A Therapist Explains How To Have The Hardest Conversation In Your Relationship

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist By Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981.
Difficult type of relationship communication

Most relationships begin by discovering ways you and your partner are alike, relishing the things you have in common and celebrating the goals, values, and dreams that make you believe you've found the perfect partner. But just as partners are alike in some ways, they are also very different in others, although it can be tough to see in the beginning. And as relationships progress, partners can change, discovering new goals and values and uncovering more differences instead of similarities.

In any long-term relationship, there are going to be difficult conversations—the times when you feel polarized about an issue, when your partner's point of view threatens yours, when you feel defensive, angry, or frightened of what they are bringing up or when your point of view has changed.

Here are a few examples:

Megan and Matt agreed in the beginning that they didn't want kids because travel and freedom meant more to them. But one day, Matt realized he had changed his mind. Not only did he want a child, but he could think of little else. The more he avoided the topic, though, the stronger his desire grew.

Jen and Paul had been monogamous for 15 years, but for the past few years, Jen has felt restless in her marriage and bored with their sex life. After having lunch with a friend who shared how liberating it was to have an open relationship, Jen became enthralled with the idea but is afraid to bring it up with Paul.

Annie and Kate have been partners for 30 years. They carefully planned an early retirement together and had a shared dream of traveling and trying new things together in retirement. Two years into their new life, Annie heard someone give a talk on energy healing and realized that she had a gift and a passion for feeling energy. She hadn't known how unfulfilled she'd been in retirement, but the more she explored her deeper feelings, the more obvious it became that she needed to do the three-year training to fulfill this part of herself even though it would take money and time and would mean a new focus in her life aside from her plans with Kate.

How do we have these difficult conversations and still keep our relationships intact? What is the secret to having a threatening conversation without harming our love for one another when discussing something painful, threatening, and potentially dangerous to our stability and well-being?

Like so many other aspects of our relationships, this is a very complicated but learnable skill. I call it the "black belt of relationships," and it's something we can all learn. There are five steps to managing difficult conversations. The more you practice these steps (in your everyday life), the easier it will be when the time comes that you and your partner have to confront a difficult issue:

1. Manage yourself first.

Consider that what you have to say is probably going to be hard for your partner to hear. Rather than trying to justify your own point of view, review the reasons this will be painful for your partner. In other words, begin from a place of empathy for your partner rather than from righteous self-justification for having your own point of view. Imagine their distress (and even blame) toward you. Keep breathing and stay grounded. Know that you don't have to react; just stay responsive.

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2. Set the right tone in the beginning.

Start with an invitation to talk when you both have time and are not stressed out by work or engaged in other distractions. Begin the conversation in a positive way. Start by reassuring your partner how much the relationship means to you, and let them know that you want to talk about something that may be hard to hear, but you want to get their feedback and explain your point of view. Keep in mind that however you bring this up, your partner will likely start by feeling alarmed and defensive; it's your job to allow that while keeping your own balance.

3. Tell the truth without pushing to have your way.

Let the outcome remain open. Remember, a partnership is a commitment to another person. To do this, you have to make room for them—even when it's inconvenient and hard to hear. In other words, you need to be open to your partner's point of view just as much as you want them to be open to yours.

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4. Stay present with what your partner is saying.

Reflect your partner's words back to them and let them know you understand their point of view (and that it matters). Back off, give them time, and keep reassuring them that their feelings and the relationship matter to you. Remind them that your love for them and your commitment to the relationship has not changed.

5. Know when to reach out for help.

Sometimes all the preparation in the world does not stop tough conversations from escalating or preventing you and your partner from becoming hurt, angry, and defensive. If you do end up in a "locked down" mode with one another for more than a few days and can't find your way back to one another, reach out for help to a trusted counselor, coach, or mentor.

Walking away from a conversation in which your partner wants to change something you thought would always stay the same and being able to stay connected and feel cared about is earning the black belt in couples' communication. Practicing these steps on a regular basis will help ensure that when the time comes, you will have the skills to listen, empathize, and hear something threatening without feeling rejected.

Don't wait for the final exam! Use these skills in your daily relationship so that when the time comes, you can abide by the rules of connected, caring, and empathetic connection.

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