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  • Steven Sutton, LCSW

Drop the focus on WHY and pay attention to the WHAT Part #4

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

People spend years convinced that they need to know why things are happening the way they are. Why is my partner like this (we usually have a theory on this one), why do I keep making that mistake, why can’t we do better? Believing that there is value in working out the causes of problems in relationship is usually a trap. If you are stuck try letting go off the “why” question and instead focus on what you want.

As yourself these powerful questions:

What kind of experience do I want to have?

What can I do to increase the likelihood of having that experience?

Now get busy manifesting whatever you came up with on that second question! Notice how it won’t help to say what you don’t want. You have got to state it in the affirmative!

Here’s how this might work:

A client of mine was a divorced dad who had started a wonderful relationship with another divorced parent and they had been seriously dating for about a year. When they first got together, they had a fun routine of playing a board game in front of the fire several times a week. They would spend hours talking, laughing, and connecting over a shared game that they both enjoyed. As time went by they played in front of the fire less and had drifted apart while straining to meet the demands of their busy lives. 

He came to a meeting frustrated and feeling disconnected from his partner. He was worried that there was something wrong with his relationship and felt compelled to figure out what it was. He asked, “Why don’t we seem to spend time together the way we did before? I need to know what changed. I have to figure out why we allowed it to happen.” I meet with clients every day who believe that if they know why something happens, they will be able to change it easily. Occasionally this works — but it’s very rare. 

So we talked about that for a while. My client had several theories, some of which highlighted what was stressful in his life. He talked about what he did wrong in his marriage and how he felt damaged from his family of origin. Some of the ideas he came up with blamed his partner for not showing up in a way that contributed to the relationship. He wouldn’t have called it blame of course, most people don’t like to think they’re blaming their loved one. Despite not resonating with the term, he was basically saying, “If she would just be different, my life would improve.” That’s blame. 

We could have pent several meetings unpacking all the reasons they had hit a rut in their relationship. I could have helped him refine exactly what wasn’t working and to identify all sorts of plausible reasons why. I can tell you from experience that he might have felt like we had accomplished something but the relationship would very likely not have improved. Would having a new theory about why things weren’t working out help him change course? Maybe. Maybe not … probably not in my experience. 

Instead we turned toward the magic questions. I asked, “What sort of experience do you want to have?” He said, “I don’t want to go the whole week and not have a chance to slow down and really enjoy being together.” I asked him to restate what he wanted in an affirmative statement. He said, “I want to feel connected, and right now I don't.” Even when he tried hard, a negative statement snuck in at the end. 

I said, “How would you know if you were more connected? What would actually be happening?” My client said he would feel more connected if they spent some time together the way they used to earlier in the relationship, “I really just miss spending that time with her in front of the fire.” I said, “What could you do to increase the likelihood of that happening?” He didn’t answer right away. He said he felt sad that things had changed and he was worried that the early thrill of getting to know each other had passed. The stress of life seemed to have taken over and the time he spent with his partner felt more and more like the kind of relationship he didn’t want. “So that’s what you don’t want, I hear you, that’s important to know. Now see if you can articulate what you do want instead.” He repeated that he wanted to have a nice evening with his partner. At that moment he realized how he could increase the likelihood of experiencing that. “I’m going to call her on the way home, tell her to get the game out and open a bottle of wine, and I’m going to make a fire when I get there.”

My client reported the next week that they had shared a nice evening by the fire that night. Although he wasn’t sure his partner would have time at first, he behaved toward her as if it would be enjoyable and they found that they could fall back into enjoying one another’s company just as they had before. On this evening, one of their young children joined them and they happily included the child in the game too. Sure their life had changed, and there were reasons it wasn’t as easy to connect as it had been when they first got together, but by focusing on the what instead of the why they had created a great evening. As we debriefed the evening that he created, my client said something profound. He said, “I realized I don’t have time to keep telling myself there’s something wrong and I need to know exactly what it is. Instead I could just work on creating what I want. Sometimes it’s hard to know what I want but figuring that out seems to be more valuable than knowing exactly why things aren’t the way I want them. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question.” 

Now it’s your turn, drop the why and start practicing getting clear about the experience you want to have. There’s always something you can do to increase the likelihood of having it. 

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