Episode 39: How Quality Questions Lead to Better Decisions About Your Marriage

by | Last updated: Dec 15, 2023 | Podcast

“We need to talk.” Do those four dreaded words sound familiar? They usually lead to defensive feelings and another argument with your spouse.

But you two have been stuck in limbo for a while now. You really need to sit down and have that difficult conversation you may have been putting off about moving forward (or not) in your marriage.

So, how do you approach this much-needed conversation without it turning into the same old argument? The key is asking the right questions–for yourself and your partner.

In this episode of The Loving Truth podcast, you’ll learn how to generate information beyond just the surface level of your relationship when you need to talk, whether you decide to stay together or call it quits. I’ll give you questions to ask yourself and your partner so you can get better-quality answers that’ll actually help you make better decisions about your marriage.

Listen to the Full Episode:

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

3:14 – Why you need to be aware of the quality of the questions you ask your spouse

9:17 – How to change the way you show up in a difficult conversation with your partner

13:08 – Questions to ask yourself (before the conversation) and your spouse (during the conversation)

16:16 – Asking more generative questions to move the process forward (whether you stay or go)

20:38 – Better questions to ask if you’re trying to make your marriage work but aren’t optimistic about your chances

26:07 – Better questions to ask if you’ve decided to end your marriage

29:51 – The difference between investigative versus detective questions

Featured On How Quality Questions Lead to Better Decisions About Your Marriage:

Struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage? Book a Truth & Clarity Session.

We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle: “215. The Bravest Conversation We’ve Had: Andrea Gibson”

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If you have a suggestion for a future episode or a question you’d like me to answer on the show, email us.

Struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage and you’re serious about finding that answer?

Book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. We’ll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there’s a fit for you and I to work together so you can make - and execute - the RIGHT decision for YOU and your marriage.

Welcome to The Loving Truth Podcast where it's all about finding clarity, confidence, and peace in the face of marriage challenges. And now your host, relationship expert, and certified master life coach, Sharon Pope.

Sharon Pope: Hello, loves. This is Sharon Pope. This is The Loving Truth. Today I want to talk with you about questions. I've been giving a lot of thought recently to the quality of our questions and how the quality of our questions then determines the quality of the answers that we get, which is so important.

If you're struggling in your marriage to the point where you are confused and you don't have real clarity for yourself, then you don't yet have enough information to be able to make a decision that you won't second guess and that you won't regret. The important piece here is to get more information, to get new information to help you come to a greater conclusion.

But this is completely determined by the quality of the questions that we ask our brains to answer. Now, our brains love to solve problems. You give your brain any challenge to solve, and it will find a way through, like, “How am I going to get my son to school by 7:00 AM when I have to be at work at 7:00 AM?” You give your brain that challenge and you're going to be able to come up with an answer.

If not immediately, definitely over the course of the next few days, your brain will present to you, “Well, here's an option. Well, here's an option.” But that's when we're being really conscious about, “Oh, I have this problem. I have this challenge that I need to solve,” then we put our brains on the job to do what it does best, which is solve problems.

But the problem here is that most of the time, we're not conscious of what problems, what challenges, or what questions we're asking our brains to solve. Our brains are much like a computer where it just wants to be efficient. When we are not giving it the right kind of problem to solve, what it's going to do is serve up all the same recurring thoughts that you've had over and over and over again, “This is impossible, it's never going to work. He's never going to change.”

It's going to serve up all the ways in which you are right because that's what we're looking for, is “Show me all the evidence that would support that the way that I view this challenge is the right way to view this challenge, or the way that I'm seeing this is the right way to see it.” Our brain, when left unattended, will just reinforce the existing line of thinking because that's what's efficient.

But the minute you give your brain a new question to answer, now you're literally using a different part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex to help you come to a better solution. If you want better quality answers so that you can make better quality decisions, then, my friends, we have to get better at asking better quality questions.

I'm going to give you an example of something that everyone can relate to because we've either been on the receiving end of it or the giving end of it. Let's say that your child comes home with their report card, and they had all As across every subject except there was one C in math.

They come home and they give you their report card. They're excited to show you. You look at it and what do you hone in on? Do you hone in on the C? Do you say, “Do you want to talk about that C?” Then your child says, “No,” and walks away. That would be a typical response for a kid when you say, “Do you want to talk about that C?” No, they don't want to talk about that C.

But have you asked your child the question, “Man, you crushed it in all these different subjects. Tell me how do you think that you did so well in English this year? How do you think you got an A?” Now, do you think your child's going to want to have that conversation? Of course, they are. Now they're going to be open to having a different conversation with you.

