Why the Best Relationships Make Us Question Everything

The power of dynamic open-mindedness in building mental health and well-being.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

“And if you take my hand

From that very lost place

I will lead you through darkness

To that very safe space”

From “Wishing” by DevilDriver

I remember the moment I realized that I wanted to marry my wife.

We were sitting together at a diner having brunch on what must have been our fourth or fifth date. I was transitioning in my career and was not sure what I wanted to do. I needed help sorting things out in my head, so, when I was out to brunch with my then-new girlfriend, Aylin Bumin, I started telling her my thoughts and considerations.

Without prompting, she said that she wanted to take out a notepad and write down all of the possibilities. At the time, I was rather intrigued that someone would carry a notepad on a date, but now that I know my wife, it makes sense. So, I made a list of realistic options—find another university academic job, look at teacher’s colleges, work at a medical research center, go into private practice.

 Cogdogblog on Unsplash, used with permission
Source: Cogdogblog on Unsplash, used with permission

She reviewed the list and said, “Let’s write down professional musician.” We had just started dating and she had seen our band perform—the first time I’d ever performed. The guys in our band were and are professional-level musicians and while I appreciate the support, she must have been in love to suggest that I could be a professional musician. When I looked at her puzzled, she looked me in the eye and said, “I think if you work hard and put your mind to it, you could be a professional musician. Let’s write it down.” So, next to all of my proposed “real jobs” was “professional musician.” We then spent several hours going through all of these possibilities. Spoiler—I never became a professional musician.

But that wasn’t the point. I was already infatuated — and at that moment I fell in love. Rather hopelessly, I might add. And the reason was not that I thought she “discovered” me or saw some hidden talent so that I would be a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly. It was because simply by considering this option, I realized that I was in a relationship with someone who was more open-minded than I was. Someone who was willing to challenge the conventional norms I imposed on myself and think outside the box. I felt like I was free — breathing in a different way. It didn’t matter that being a professional musician didn’t happen. What mattered is that I was entering into a world where questions were asked rather than one in which limits were set and directives were delivered.

This week, I interviewed Dez Fafara of DevilDriver for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast. And I thought of this personal story when Fafara said “question everything.” That is the dynamic force—the “volatility,” as Fafara describes it—that animates his music and his life. It allows for a constant churning and consideration of new and interesting ideas. And I suspect that’s how you keep a band creatively relevant for 20 years, including their new album Dealing With Demons I.

He explained how he applied this model to parenting. “I got three sons in their 20s … and I raised them with a huge sticker on my refrigerator that said, “Question Everything,” Fafara told me. “Question it all. Question your government. Question the guy next door. Question why he left his house at 3 a.m. and came back at 4 a.m.? Question it all. And I raised my children like that … We need to start questioning every single thing in order to come to a conclusion.”

This thesis was fascinating to me because on the surface it seemed paradoxical. You have to stop questioning at some point to get to a conclusion. I mean, if we really started questioning everything all of the time, we’d go down a rabbit hole reminiscent of how our children used to repeatedly ask “Why?” after every statement we’d make. It feels unhinged and dangerous. And if we question everything, what beliefs do we cling to? What values do we take with us to guide our decisions? So, we need to stop questioning to ultimately believe in something right?

And yet, when I thought about Fafara’s experience and I reflected on the story of my wife, I began to reconsider. Because, before I met my wife, I didn’t question as much around me. I had strong beliefs that I held sacred. Those beliefs got me into trouble because I stated them proudly as if they were fact. I followed a very narrow path of who and what I could be. And yet out of all of those beliefs, what I found was that I didn’t really believe in myself. I didn’t have the self-confidence to consider alternative perspectives that may threaten my worldview. But what emerged from my discussion with my wife was that by questioning sacredly held beliefs with someone who was joining me in a search for truth rather than dictating imperatives, I opened up the possibility that I could be more than I was.

But don’t take my word for it. Many concepts of mental health suggest that thoughts, behaviors, or emotions become problematic when they become too rigid or fixed. Often, people experience depression as a fixed set of negative thoughts or beliefs and limiting behaviors. Anxious individuals will often have rigid fears about potentially negative events and engage in avoidance to protect themselves. And people who struggle with eating disorders maintain strict beliefs about the importance of their shape and weight and what weights are acceptable to them.

Accordingly, interventions that have demonstrated efficacy are inherently to destabilize previously held beliefs to initiate change. For example, cognitive therapy challenges maladaptive thinking through considering alternatives and evidence. Behavioral therapy encourages us to try behavior that we may find frightening to see its effect. Mindfulness-based interventions ask us to tolerate intense emotions without engaging in previously habitual harmful behaviors.

OK, but constantly questioning negative thoughts or maladaptive behavioral patterns is one thing—what about belief systems like our values, faith, or trust in our friends and family? Can we question those aspects of our life and still feel stable? I say yes. In fact, I think questioning can be the beating heart of those beliefs and values. Because they are best understood as constructs, working models that help guide us. And almost any good conversation I have is with someone who is open and wants a fresh and questioning exchange of ideas, rather than someone trying to convert me to their point of view. It feels more affirming, more human, more alive.

As an example, I can strongly believe in climate change as a working model and advocate for a green economy but still be open to evidence that contradicts that belief. I don’t need to say, “the science is settled” to bolster my argument. In fact, the debate strengthens my belief if the facts are there. Don’t get me wrong, having a debate with someone who is trying to impose their belief system that “climate science is a hoax” without any concern for the facts is not valuable to me. That is not two people working together to discover the truth — that’s being gaslit and bullied. But if we don’t question ourselves, our beliefs and those of others and remain open to new information, we cannot grow and change. So, we may feel more secure — but it is a false sense of security.

How many healthy and happy marriages are built upon two people who decide that they are good as is and never question each other? None that I’ve ever seen. I certainly get the benefit of my wife keeping an open mind to the ways I want to change and grow. Want to keep playing in a band? Sure. Want to travel to Boston or Chicago to play a show? Great. Form a non-profit? Sounds exciting. Train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Very cool. Start a company and podcast together? How fun.

And while she is very supportive, my wife continues to challenge and question me — my choices, my behaviors, and my habits. And you know what? I hate it. I fight it. I come up with every excuse and justification ever when I know I’m wrong. I wish she’d leave me alone. But it causes me to question myself. And I’m better for it. The questioning is like a river running over a stone — it smooths things out — it doesn’t cause it to crack.

And after 15 years of marriage, that’s certainly something I can believe in.

References

You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Dez Fafara on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your podcast app.