Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Last time we talked about having meaningful conversations with your partner. This time—oy!—we’re going to talk about having tough conversations with your partner.
And I say oy! because who wants to have any of these tough conversations? You know...conversations about painful things, things that will bring up bad feelings, conversations that can easily lead to conflict or sadness.
So let me begin by bringing you some good news. These conversations are almost always worse than they have to be. We make them bad most of the time.
Here, then, is how to take the badness out of bad conversations:
First of all, do you really have to have this conversation? Lots of times you don’t. Just think about the outcome you’d like to have. You want to tell your partner something, or talk to your partner about something. Okay, but ask yourself, “And at the end of it all, what do I want to have that I don’t have now?”
Are you clear about what that is? If not, don’t have the conversation! There’s too much of a risk of just making a mess.
Here are some guidelines:
If you want to have a conversation about what really happened in the past, something you’ve disagreed about up till now, don’t do it. People almost never do agree, and in trying to convince the other that their own view of what happened in the past is the truth, they just make things worse.
If you want to have a conversation to talk someone out of values they have that are opposed to yours, don’t do it. Research shows this almost always leads to polarization, not harmony.
If you want to confess some awful deed, don’t do it. You may be looking for absolution and/or a badge of honesty, but what you’ll get is the realization that you’ve torpedoed your relationship. If the awful deed is in the past, let it lie there. If it’s ongoing in the present, stop doing it!
See! Hasn’t that made things a lot easier!! So many tough conversations that never have to happen in the first place.
Now think about what we just did. We asked 1) what are you trying to make happen and 2) is it likely you can make that happen?
Don’t ever, ever try to have a tough conversation until you’ve thought through these questions thoroughly and carefully. Don’t start the conversation unless you’re crystal clear about where you want to end up when the conversation is over and you’re pretty sure it’s do-able.
Here’s another question you have to ask yourself.
How do I set this up?
Never say, We have to talk. That’s an ambush, and it’ll scare the crap out of the other person. Instead, send an email (ideal!) or leave a brief note that includes the following:
1. What you want to talk about
2. Why it’s important to you
3. What kind of an outcome you’re looking for
4. How you expect the two of you to arrive at this outcome
You see, when you start things off this way, it doesn’t feel like a power move on your part, more like you’re sharing the power. Here’s how it might go:
"You know how we agreed you’d do the actual paying of the bills because you have a bit more time than I do? Well, I’d like to talk about how there’s been a lot of bills going unpaid or being paid late. And we’ve talked about this. This is a big deal for me because you know how much I’m wanting us to buy a house, and I want our credit rating to be excellent.
So I’m hoping we can sit down some time in the upcoming week and discuss whether the current arrangement is best or whether we should try something different.
All I want is a system or arrangement where the bills get paid on time. Whatever feels fair to both of us.”
Now starting off like that, things could go super easy. Your partner might just say, “Look, I hadn’t realized what a big deal this was for you. If you want to do the bill paying and you won’t resent having to do it, I’ll be fine with that.”
Notice what this WASN’T. It wasn’t a tirade of suffering, complaint, and anger that, in almost all cases, accomplished only a cascade of anger and destroys the willingness to cooperate. Instead, it can feel like something healthy and fulfilling, something that brings you truly closer.
And if you do sit down to talk about it, you just have to follow the guidelines in our book Why Couples Fight. Listen to each other and show you’ve heard each other. Talk about what’s really important to you. Offer options. Talk about how the different options might play out over time.
It’s not a big deal. You’re just looking for a better way, not a perfect way. That’s all.
Text images are Two Men Arguing,1846, by Paul Garvani
and Slow Dance, 1993, by Kerry James Marshall