Are there topics or needs that matter to you in your relationship that you’re not able to bring up and discuss in a productive way… so you avoid them?
Does your partner or spouse voice topics, maybe sometimes in anger, that matter to them but not to you, so you downplay them and don’t discuss in detail?
Has it been a long time since you sat down with your spouse and talked about your needs, desires, fears, and future goals?
These topics — whether emotional needs, requests for more time together, wanting to feel more appreciated, planning for your future, parenting styles, feeling respected, health concerns, financial fears, or sexual needs — are the kinds of topics that undermine relationships in the long run if they are ignored.
And I get it, these topics can feel so daunting, overwhelming, vulnerable, or fraught with tension, that it seems easier to brush them under the rug until a “better” time. But what is easier in the short term can be catastrophic in the long run.
I sometimes hear clients say, when their spouse has asked for a divorce, “I knew she/he was unhappy with some things, but I didn’t know they were THIS unhappy.”
This is how we can unwittingly be sabotaging our relationships by avoiding conflict.
But conflict, even if it’s really heated, is valuable for many relationships when it is approached with awareness, intention, and structure.
This kind of approach often requires skills that we didn’t learn growing up or in past relationships. But here are key ideas to keep in mind when getting started:
-Ask for permission to bring up a difficult topic.
-Ask for a short amount of time (e.g., 15 minutes) to broach it, without expectations of coming to any conclusions during this first conversation.
-Say that you know it may be uncomfortable for both of you, but your intent is not to be mean or harmful but quite the opposite: the stability and health of your relationship.
-Agree to be as non-judgmental, kind, and open-minded as possible.
-Be calm in your presentation of your concerns and use “I” statements about your emotions and interpretations around the topic (pause and take deep breaths as needed). It can also be helpful to write down your “I” statements ahead of time so that you’re able to be true to yourself and not get distracted by their reactions.
-State succinctly WHY this topic is important to you personally.
-Ask for their thoughts and emotions about the topic and LISTEN.
-Thank them for their time and consideration and give each other a hug.
-Schedule the next time you’ll continue this conversation, so that it douesn’t get brushed back under the rug.
The above list itself may feel daunting if this isn’t your usual approach to difficult topics. So print out this list as a checklist for how to structure your conversation so you can be intentional about your word choice and the “energy” that you bring to the interaction (e.g., kind and calm versus reactive and defensive). This is a good way to stop avoiding confrontation and start facing the important needs in your relationship.
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, Relationship & Communication Coach and Speaker