The Secret to Deeper Relationships

In my last post, I talked about the key to happiness being close relationships. Since then, many people have asked me, how can I become closer to the people in my life? They might be a casual acquaintance or an old friend, a family member or even a romantic partner. 

This is a serious question. Few of us live in isolation. We’re usually surrounded by other people. But think about how infrequently we really connect with one another. Instead, we fall into patterns that repeat day after day. We work side by side with others and yet know nothing about their inner lives. We wave to our neighbors but have no idea if they’re happy or sad. We interact with friends (or “friends”) on social media and mistake that for human contact. 

This is even true for those closest to us: our best friends, our family members, our significant others and romantic partners. Relationships can grow stale, the rituals of daily contact can become empty, and the joy that brought people together to begin with can be lost, replaced with duty and habituation. It’s possible to be lonely even if you’re living with someone. 

So how do we develop a fulfilling relationship? Social scientists have come to believe that the key to intimacy is something called self-disclosure. We become close by sharing the kind of things that only good friends know about each other: our likes and dislikes, our hopes and fears, our deepest desires and our wildest dreams. But we never disclose these things all at once. Instead, we gradually reveal them like peeling an onion: our public self is the outer layer, the most private self is the core, and in between are layers that are penetrated step by step. Each step entails a risk. How will the other person react? With each risk we take, we invite the other person to join us in revealing something deeper about themselves. 

Several years ago, an academic study suddenly became the latest fad. In 1997, a team led by Arthur Aron at the State University of New York at Stony Brook had published a paper titled “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings.” In short, the scientists were attempting to codify the process by which two people achieve closeness. You probably haven’t heard of this paper. But you may have heard of the technique they used: a list of 36 questions for two people to ask each other. Almost twenty years later, a writer in the New York Times gave their findings a much catchier title, “To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This.” The Times article was read over 8 million times in a single month. 

What the 36 questions do is take two people through the process of peeling back the layers that surround our innermost selves. They start with a superficial question: “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” The last one is the kind of thing that you’d usually only talk about with your closest confidante: “Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it.” 

But don’t believe the hype. The questions aren’t actually designed to make two people fall in love. But to a surprising degree, they can fast forward you through the steps of a progressively deeper and mutually satisfying relationship. And they can be just as rewarding to do with a casual friend as they are with someone you’ve known for decades. (If you’d like me to send you the 36 questions, along with some thoughts about how to use them successfully, just complete the form below.)

Dan McAdams, the head of the psychology department at Northwestern University, has identified three levels of knowing another person. The first level is what they’re like, outgoing or private, cheerful or moody, generous or thrifty.  These are the kinds of conclusions you can draw about any acquaintance. The second level is understanding what they’re thinking. What do they like and dislike? What do they worry about? What makes them happy? This is the kind of thing that friends talk about. The third, deepest level, is understanding who they really are: their secrets, their fears, their goals, ambitions and dreams. These are the things we reveal only to those closest to us, and the things that those closest to us reveal about themselves. 

In my years of practice, I’ve been struck by how many clients confess to feelings of profound loneliness, even when constantly surrounded by others. Making a deep, lasting, fulfilling connection with someone you care about is one of the most valuable things you can have in your life. Too often, we assume that these connections will occur magically, like lightning striking or stars aligning, something we have no control over. But we have the power in our hands to forge a deep and lasting relationship. It always means taking a risk. But the reward will be well worth it.

Dorothy Kresz