Remember when your relationship was new and you couldn't stop thinking about the other person? You wondered what they thought about the movie you just saw or that book you read. Maybe you worried about whether or not they were going to like the restaurant you chose and you wondered what they liked to eat. Conversations about how they grew up and political and social beliefs felt stimulating and exciting. Remember those feelings? Wouldn't it be nice to expereince that again?
Those feeling of excitement, nervousness and curiosity serve a purpose in the development of relationships. It is that curiosity that propels us towards getting to know each other. Curiosity is an essential building block of intimacy.
An interesting study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology looked at the way in which curiosity promotes intimacy. The research found that people perceive individuals who are curious as more attractive and feel closer to curious individuals after even just one conversation. Another 2011 study showed that people who ranked has highly curious were better at predicting levels of extraversion and openness in other people. These findings point to curiosity being an essential part of productive communication. Attraction, emotional closeness and the ability to engage in productive communication are all elements of strong emotional intimacy in a relationship.
Curiosity is a primary building block in romantic relationships. The unknown is exciting and interesting, and feeling known is also exciting and interesting. Relationships that cultivate curiosity are more intimate and satisfying. So why does curiosity so often become less present in relationships?
In relationships where couples feel they can predict their partners reactions and emotions, curiosity naturally fades. On the one hand, there is a level of comfort in knowing each other. It's nice when your partner knows how you like your steak coked, what blanket you prefer when snuggling on the couch, words and actions that make you feel loved and what turns you on sexually. This type of knowledge is what the Gottman Institute identifies as Love Maps, and having a relationship where each partner feels known is important for the health of the relationship.
On the flip side, when couples are too confident in their ability to predict their partner's thoughts, feelings and desires, we run the risk of that lovingly held knowledge morphing into unproductive assumptions. When we assume another person's intent, emotion or inner dialogue without curiosity, we are restricting growth. We place ourselves, our partner and our relationship in a box that limits our ability to experience the thrill of being open to learning something new. One of the wonderful things about the human condition is that it is constantly changing. Esther Perel has said that "desire needs space". To desire our partner we need to create space for parts of them to be unknown to us. Curiosity does just that.
How can you bring a sense of curiosity back into our relationship? Start by asking open ended questions, listen for understanding rather than listening for your turn to speak, and make a commitment to be present in conversations with your spouse (no phones!). A relationship where curiosity thrives takes work and commitment, but the payoff is huge. Remember the study about how curious people are perceived as more attractive? Remember that the next time you find yourself making assumptions about your partner.