What a Unicorn Whale Can Teach Us About Marriage

Simple Superpowers Series, Part 2: What “little things” make the biggest difference in our relationships? Researchers have identified actions that have an outsized impact for human flourishing. We call these the simple superpowers. Last week we looked at gratitude. Today’s Part 2 focuses on curiosity. 

Conversation around my kitchen table can range from family life, to research findings, to unicorn whales.  

Yes, you read that correctly. Listen in to what Jeff said recently over our morning coffee: 

“I was reading this article about the unicorn whales in the Arctic …,” he began. 

“About what?” I interrupted. 

“About narwhals,” he said. “You know, the narwhal? The whale that has that long unicorn horn.” 

I think I told him to stop pulling my leg and I returned to what I was reading. 

“I’m not messing with you,” he said, pulling up photos. And suddenly I had a dozen questions. How could I get to be in my fifties and only now discover there’s a real-life unicorn whale that weighs 4,000 pounds and has a tusk (actually an elongated tooth!) that juts 10 feet from its head?  

You might be wondering what this has to do with marriage. Here it is: 

Curiosity is a superpower. 

This little-recognized superpower can change everything in your marriage. 

Imagine for a moment that you are on a cruise in the frozen north. Also imagine that, like me, you have no idea that this narwhal creature exists. You’re walking the deck, minding your own business, when all of a sudden you see a long horn breach the surface, attached to a giant sea creature!! You’d have a ton of questions: 

  • Wait! What did I just see? 
  • What was that thing? 
  • Was that some kind of tusk or was that just ocean debris? 

You’d frantically call over your spouse, friends, or anyone to explain what you thought you saw. Your eyes would stay fixed on the water’s surface, hoping for another glimpse. You’d have your phone camera ready. You’d ask a ship steward what on earth that was. 

In other words: Because you saw something from under the surface that was visible for a moment, you were instantly curious.  

That exact same sense of curiosity is essential for creating and growing great relationships.   

The problem is, we often lose that curiosity about the under-the-surface things in our spouse (or our kids, or friends …). If we can recapture it, we have seen in the data that it leads to deepened trust, safety, and intimacy. Here are three steps to doing so.  

Action step #1: Look for what’s underneath the surface  

How often do we simply not notice that something is going on under the surface? Or something puzzles us… and we shrug and say, “Huh, that’s weird” and then go about our day.  

The things that puzzle us are exactly what we should be curious about. 

I was talking to a woman whose husband of 30 years was facing serious health issues. Even though she made enough money to cover their bills, he continued to work tons of overtime. She was worried he was harming his health and couldn’t fathom why he was insisting on the extra hours. They had a lot of conflict, but no resolution.  

She didn’t realize his puzzling behavior was the equivalent of a narwhal horn breaching the surface: an invitation to investigate something below.  

She caught a glimpse of it when I shared with her a statistic from the For Women Only research: Even if their wives earn more than enough money to support their family’s lifestyle, an eye-popping 78% of men still feel it is their job to provide for their family. Providing is often at the core of who they feel they are. 

Suddenly, this woman realized that tucked underneath her husband’s behavior was worry: That he wouldn’t be viewed as dependable or successful in the eyes of his wife or community. That he wouldn’t be him if he didn’t work. 

Needless to say, it changed her view of the overtime hours. And that allowed them to explore those under-the-surface emotions and grow closer. 

Action step #2: Investigate with care 

Being curious about weird-but-real ocean creatures can help you win trivia contests, but otherwise the stakes are low. The stakes are higher as you get curious about what’s deep in the heart of a spouse – the feelings they have but don’t know how to communicate.  

So as you are curious, be gentle with your spouse’s tender places. 

For example, with that “provider” compulsion, our husbands often worry about letting us down. Probing questions could be heard as painful criticism (“Why are you working so much? You’re going to make your health even worse.”) instead of appreciation (“I’m so grateful you care about providing for our family.”) In my research, men have told me they hear the questions better if appreciation comes first. If they just feel the pain, they may keep the deep stuff, well, stuffed. 

Or suppose you’re a husband whose wife has seemed upset or distant and you can’t figure out why. Don’t just dismiss it as something you won’t be able to figure out. Instead, put on your curiosity hat and gently ask about it. In our For Men Only research, the vast majority of women wanted their husband to investigate. It showed sensitivity (he noticed something was wrong), value (she was worth pursuing), and love (he cared enough to ask).   

Action step #3: Practice curiosity. Every. Single. Day.  

This is where curiosity goes from being merely “helpful,” to being a true superpower for relationships. Seriously. Try this for a few weeks and you will see a huge difference. 

Every day ask yourself, “What is one thing I can learn about my spouse today?” What is she nervous about at work? What is he looking forward to next weekend? What is a dream, worry, annoyance, or delight that happened this week that you were simply unaware of?  

Set out with a sense of curiosity. After all, we will never know all there is to know about our spouse – in part because we are always changing. Think about it: are you the same person your spouse married? Nope! There is always something to learn.  

Try genuine, open-ended questions, like:  

  • Tell me more about why this matters to you.  
  • I’d love to hear your thoughts about ______.  
  • What was the best part of your day? 
  • If I could do one thing for you today, what would it be?  

Read together – and talk about what you find. Yes, she may read novels and he may like articles about, oh I don’t know, ecosystems of the arctic. But reading something together can invite discovery of things you didn’t know. (Bonus tip: In our research for Secrets of Sex & Marriage, we found that spouses who report their partners as curious are three times more likely to have sex once a week or more. If you’re, ahem, curious about those findings, this is a good book to read together!) 

How do you stay curious? I’d love to hear from you in the comments! In the meantime, come back next week as we examine the third superpower to help your relationships thrive. 

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at nowens@shaunti.com.

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One Comment

  1. Interesting article. At first, I thought you would share some odd behavior between the narwhals that keep them together and then get a marriage analogy. When I want to start a conversation with my wife, instead of asking how it was your day? and getting the usual “fine,” after I see her relaxed and comfy, I ask her, “Tell me about the best thing that happened to you today.” Then, I stay quiet and make gestures or noises to let her know I am listening. If she asks, then I share about mine. If I am excited about what happened to me, then I ask if she wants to hear it. So far she seems always interested.

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