But when we go towards, “Do you want to talk about that C?” they're like, “No, thanks.” Now that's an easy one to understand, and probably an easy one to be able to implement as long as we are conscious of our thoughts.

Let me give you one that will feel much more challenging. Let's say that you and your spouse are in some argument where you do not see things in the same way, you do not understand why he sees it the way he does, and he doesn't understand why you see it the way you do so you're just butting heads.

If you wanted to ask a better question, imagine stopping and asking yourself, “How could my partner's perspective be valid here?” No one wants to actually ask that question. When we're fighting with our partner, we are committed to our perspective for the most part so we just want them to see it the way we see it, but they want us to see it the way they see it.

If we stopped that and just said, “How is it possible that my partner has a point or that their perspective is completely valid or at least as valid as my own?” That's a better question to give to your brain to be able to solve but most of us won't actually do it.

I'll give you another example or another thing to think about in terms of why questions and the quality of our questions is such a powerful thing to be aware of. Think about how our focus and our attention move in the direction of our questions. Whatever we choose to focus on, wherever we give our focus, that's what's going to become bigger in our experience.

Maybe you've heard the language that what we focus on will expand and that's because it's true. But that's one way of saying that whatever you give your attention to, it's going to become greater and greater in your experience, in the same way that when you go out and buy a red car, now you see red cars everywhere. It's not that the red cars weren't there, it's that now that you're focused on it, you see them everywhere. It becomes a greater and greater part of your experience.

Similarly, if you focus on all the things that drive you crazy about your partner, all the things that drive you crazy about your partner are going to become bigger and bigger in your experience. But it works the other way as well. If I look for all the things that I can genuinely appreciate about my partner, that's what's going to become bigger in my experience.

The problem is even though we spend a great deal of attention paying attention to what we put in our mouths, what we put on our bodies to wear every day, we don't spend a lot of focused attention really considering, “Where am I going to place my focus? Because where am I going to place it as it relates to my marriage, that's what's going to become greater and greater in my experience.”

Now another thing to think about is this concept that I referred to as the lens. Think of it like you're wearing a pair of glasses and embedded in your lens of your glasses is your unique experiences, your belief systems, your thoughts, your cultural upbringing.

Every experience you've ever had in your life is embedded in your lens and the questions through which you are seeing the world are also embedded in that lens. Nobody has the same prescription as you. The questions that are embedded in your lens are going to dictate how you see and experience everything in the world, whether that's coming to you or that's you looking out at the world and interpreting what you're seeing and experiencing.

Have you ever known someone who just thinks they're surrounded by idiots all the time? That's because what's embedded in their lens is this idea that “I'm surrounded by idiots so show me all the evidence of why I'm right” and your brain just keeps serving it up and surrounds you with idiots.

But also, that question of, “How am I right?” and a little righteous because there's a hierarchy thing there if you think you're better than all the idiots around you, we're not asking the right question of our brain. Those questions get embedded in the lens and then the lens influences how you see and experience every person and every experience you have in this world.

It is really really, really important. The questions that we ask are either there to prove us right, which is normally what we do. If we're really honest, the questions we ask, we are looking for how are we right which then automatically has to make our partner wrong. Or when we're really grounded, focused, and being very intentional, our questions are just based in curiosity, of just genuine interest, wanting to learn, wanting to know.

One of those is really shut down to knowing anything beyond what you already do know where curiosity opens up, “I don't know everything. As a matter of fact, maybe I know almost nothing. But I want to learn.” You can imagine that those are going to have two very different approaches to a conversation in a struggling marriage and also two very different outcomes.

What do most of us do? Most of us do the former, which is, “How am I right here? How can I prove that my perspective is the right perspective?” Now I'm going to tell you that it doesn't make you a bad person, it makes you unconscious in terms of what you're doing. This is why I want to teach you about this so that you can become more conscious.

Think about it like this: Have you ever had one of those conversations with your spouse where it begins with, “We need to talk”? The four-dreaded words “We need to talk” which no one wants to be on the receiving end of “We need to talk.” Really, what we mean when we say that is “I've got some things I need to say to you and you need to sit down, shut up, and listen.”

Most of the time when we need to talk, it doesn't actually mean that I want to talk, that I want to be curious, that I want to explore, and that I want to have a conversation so that we can understand one another better. I had a client in my membership, who she was talking about how she was getting ready to have this difficult conversation with her husband.

By the nature of what she told me, I knew why she felt it was going to be a difficult conversation. That's because it was going to be difficult because she had a whole host of things that she was upset about in the marriage, things that he should be doing, things that he shouldn't be doing, things that weren't working. She didn't have a lot of solutions, but she did have a lot of complaints.

