Can 36 Questions Reignite a Relationship?

Can 36 Questions Reignite a Relationship?

“Love is the biggest predictor of human happiness,” says psychologist Arthur Aron. “More so than wealth or success. Relationship quality is even a bigger predictor of human health than smoking or obesity.”

How do you view your love life? As wedding anniversaries roll around, do you reflect on your marriage—examine how your love has deepened, contemplate the twists and turns of your relationship, or reminisce about that elusive, initial spark? Do you wonder wistfully if you’ll ever again smolder in the hottest of flames, or if you’re destined to let the embers burn?

Ten years of marriage and two kids has shifted my equilibrium. As my husband, Tom, and I wearily wander into our seventeenth year together, our gait is noticeably different than the purposeful march we made down the aisle ten years ago. But I’m not ready to roast the marshmallows, and frankly, I hope I’ll never be. I love this witty, welcoming man, with reassuring blue eyes and encompassing biceps. I wondered if the infamous 36 Questions, the probing queries credited with causing two strangers to fall in love in a lab, might resuscitate the heart palpitations that once brought us together.

Therefore, as we approached our most recent wedding anniversary, we gave those 36 questions a go.

Cortney with Tom and their two children. Photo by Bonnie Robinson Photography.

Getting Started

We started the exercise after our kids went to bed, on an evening we were already exhausted. But, as two overcommitted parents, when weren’t we depleted? However, the conversation quickly bubbled and flowed, and like a Cinderfella, he transformed into the charming storyteller he usually reserves for cocktail hours. Instead of blankly staring at the TV while folding laundry, we enthusiastically engaged with each other. It was a good reminder to treat my spouse like an interesting friend, not just a business partner.

I giggled after we each answered #4, “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” Both our responses seemed indulgent—his golfing and barbecuing on the beach, mine a long lunch after hiking into spectacular scenery.

“Does your day include the kids?” I asked with a smirk. We love them more than a full night’s sleep or an exquisite bottle of wine, but at 4 and 6 years old, they’re still a lot of work. Just getting our daughter dressed is a 20-minute ordeal, complete with three outfit changes and two tantrums on the floor.

Tom and I were truly stumped by #8, “Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.” It’s crazy that two people who just met in a science lab could probably find more common ground than us. While we’ve hung our hats on “opposites attract,” it was quite funny to realize we couldn’t honestly determine anything substantial we have in common, other than the life we’ve built together. Sure, we both like the color blue, but does that matter? Yes, we like to travel, but he prefers lazy beach days, while I’m an adventurer. Tom lost twelve pounds on our trip to London and Paris because I kept him walking for ten days straight. If it had been up to him, he would have happily gained that same amount.

But #9 melted our polar opposite hearts: “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” We each automatically answered our children, and the overall happiness we’ve enjoyed. Then we discussed how it all stems from each other. How reassuring and rewarding it was to think about the gifts that flow from our marriage. We ended that evening feeling renewed and reaffirmed in our relationship.

A few nights later we resumed our task; but admittedly, we were both a bit crabby. The second set of questions probes more deeply into accomplishments, values and personal connections, with questions like, “What is your most treasured memory?” and “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” I could see how illuminating these could be for two people who just met; but we’ve discussed these things many times before in our almost 20-year history. And, if you’re already in a sour mood, hearing the same story again isn’t very compelling.

However, one can never tire of listening to thoughtful compliments and positive characteristics of themselves, as #22, #28 and #31 request. More often than not, we should stop and vocalize what we love about each other. Even if it’s the same thing we’ve described a million times, it can only make the other feel validated and appreciated.

I told Tom I love his ability to see clearly through clutter and tell me, with laser focus, exactly how it is. While some might think it’s harsh that he pipes up when my butt jiggles or I’m being rude, I appreciate the honesty. I can trust that he’ll always help me see the truth, especially when I can’t or don’t want to myself.

We reconvened for a third time over the fire pit in our backyard. That night I actually learned something I had not previously known about my husband. Question #33 asks, “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?” It led to a discussion of gratitude letters and the value of putting in words the impact others have made on our lives.


Tom had recently written a gratitude letter for his brother-in-law, Joe. In it, he thanked Joe for saving him from drowning as a teenager. I knew Tom had written the letter, and had many wonderful things to say about Joe’s fun-loving and philanthropic personality, yet I had not read the letter or previously heard that story. As a result, this discussion deepened the connection I have with not only my husband, but also his awesome brother-in-law.

Question #27: “If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know,” gave me the initiative to express how I would like to be treated in the midst of an argument. While I may seem abrasive or unapproachable when I’m upset, I think hugs and empathetic words will solve most things. However, I’ve never stated that outside of a heated moment, only when my husband already thinks I’m about to bite his head off. So we’ll see where this guidance lands us the next time…

Our experiment concluded during our anniversary dinner at Chicago Cut Steakhouse. The giddy grin my husband wore, simply being out celebrating at one of his favorite places, made it hard not to adore him. That night by and far was the most enjoyable. If you can get out of the house, dress up and have fun together, do it. It is worth the babysitter’s fee and more. Taking us out of the context and chaos of our crowded home removed the weight of our responsibilities and brought the airiness back to our relationship.

The final task at the end of the 36 Questions is to stare into your partner’s eyes for four silent minutes. I can see how awkward this might be with someone you just met, but staring into my husband’s cheerful eyes was like sailing on tranquil, familiar waters. In my wedding vows I had told him he was the one person I always wanted to come home to. Despite the numerous disagreements and deepening wrinkles between us, I still felt welcome and wonderful in his eyes.

Would we recommend engaging your spouse in the 36 Questions? A resounding yes, but we’d suggest making them your own. It took us four 90-minute sessions to complete what was supposed to be a 45-minute task. You don’t have to answer all the questions. Just let the conversation take you where you want it to go. Most importantly, hit pause to appreciate and enjoy your spouse. You may have commenced and commiserated on this journey together; but it’s important to delve deeper into who that person has become.

The currents of life have moved and changed my husband and me. In the midst of the young parenting stage, it’s a battle just to keep our heads above water. But I hope taking the time to focus on each other pulls us closer together and keeps us stronger for when we wash ashore.

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