How to Talk with Your Partner About a Difficult Subject

When it comes to communication, many of us suffer from an excess of caution.

We hesitate to express.

The good stuff, even. Around love.

Pick a reason, any reason, for not articulating our feelings, but basically, we tend to err on the side of what we believe is safe when it comes to the heart.

What about caution when it comes to asking for what we want or need? Do we speak up, speak our mind, say the truth? Often, there’s a belief that we’re somehow safer if we don’t bring up needs. Maybe they don’t need to be spoken. Maybe we can figure them out all by ourselves.

Of course, we have sensible reasons for holding back. It’s possible that we might say something that can’t be undone and we’ll regret it. The words we spouted in the heat of the moment might stand in the way of open communication in the future, or love, or business opportunities.

Some of us hold back our expression because we’re concerned that if we opened the floodgates, if we ever start to unload about a subject important to us, we might never stop.

Take the topic of injustice, for instance. We hear the story of Kalief Browder, a 16 year old African American youth, who was held at the Rikers Island jail complex from 2010 to 2013 for allegedly stealing a backpack. The case never made it to trial, and he spent over 1000 days in jail, with 800 of those in solitary confinement. After three years, the charges were dropped and he was released. Two years after that, he hanged himself at his parents’ home. Our rage about this injustice is too big, too fierce. We hold back our grief, and we bury our outrage because if we pulled the cork on our true feelings, our tears might be never-ending.

We swallow sadness, fury, and feelings of helplessness. We’re one small person. How can we do anything meaningful about a prison system that pounds the life out of so many, including those who don’t even belong behind bars? We educate ourselves by reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson about his work with the prison system, but still, it’s his work. What can we do? How can we speak up? Would it matter if we did?

If we spoke to our partner about the years we’ve been unhappy in our relationship, would we ever stop weeping? Our disappointment runs deep, and it has gone on too long. Can things turn around? Are we broken now? Would it be best to lower our expectations and live with a crushed heart?

To avoid all such trouble, we push “mute.”

While there are many reasons to stay silent, if a light has come on inside you, and you wish to move out of silence into expressing more of what’s important to you, there are some things you can do.

Let’s say a potential conversation with your partner has been building inside you, and your courage to talk about it is also rising. In my work with individuals and couples, I help them prepare in a way that helps the conversation turn out well.

Important Note: None of the upcoming suggestions apply to situations of abuse. In an unsafe situation, get help and get out.

First Step: Have a Pre-Conversation

Before having an important conversation with our partner, one that is likely loaded with reactions or triggers, it is best to clear the excess emotion. This allows us to see truth better. What’s our priority in this situation? What’s important to us? What do we need to say, or want to say?

To offload emotions, have a pre-conversation with a friend or a professional. Choose someone to be a sounding board, someone that has no interest in taking sides. Tell them you you’re preparing for an important conversation, and you need some assistance.

Request that they sit with you and do two things: ask open-ended questions, and listen. They are not there to give advice, offer solutions, or suggest their good ideas. They are simply helping you discharge emotions around your triggers and reactions, in order to unveil your own innate wisdom.

Their questions to you should be ones that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or a “no.” Here are some examples:

  • What is the situation and how did it begin?
  • Where do things stand at present?
  • Is something missing or absent?
  • What is the effect of this on your relationship?
  • What does this suggest is most important to you?

Once you are clear about what to say, have a conversation with your mate. There are some important steps here, too.

Take Responsibility for What You’re About to Say

What does it mean to take responsibility?

Here’s an example from someone who wants to argue less with her mate.

“I’d like to talk about how we fight. I don’t like fighting, and I don’t really understand my part in how we end up yelling at each other. I’m not sure what I’m doing to escalate things. I’d like to shift how I communicate with you when I’m upset—be kinder, more open, and more creative about solutions. May I ask you some questions about all of this, so that I can begin to learn a new way of being with you?”

If you heard these words from your partner, would you agree to a conversation? Of course! What a relief! It would feel safe to converse because your partner is not accusing or blaming. Your partner is asking for information.

By the way, this is one of the most important things I did to save my fourth marriage. There are many examples in the book How to Save Your Fourth Marriage that show how to take responsibility.

Don’t Aim Words at the Other Person

If you aim comments or accusations at the other person, their knee-jerk response will be to defend themselves. This sends the conversation ’round and ’round in circles, which creates no visible progress. They might also defend themselves by refusing to talk. They might shut down, go cold, and/or leave.

Instead, ask questions that provide you with clarity about something they said or did.

“When you said I was wrong about___, what did you mean by that? Can you tell me more?”

“When you left yesterday, how did you feel toward me? Can you describe it? Would you be willing to tell me more about what happened between us that caused you to feel that way?”

“I noticed you got angry. Can you tell me in slow motion and step by step what got you upset? What lead up to that moment? How did my request affect you? What did it mean to you?”

Set up a conversation for the best outcome by making the inquiry about what you can learn. Don’t teach your partner what they should have done. Don’t ask them for anything. Just gather information.

What Happens When You Take Complete Responsibility

There are good reasons why we might hesitate to take 100% responsibility. We’re afraid that if we take complete responsibility for a pattern in our relationship, our partner will become lazy. What if they sail off scot free, and never lift a finger to make the relationship better? We think, ” My partner should step up, too. Why should I do all the work? Why should this be all my fault?”

First, there’s no fault here. This is an exploration about what would work better than what’s going on now.

And second, what’s interesting is that by truly taking responsibility for the relationship, the opposite of our fear happens. Instead of our partner becoming less involved, or thinking, “Hey, I don’t need to do anything because somebody else is doing all the work,” the partner suddenly has room to explore their part in the puzzle. And usually, they dive in. They explore. They step up and do their work.

Deeply Moving

It is a touching experience to discover that barriers you thought existed, don’t. That your connection with your mate is more malleable than you imagined. That the dynamics between you aren’t as complicated as you thought. That simple, honest inquiry can make astonishingly good things possible.  

When you step up, your partner will either step up, or they will recognize that they’re not interested in stepping up. When presented with a transformed and fully responsible “you,” your partner might bow out. Not every relationship is saved by taking responsibility, but every relationship is transformed by taking responsibility. Either way, whether a partner stays or leaves, the outcome is ultimately a good thing.

The change I’m describing here, taking full responsibility for the success of one’s marriage, is the most important shift I made to save my fourth marriage. When I stepped up, the pressure on my husband disappeared. When I no longer blamed him or made him wrong, there was room for him to step up. And he did.

The changes that occurred between the two of us felt sacred to me. The more we connected with each other in these no-fault ways, the better we felt, the more we talked, the more we loved.

We both began to learn who we actually are, not who we were taught to be, or felt obligated or forced to be. If you approach your relationship conversations in the way that I’m suggesting here, you’ll meet more of true-you every single day.

As you heal your own triggers and reactions, there you stand… luminous you!

If I can be of assistance to you regarding your relationships, please contact me.

To schedule a free “Meet and Greet” go here.

how to talk to your partner about a difficult subject, In Care of Relationships, intimate relationships, relationship problems, Terri Crosby

Comments (2)

  • Great information! I especially liked the questions to ask to make the conversations about difficult subjects less threatening to your partner. Do you coach couples?

    • Thanks, Toni, for your comment and question. I’ll update my post to answer your question. Yes, I work with couples. Terri

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