She was like, “Help me tee up this conversation. What should I be thinking about?” I told her, “Look, I've been giving a lot of thought to the quality of our questions.” I think if you start with asking yourself some questions first, that is going to dictate how you show up for that conversation, and how you show up inside that conversation is going to set the tone for how that conversation is going to go.

I said, “Why don't you begin with just spending three minutes, you and a journal or your phone, the notes in your phone, something like that, to just ask yourself the question, what is working in our marriage today and what can I appreciate about my partner specifically?”

Now we don't have to answer the other side of that: What isn't working? What am I not appreciating about my partner? Because she knows that. She's been spinning around in that for months of all the things that don't work and all the things that drive her crazy. She knows that. But she's not spent 30 seconds going, “What works? What can I genuinely appreciate?”

Her just spending three minutes just exploring those questions and digging around in it a little bit will change the dynamic of how she shows up to that conversation. That is so important.

Now, the other thing that I told her was, “Every good conversation, if it can begin with introspection, you are going to start off in a much, much better place. I would ask and answer these questions for myself and then these are the types of questions that I would ask of my partner.”

Things like, “How do I feel about how I'm showing up inside this relationship? Is there anything that I would change about how I'm showing up inside this relationship? Then if I had a magic wand and I could change one thing about my partner, what would that be?” Not 20 things, one thing. I would ask and answer those questions for yourself, then those are the same questions that I would go into that conversation with my partner about.

For instance, how do you feel about how you're showing up in the relationship? You might be like, “I feel good about it.” Okay, is there anything that you would change about how you're showing up inside the relationship so that we can have a healthy, loving, connected marriage over the course of decades together? Is there anything that you would change? They may say yes, they may say no, but that's going to create more dialogue and more conversation.

Then you ask them, “If you had the magic wand and you could change one thing about me.” We never asked that question. It's always about “How do we want our partner to change?” We very rarely ask, “How would you change me?” Because I promise you, they have a list too. Just like you have a list of complaints, they have a list of complaints about you.

Stopping and asking, “If you had a magic wand and you could change one thing about me, what would it be?” they'll have something that they'll say. But you asking those types of questions very likely is going to lead to him asking you the questions, “Well, what about you? What would you change in me? How are you feeling about how you're showing up?” Because you've already thought about your answers to these questions, you have some really valid responses.

See, these sorts of open-hearted and honest conversations with our spouse, they're going to go so much better if instead of “Sit down, shut up, I've got some things I want to say at you,” we start with introspection and ownership, ownership of my role in the creation of where we're at today.

When I can start from there, it doesn't mean you have to take blame for all of the issues in your marriage, that's not what I'm suggesting, but I'm saying let's own our side of the street because it has taken two of us to get to this place where we have to have this difficult conversation about all the things that are not working in our marriage, let me just start with my side of the street and what I can own, when you can start from that perspective, this conversation is going to take a very different dynamic.

Now I want to tell you about another example because it's slightly different. This particular member in my group, she had been separated for 10 months from her husband, and they hadn't spent a lot of time together. They hadn't been trying to reconnect. They might text a few times a week just to check in on each other, but they've not been trying to reconnect as a couple but nor were they moving to really move through the divorce process and really unwind the marriage so they have just been in this stalled out separated zone for 10 months.

She was getting ready to go have a conversation with him to ask the question, “Where are you at with this?” I told her, “You know, I've been thinking a lot about questions lately. I'm not sure that asking your husband ‘Where are you at right now as it relates to our marriage?’ is the right question to be asking, especially since you haven't been doing anything so, of course, nothing has really changed. I don't think you should expect some miraculous answer there.”

Some more generative questions, and what I mean by generative is life-giving questions, things that can bring out new information for you. Things that can help you progress along on whatever path that is, whether that's to come back together or to walk towards lovingly releasing the marriage, but to move this process forward, we've got to start asking more generative questions.

I gave her a couple of examples. For instance, these would be the questions she would ask when she's with her husband, instead of “Well, where are you at with this?” ask something like, “Why is it important that you and I are here together right now today? Why is it important for our family that you and I are here together today? What's been the most impactful thing that you've learned since we separated 10 months ago? It can be something about us, about marriage, about me, about yourself. But what have you learned? What are you willing to release in order to move forward?”

There's always going to be a give-up. In order for rebirth, we've got to prune away some stuff. What are you willing to give up in order to create something new together? In what ways are each of us able to own our role in the creation of our experience? In what ways are we each able to take accountability?

