Relationship Toolkit: Difficult Conversations
Frequently I see couples that struggle to resolve conflict about the relationship “usuals”—sex, money, housework, children, and in-laws. These subjects can hit hot buttons for couples. So what do many adults do? They avoid the conversation.
The net result--the feelings about these thorny conflicts go underground, but they don’t go away. A bad night, an argument about the kids, a sharp remark about an in-law, a credit card receipt, or dishes in the sink can bring on tears, anger, or dead silence. Resentment is like water in your gas tank—it will rust out everything. Holding on to anger and hurt can make you sick too, give you a headache (there goes that romantic evening you planned!), or upset your stomach. It’s unhealthy.
All too often, couples feel hopeless that they will resolve these problems. When they do bring them up, usually in anger, their partner gets defensive. And when that happens, with emotions running high, everything can escalate and cycle out of control. Before you know it, both adults are raising their voices, saying things that they will regret, and wishing they had kept their mouth’s shut! So, these concerns get swept under the rug, until they surface again.
Alternatively, they may be able to talk about these issues and come up with a plan. Woo hoo! Everything is better for a few weeks, but somehow it goes back to the way it was before. Sam agreed to do the dishes, but then forgot to do them. Sally agreed to go to her in-laws for dinner one Sunday a month, but now something always gets in the way. Joe agreed that Sunday evening would be for romance, but now he seems to always be tired. The best-laid plans go awry. Couples start to feel hopeless that they can sustain change, even if they both agree to address these long standing problems.
Sound familiar? Here are some tips for addressing these prickly matters.
Don’t give up. I find that couples give up way too easily. If something is important, don’t let it go! Keep bringing it to the foreground, but in a kind way. Change takes a long time to maintain. It’s easy to do something different once, but making it a habit takes time, attention, and frequently, gentle reminders. Be patient and persistent!
Discuss these problems when you aren’t angry. Schedule a time with your loved one to discuss one of these concerns, when you are both fresh and have the time and attention. Go to Starbucks, sit in the back, and talk about the issues. You can be confident that you won’t lose your temper in public! Or go for a walk and talk. Find a venue that is peaceful.
Before your talk, write each other an email or note about your feelings and thoughts about this subject. Writing your partner about this matter before you talk can lay the groundwork for a more productive discussion. Each party can read the other’s message and think about it before the conversation. Propose solutions.
Focus on understanding your partner’s point of view rather than trying to get her to understand yours. Geez, this is really tough. Sometimes, we are dying to have our partner understand our perspective. But instead, focus on understanding theirs. You will get your turn.
Focus on behavior not on intention. Let your partner know what you want them to do. Let them know how their behavior impacts you.
Don’t interrupt! That’s probably my biggest problem. When your partner says something that presses that hot button of yours, it’s easy to jump in with a defensive comment or a change of subject. Take a deep breath and just listen and acknowledge the message, even if you disagree completely! Try to understand their perspective.
Compromise. Meet each other half way. We are looking for progress not perfection. Give a little, get a little.
Keep at it. It takes time to make change stick and for it to become a habit. Don’t give up.
Be liberal with praise. When your partner makes an attempt to meet you halfway, break out the brass band. Don’t be afraid to give him or her an “Atta boy or girl.” It’s always appreciated and it reinforces the behavior change you are hoping for.