We continue to ask each other WHY even though we know that we don't have good answers to this question.
By Dr T J Jordan
“WHY did you have an affair?” Has anyone ever come up with a good answer to this WHY question?
When we ask each other questions in our intimate relationships, we sometimes are trying to understand each other better — but we often are trying to solve interpersonal problems. Good questions open the door to better understandings. But when we ask our intimate partners WHY, we usually set up a dynamic of interrogation.
When we ask questions that begin with WHY, we typically are requiring our partners to explain the reasons for events or behaviors.
WHY questions ask for an explanation of cause-and-effect. And even the most sophisticated among us are lousy at identifying causes.
We are very complex beings whose behaviors are multiply determined by long histories of biological and environmental factors that usually lie well beyond our understanding. Yet, we ask WHY a great deal. We ask this primarily in the interest of assigning at least responsibility — at worst blame — for something that troubles us.
We rarely ask WHY questions about wonderful experiences. If we ask WHY DO YOU LOVE ME, we know that we are asking a rhetorical question that doesn't demand an answer. If we ask WHY DID YOU DO THAT (whatever the transgression might be), we could be in pursuit of understanding, but we will be quick to respond with criticism and blame.
WHY versus WHAT
We do better to understand our partners and ourselves when we ground our questions. WHY questions send us off into a universe of speculations, usually filled by unhelpful abstractions. WHY questions feed mind-chatter. WHAT questions tend not to take us on these mental chases, and ground us in what is more concrete. WHAT focuses us more on facts and descriptions rather than judgments. WHAT forces us to reframe our questions in a less accusatory way.
WHY questions trigger activity in the parts of our brains that privilege the…