I will tell you a huge red flag for me is if someone is not willing to take any accountability, if they're like, “Nope, I was perfect and you did it all wrong. It's all your fault,” that tells me that they're not in an emotionally mature enough place to ever be in a healthy relationship whether that's with you or with anyone. That's a huge red flag that's just really difficult to work with.

But can you see how asking those types of questions is going to create a very different conversation than “Where are you at with our marriage when I moved out 10 months ago and we haven't even really connected at all in the last 10 months?” Now we can start having real conversations. Real conversations lead to real answers. Real answers can help guide you to what your next step is, and ultimately to a decision that you can feel at peace about.

Now, because I've been giving so much thought to questions, I put together just a litany of questions to consider. Now, this is just to get your juices flowing, but obviously, steal them, use them. If 1, 2, or 12 of them speak to you, take them and begin applying them. But overall, what I really want to get across is just start thinking about the kinds of questions you're asking other people, the kinds of questions you're asking of yourself, and the kinds of questions, challenges, and problems you are asking your brain to solve.

We can use our brains way better than what we normally do. Let's say that you're trying to make your marriage work but you're not optimistic that it can. Here are a bunch of questions: How can my husband win with me right now? Is there a path that he can win, that he can do something that you'd be like, “Oh, wow, that was great. That was helpful,” or even that I’ll feel a little bit closer to him, or I might soften a bit? How can he win?

How can I be more loving without abandoning myself? How can I be more loving to myself in the context of this relationship? That's about how can I be loving to myself. The first one was how can I be more loving to him or to other people without abandoning myself?

How can I create the change that I want to feel in my marriage rather than pointing the finger and saying, “You need to do this, whatever this is, so that I can feel the way that I want to feel”? How am I willing to take responsibility for how I want to feel in this marriage and making it happen? What's one little thing that I can do to help me feel the way that I want to feel?

It's a powerful question. Why is this time together important for us as a couple? You might ask that like, I don't know if you have date nights or something like that. You might ask that. Why is this time together important for us? Just to ground yourselves in, “Oh, this is what the marriage needs. Our family needs the marriage to be strong so if we don't tend to this marriage, then problems start happening.”

How can we spend the next 60 minutes together doing something that's helpful towards our relationship as opposed to just keeping our eyes and our phone and being distracted or watching TV? How can we do something that would be generative, life-giving for our marriage?

How do I want to feel in my most intimate relationship? How does my spouse most want to feel with their most intimate relationship? What am I willing to release in order to make way for something new? We talked about that. In what ways am I demonstrating to myself that I am open to this relationship changing for the better? In what ways am I demonstrating to myself that I'm open to this changing? In what ways am I open to receiving the love that is being offered? This is a big one.

So many times, our partners are offering us love, but we can't receive it. We certainly aren’t appreciative of it. In what ways am I blocking the love that is being offered? In what ways am I willing to open up to that love that is being offered even if it's not complete?

I always think to myself, “I can't ask for more if I'm shunning away or pushing away what is being offered. But if I can welcome in what's being offered, then I can push for okay, well what about this next thing? I can ask for a little bit more. But if I just push away what's being offered and say, No, that's not good enough, then I'm not going to get anywhere.”

Why is now the time to address this challenge? Instead of looking for all the ways that you're stuck and all the ways that you can't move forward in any direction and you're just stranded and paralyzed, go looking for why is now the time? Why is now a perfect time to overcome this challenge? In what ways does my husband not need to change?

I say that because we give lots of thought to how we think you should change and we give almost no thought to how, “You know what, he's just great. In this way, he is great exactly the way he is. What can I appreciate about my husband?” and be genuine in it. What will life look like one year from now if I fully step into this, or what will life look like a year from now if I do nothing different than what I'm doing today?

How is the struggle actually serving me? This is a big one. I had a coach for two years and she used to ask us this one question that was always super annoying. But it's helpful. The question was, “What's awesome about this?” Whenever there's a bad experience, a hurtful experience, or something that you're confused by or frustrated by, it really is helpful to go, “What's awesome about this?”

Your initial reaction will be, “Well, nothing is awesome about this.” But inevitably, if you give your brain the right question, your brain is going to go solve that challenge. It's going to answer that question. If you sit with it long enough, you will come up with an answer that will help you to see, “Somehow this is serving me. Maybe it's not awesome, but there's some piece of goodness here. There's some gift that is here for me if I'm willing to see it.”

