Pauliann Long, LCSW-C

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How to Discuss Tough Relationship Topics with Your Partner

Long-term relationships have rough spots and tough conversations.

They just come with relationship territory. Totally normal. Completely okay.

And really uncomfortable.

Those rough spots are hard to talk about. Tensions rise. Hurt and irritation crackle between you. Your loving connection seems to fray every time you go “there.”

So, in the interest of peace, you don’t talk about those topics…but neither of you really have much peace of mind about that either.

There is a better way.

How to Discuss Tough Relationship Topics with Your Partner

Diving into tough relationship topics requires personal preparation rather than assuming the right words will fall off your tongue in a respectful, well-mannered way.

1. Accept that Avoidance is NOT Resolution

Ask yourself:

  • Am I “cooling off” or hiding out?
  • Can I “let it go” or am I lying to myself?
  • Am I “rising above it” or running away?

Tough conversations are uncomfortable. Until now, you may have rationalized not having them. Unfortunately, that rarely works well and only serves to create emotional distance, exacerbate negative feelings internally, and escalate the eventual argument quickly.

It’s better to talk it out.

2. Examine your Assumptions, “Buttons,” and Attitude

What’s been going on in your head regarding this issue?

  • Are your feelings really your partner’s fault? Is there anything unresolved that might be clouding the main issue?
  • Can you talk without feeling attacked or lashing out right now? Why do your buttons feel pushed?
  • How are you characterizing your partner’s actions? Is that really who your partner is?

When tough topics arise, we often do a lot of unhelpful ruminating about the situation before talking about it. Therapy could be a time-effective, productive way to increase personal awareness and remove mental roadblocks or triggers to ensure you are on point, undistracted, and less reactionary later.

3. Keep these Three C’s in the Forefront of your Mind

Calm. Get centered and as peaceful as possible. Do what works for you: prayer, mindful meditation, yoga. If you need help with anxiety or anger management, consider pre-conversation practice with a therapist.

Compassion. Keep your shared humanity in mind. Give some weight to the hows and whys of your partner’s behavior. The conversation might be difficult because you have some serious issues between you. Or, it might be difficult because your partner has some serious issues of their own you need to consider when approaching certain topics.

Common goals. Remember that there at least a few things you agree on. Spend some time thinking about those things too. You know you both want a healthy, mutually satisfying sex life? Fabulous. You’re certain you both want what’s best for the kids? Good. Your common goals and desires matter as springboards for problem-solving.

Infusing a bit more thoughtfulness, kindness, and positivity into your interactions could make all the difference when you finally say,” Let’s talk.”

Strategies for a Successful Outcome

Now that you’ve prepared yourself, consider these steps for discussing tough relationship topics productively.

Preface the Conversation: Timing, Tone, and Context

  • Pave the way with an “alert” or brief statement letting your partner know you need to talk.
  • Phrase your request carefully, without blame or accusations.
  • Pick a good time for both of you. Try to be well-fed, rested, and as relaxed as possible.

Initiate Discussion with a “Soft Startup”

According to the renowned Gottman Institute, relationship research reveals that a harsh start to your talk will likely end it with as much or more tension.

Try a “soft startup” instead:

  1. Begin with a positive statement or observation. Avoid overt negativity.
  2. Use “I”  statements when sharing your feelings and concerns. Complain without blame.
  3. Make clear, polite requests of your partner.
  4. Appreciate and acknowledge your partner’s willingness to hear and discuss the matter.

Inquire as Much as You Attempt to Influence

When having a difficult conversation, approach discussions as if you were attempting to establish policy with a foreign nation. Act as though you don’t know anything. Discover as much as possible about your partner’s point of view.

What do they want? How do they feel? What matters most?

Pay attention to body language. Try not to interrupt.  Give your partner the chance to fully express their perspective on the topic.

Clarify your Position without Criticizing your Partner

You can advocate and clarify your position without minimizing or criticizing your partner’s viewpoint. Speak honestly and respectfully. You can share seriously without attempting to intimidate or bully.

Furthermore, don’t be indirect. Do your best to cut the word “but” out of your comments ( I love that you made a point of pleasing me in bed but it really didn’t work for me.) It just ends up feeling mean-spirited and undercuts progress and cooperation. Phrase your comments in a direct way, wrapping your points with positive statements.

Acknowledge Even if You Don’t Agree

Affirm and acknowledge throughout the conversation. It takes the sting out of the fact that you don’t agree.

It also sends several encouraging messages:

  • We can disagree and still fairly assess the situation.
  • We can disagree and allow for differing opinions.
  • Our disagreement doesn’t keep us from coming together for a greater relationship good.

Partner in the Problem-solving Process

Having prepared yourself and listened to your partner well, problem-solving will likely not be as difficult as you thought. Still, stay open and curious, especially if you feel tense or defensive.

Encourage a brainstorming session and cooperation. Work at building mutually satisfying solutions. When you both agree the conversation is concluded, assure emotional safety by reaffirming your love and respect.

Discussing tough relationship topics successfully is one of the most valuable relationship skills you can have. It isn’t easy, but it does yield a lot of growth. Your relationship becomes stronger, more resilient, and more trusting. What’s a bit of discomfort if those are your gains?

Finally, if you’re interested in enhancing your communication,  please investigate my couples therapy page. Contact me for a free 20-min consultation. Let’s talk about how I can help you and your partner connect meaningfully with your relationship intact.

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