Is there something going on in your relationship that’s bothering you? Are you unsure how to address it? Firstly, by looking for a way to talk about it, you’re doing the right thing. John Gottman has been doing research with couples for 40 years, and he has found that “only 40 percent of the time do couples divorce because they are having frequent, devastating fights. More often marriages end because, to avoid constant skirmishes, husband and wife distance themselves so much that their friendship and sense of connection are lost.”* So with the long-term health of your relationship in mind, here are my top tips on how to raise difficult issues with your partner.
How To Raise Difficult Issues With Your Partner
Remember Your Manners
Do you find yourself being polite to strangers, then rude to the people you care about most? It’s understandable, but it’s not helpful. And it’s a habit that you can break, with practice.
Treat your partner with the same respect and good manners you would anyone else. It might help to pretend there is someone else in the room with you when you’re having a difficult conversation. Perhaps think of someone you want to impress, so you’ll be your best self.
Above all, avoid what Gottman calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”. These are the signifiers that a relationship is likely to be in trouble: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Complain, Don’t Blame
When you need to address a difficult issue (and you should, as and when they arise if possible), make a direct complaint, rather than a criticism or contemptuous accusation. For example, instead of saying “Oh look, you’re watching TV while I clear up after dinner again! You’re so lazy.” Try, “I’m tired at the end of a long day and I hate clearing up after dinner alone.”
Conversations that start softly tend to progress and end in the same way. So remember that if you complain without criticising or attacking, the discussion is more likely to be productive.
This isn’t always easy – especially when you’re angry. But take a deep breath and think about what you really want. If you are critical or contemptuous, your partner is likely to withdraw from you. On the other hand, if you can be gentle, you are more likely to have a useful discussion and resolve the conflict.
Complaining without blaming means focusing on the issue, not your partner’s character. Start by describing what is happening without evaluation or judgement.
Talk From the “I…”
When you make “I…” statements you are much less likely to elicit a defensive response from your partner. No one likes to be told what they are thinking or feeling, or that what they are doing is wrong. So think before you say things like “You never listen to me,” “You’re so careless,” or “You don’t even love me”. Try instead “I need you to listen to me more,” “I want you to be more careful,” or, “I feel neglected”.
Ask For What You Need
If you worry about how to raise difficult issues with your partner, it could be a sign that your communication needs improvement. Your partner is not a mind-reader. Be clear and ask for what you need. If you are thinking “I wish he would tell me he loves me more often” or “I need a hug” – say it!
We all feel more open to others when we feel appreciated. So if you can find something to say thank you for, then do.
Don’t Save Things Up
This one is a question of balance, because it’s not going to be helpful to share every passing irritation with your partner. Check in with yourself first. Are you tired, hungry, or upset about something else? (If you struggle to recognise or respond to your emotions, counselling can really help.)
When it comes to the things in your relationship that really do bother you, talk about them as soon as you get a chance. This way you’re less likely to build resentment.
Say How You Feel About Talking
Often I see couples who say things like “I didn’t talk to her about it because I was worried how she would react”, or “I just didn’t know what to say”.
If this is you, know that sometimes talking about talking is the first step to talking! You might say:
- “I need to talk to you about something but I’m not quite sure how to say it.”
- “I want to tell you something but I’m worried about how you’ll react.”
- “I’m not sure how to start this conversation.”
- “It makes me feel really anxious talking about relationship stuff.”
- “I don’t know how to explain what’s going on with me, but I want to try.”
- “I feel like there’s something weird going on between us and I’m not sure what’s up.”
“But I’m Not The One With the Problem!”
If you’re reading this and thinking that your partner is the one in your relationship who tends to raise issues in an unhelpful way, think about how you respond to his or her complaints. It could be that your partner feels his or her complaints and irritations are being ignored. Or maybe s/he doesn’t feel loved, respected or understood. Have a think about what you could you do to help, and if you’re not sure, ask.
How To Raise Difficult Issues With Your Partner – Moving Forwards
Changing the way you address problems with your partner is not going to fix all your problems overnight. If your partner is used to being criticised, s/he might expect it from you and continue to respond negatively, at least at first. Don’t give up too easily or give in to any temptation you might feel to escalate the conflict. Keep going gently and kindly, and eventually you should see some change in how your partner responds. Especially if you talk about the changes you want to make in how you address difficult conversations together.
I hope this has given you some tips on how to raise difficult issues with your partner. Relationships can be tough and sometimes internet research isn’t enough. If you would like some support improving your communication from a professional counsellor in the Brighton and Hove area, please get in touch.
*From The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, which comes highly recommended.