Then the last one that I thought about was what if there's no villain in the story? We always look for, “Who's the hero? Who's the villain?” What if there's no villain? If there's no villain, like I'm not the hero, he's not the villain, and vice versa, then who am I in this relationship and who is he? Much better questions that are going to lead to new answers and new things to consider.

Now let's say you've made the decision to end the marriage. Here are some better questions to start asking: What would be the optimum experience for our family on the other side of this? Not “How have we seen most divorces go?” Now, what would be the perfect experience? If we could script this any way we want it to, what would that look like?

Spend some time thinking about that. That opens you up to possibility as opposed to just waiting for divorce to happen and then reacting and responding to the hurt, the pain, and the struggle that is divorce. What would peace look like for me? What would peace look like for my partner? What would peace look like for our kids? That are questions.

Why is peace important for us during this time? What opportunities does this open up? What opportunities does divorce open up for us as individuals that did not exist before? What opportunities does divorce open up for our kids that did not exist before?

I had a client one time where her daughter had learned through this process of divorce, how to set healthy and loving boundaries for herself with her dad, which she never had to do before. She'd just go to mom and say, “Mom, can you tell Dad to not do this?” Well, now her relationship with her dad was based on how she showed up to it so she learned how to set healthy boundaries. That's an amazing skill set.

What about realizing that change is constant and that mom is not always going to be there to make everything the same so that you never have to face change, difficulty, or someone disagreeing with you? Sometimes there are going to be things that happen in your life that you can't control and that you would not choose.

Divorce tends to be one of those things. That is an opportunity that we can learn from, that our kids can learn from that did not exist when everything was nice, tidy, and had a pretty bow on it and we were all together as a family. What would success look like for us here? What is the struggle here to teach me? What is this here to teach me?

When I say the struggle in this context, I mean like something very specific, not the divorce in general. But let's say, for instance, that you are missing your spouse and you are just feeling really lonely. What is this feeling of loneliness here to teach me? That's a powerful question. There's something that you can learn from that.

Then just general better questions to ask, “What am I making this mean? What would love do right now? What would love do versus fear? What can I genuinely appreciate right now in this moment? How can I be more present for myself, for others? How can I be more loving for myself and for others? What can I appreciate about this experience? That leads me to my coach's question of what's awesome about this? Those are great general questions.

What we're looking for, I keep saying generative, and what I mean is ask the questions that give us the ability to get more information and to dig around into what's really happening as opposed to just staying on that surface level. But the other thing to think about when it comes to questions is investigative questions versus detective questions. This tends to show up in the context of affairs and things like that.

But to give you an example, an investigative question is what did she mean to you? What did she make you feel? Those are important pieces to understand. Detective-related questions are things like, “Well, where did you have sex? What position were you in when you had sex?” That kind of stuff, that's actually not helpful. That's just going to create a whole bunch of visuals in your head that you will never be able to escape.

I always say, “Don't ask a question that you don't want the answer to. Because once you know some of that stuff, you can't unknow it and you can't unsee it so we got to be careful about what questions we really ask because we will many times get the answer and then we have to carry that answer.”

Now, while I was exploring these questions, I was listening to a podcast one day, I was driving in my car listening to a podcast, and I had been thinking for literally the last two days before that all about the quality of our questions and the impact that can have in terms of me working with my clients, and then my clients trying to see if their marriage can be repaired or if the only answer is to lovingly release it.

I'm listening to this podcast, it was one of my faves, We Can Do Hard Things by Glennon Doyle. She had Andrea Gibson on the podcast who was a poet who has terminal cancer. Andrea Gibson was talking about the tumor in her body that she can feel. She can feel where it's at in her body.

She'd been doing all the things like any good cancer patient would do. But where she had a real breakthrough was when she asked herself the question, “How can I love this tumor? How can I love this cancer?” My friends, if you think that the questions I've offered up are difficult to ask and to answer, if Andrea Gibson can find her way through “How can I love this tumor? How can I love this cancer?” you can find a way to say, “How is my partner's perspective relevant here? How can I be more curious and not so tied to my own perspective?”

The quality of the questions that we ask is going to dictate the quality of the answers that we receive. That is the information that we're missing in order to be able to come to clarity related to “Can this marriage evolve to a place that can feel good for me or is the only answer to lovingly release it?”

We've got to start using our brains to help us solve the big problems of our lives, and not just continue to reinforce the existing line of thinking. I hope this gave you something new to chew on. Until next time, take really good care.

If you're listening to this podcast because you're struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage, and you're serious about finding that answer, it's time to book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. On the call, we'll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there's a fit for you and I to work together so you can make and execute the right decision for you and your marriage. Go to clarityformymarriage.com to fill out an application now.