Health & Wellness

The 3 words that can add a spark back into your relationship

I feel myself go into a murderous rage when I’m in the middle of telling my fiancé something, only to have him look up from the video game he’s playing on his tablet to give me a half-hearted “yeah” or later tell me I never gave him the information I was sharing right at that moment. Every. Single. Time.

Sound familiar?

Whether it’s differing styles of expression or simply just not being good listeners, it’s no secret that communication is one of the biggest issues most couples face. And after four years together, we were starting to resemble bickering roommates — or even worse, a teenage son and a frustrated mom — more than a happily engaged couple. My fear was that these seemingly small moments would snowball into drifting apart and eventually falling out of love.

AHHHH! I needed to nip this in the bud before we tied the knot.

While attending mindbodygreen’s annual Revitalize wellness conference in September, I watched a discussion on happiness featuring New York psychiatrist Dr. Samantha Boardman, who specializes in positivity and relationships. She made a point that stuck with me — that the three most important words you can say to your partner are not “I love you,” but “tell me more.”

Jami Saunders
Here we are masquerading as grownups.

I gave Boardman a call and asked her to “tell me more.”

“It’s about giving someone your full attention,” Boardman said. “We’re all very distracted. We get used to our loved ones so when we have interactions with them, we no longer show genuine interest or curiosity in them.” She added: “If your partner comes home and says ‘guess what happened to me?’ or ‘I read this interesting article’ look up from Instagram, look them in the eyes, and say, ‘tell me more about that.’ They deserve that from you.”

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Hmmm… I suddenly remember all the times my fiancé has accused me of paying more attention to social media than to him. Turns out, I’m just as bad as he is even though I think I’m a good listener, and as the adage goes, I have to be the change I want to see. So I decided to say “tell me more” much more often in an effort to improve my relationship. Easy enough, right?

Day 1 was rough.

My fiancé came home upset about his fantasy football lineup. Rather than silently judging him and zoning out during his rant, I turned down the TV, looked at him, and said, “Tell me more about that.”

He assumed I was being sarcastic. I assured him I was serious and asked him specific follow-up questions to prove it. I learned way more than I ever wanted about the fantasy football waiver wire. It took a LOT for me to focus and not gouge my eyes out while he explained. On the plus side, he was so excited to share his knowledge that I felt that feeling one has at the beginning of a relationship when you think everything your partner does and says is cute.

But if I was going to continue this, I needed some help. My poker face doesn’t really exist, so I had to genuinely be interested in our conversations for this to work.

When I reached out to Dr. Boardman, she pointed out that perhaps after saying “tell me more,” I needed to ask the types of follow-up questions that would get me the kind of information I wanted. As a journalist, hearing that I was asking the wrong questions kind of stung.

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Keep asking questions

“After saying ‘tell me more’ you can peel back the layers by asking questions like, ‘What IS interesting about fantasy football? What did you like about watching games with your dad?’ Those types of questions will get the kinds of responses that will help you understand him better.”

I continued this experiment for several weeks with ups and downs. On a day when he was randomly snippy toward me, I fought my normal reaction to snap back and instead kept asking him follow-up questions until he finally revealed that it was the anniversary of his beloved dog’s death and he was feeling down. After all these years, this was the first I’d heard about the importance of this date to him. He may have said it before, this was just the first time I really listened.

“Yes, it starts out feeling fake, but it becomes more interesting the longer you do it,” Boardman said. “Genuine curiosity doesn’t have to just be a celebration of the momentous. Gazing at your partner while listening is a way to celebrate the person — even mundane things they do or are going through. It’s an important predictor of where your relationship goes and can be the difference between a good day and bad day for both of you.”

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My hope was that my fiancé would follow my lead on the ‘tell me mores’ and reciprocate, and our relationship would be revamped, complete with the warm fuzzies. It didn't quite happen that way. I had to literally tell him I was putting in more effort to hear him out and he needed to do the same for me.

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Saying the exact phrase “tell me more” felt a little too clinical for him, but he did start hitting “pause” on the video game during our conversations and genuinely showing interest in my day. Progress is happening, in baby steps.

Still so much to discover

For sustained success in any type of relationship, Boardman shared some other advice about communication sins — all of which I was guilty of.

  • Stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself and others. When someone confides in you, withdraw from that instinct to fix the problem and don’t put in your two cents. People often just want to vent, they don’t want to be told what to do. "My name is Vidya and I’m a serial should-er."
  • Have but-free conversations. Listen without saying 'but' and being a Debbie downer.
  • Listen without sharing a response about yourself. You may just be trying to relate, but rather than formulating your own story, just let the other person share their experience.

I thought that there wasn’t anything new I could learn about my fiancé, that we’d covered all the interesting stuff in those wonderful four-hour daily conversations when we were first falling in love. But it turns out we’d both conditioned each other to believe there was nothing left to say. It just took a little intention to prove that there’s still so much to discover.

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