful ones.
It’s most difficult to keep your “Why?” in check when a partner expresses sadness or discomfort. You should not ask them why they were feeling that way.
Don’t do it for two reasons.
For most people, asking “Why do you feel that way?” can be perceived as saying they shouldn’t feel that way. It only makes them defend their negative feeling and strengthen it in their mind.
It’s better to listen, to reflect (“I can see that something has made you sad” or “Looks like you’re upset”). And if that doesn’t help, it’s OK to ask forward-moving questions, like “Is there anything I can do to help?”, “What would you like to do now?”, or “What can you do now to feel better?”.
Even if you partner doesn’t answer out loud, they will answer each of these forward-moving questions internally. This will gently motivate them to move on from the bad feeling towards a better one.
So, if you’re trying to get rid of your relationship problems, cut out “Why?” Because when you ask bad questions, you get bad answers.
In a conflict, you don’t need to find a reason. The reasons for every conflict in the world are stress and insecurity. There’s no need to dwell on this.
Activate the justification mechanism on good things, not on things you don’t want to encourage.
Remember, relationships matter, relationship problems can be eliminated, and you can be happy together!