Ask This Question—Create a Closer Connection

2018 March 30

“What’s wrong?”

If you’re in a close relationship, you’ve inevitably asked (or been asked) this question out of concern and care.

Beyond the information contained in any possible response, something more is happening. Inspired by how trauma informed care helps young people respond to some of life’s greatest challenges, it’s important to explore what else we are communicating about our relationships when we ask (or are asked) the question—“what’s wrong?”

You are defying my expectations and making me uneasy because if there is anything I can count on in this world—it’s you being the ‘you’ I already know.

If you are changing—then that means my whole world is changing. That means I’m going to have to change, and that’s scary.

 I’m worried that you’re experiencing something that I feel powerless to help.

 I can no longer predict what you are going to say or do. That means I’m going to have to question our whole relationship.

 We ask (or are asked) endless variations of the what’s wrong question sprinkled throughout our everyday conversations with people we already care about or feel close enough to ask. Herein lies the paradox of this question. We only ask—what’s wrong—of the people we know well and yet, this very question changes what can happen between two people because the question . . .

  • Demands loyalty to the past. The question itself, though asked out of concern, requires someone we care about to justify why they are seemingly different than they used to be. Without knowing it, the question asks for loyalty, not understanding. It asks the person we care about to remain loyal to who it is we remember and, seemingly, already know. This simple question suggests that their true self is the self we already know and are already familiar with.
  • Blinds us to the person they are becoming. When we ask (or are asked) what’s wrong, we are preoccupied with our needs, not theirs. We are saying that we are only willing to pay attention to what we once knew—not the radical or subtle changes that are available to be seen and understood—if we so choose. In the process, we can’t help but deny how the person we care about is seeking to make sense of their experiences. This question puts too much emphasis on parts of the person we already know—not on the ingenious combination of how the person we know is seeking to respond to the challenges affecting them.   Being asked what is wrong overplays constancy because it falsely assumes that we care more about consistency than who they are becoming.

As a childhood trauma expert, Dr. Perry emphasizes the value of asking “what happened.” In times of crisis and stress, we all need something from others even if we don’t know how to communicate that need. We need people around us who will help us re-orient to our experiences. Not friends or family who demand fealty to the past, but loved ones, friends and confidants who can also appreciate change and difference amidst a shared history. When someone asks what is happening—not what’s wrong—the question becomes an invitation to dive deeper, to explore change, and to allow us to share how our unfolding experiences are remaking us.

Relational closeness creates possibilities and perils. A shared history can be overwhelmingly reassuring because it allows us to understand another person without having to say a word. At the same time, a shared history can be overwhelmingly alienating when it is used to expect loyalty and adherence to maintaining the appearance of understanding. How we use our knowledge of another can make the difference between reassurance and alienation, connection and aloneness.

The question is ours to choose. When a loved one or friend is in the midst of challenge and chronic stressors, we can invite them to become even closer if our tolerance for appreciating change and difference and inconsistency and messy re-orientation is made clear. And likewise, we will inevitably gravitate toward those who draw us near by seeking to understand who we are becoming.

“What is happening to you?” isn’t a question camouflaged as an indictment. It isn’t an expectation shrouded in a sign of care. It is an invitation to create enhanced relational closeness within the safest space possible—a canvas of friendship and connection and care that allows for rough drafts to be voiced without consequences, criticism, and judgment. Change need not be a threat to relationships and connections. If we are genuinely interested in what is happening now to the people we deeply care about, we must remember that the questions we ask may bring us closer in ways we never thought possible.




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