6 Tips on How to Initiate a Difficult Conversation

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GFDFY7All couples have disagreements. Sometimes your needs clash with your partner’s needs. Other times, you might misunderstand each other or trigger strong emotions from the past. Fighting is not a predictor of divorce. In healthy relationships, conflict is normal. Conflict is not the problem. How you handle the conflict however, may be the problem. Here are my suggestions (based on the research of Dr. John Gottman) for discussing potentially heated topics.

1. Remember, you are on the same team    Focus on solving a problem rather than venting your anger or winning a victory. It is simple, you’re either or BOTH winning or you’re BOTH losing. When you have “won” it means that your partner has “lost” and may feel like a “loser.” Your partner is left feeling hurt, wounded and unlovable. This doesn’t lead to trust and intimacy. It leads to playing a game of who can find fault in the other first. Next time you may find that you are the “loser.”

2. Timing   Don’t bring up an issue at a bad time (e.g. as your partner is late for work, ten minutes before going to bed, in the middle of a favorite TV show). This is a favorite strategy for those who like to self-sabotage. Pick a bad time so there is no hope of a thoughtful discussion! If you are consistently bringing things up at a bad time, ask yourself, “Why do I want to set us up for failure?” Then pick a better time.

3. Gentle Approach    Sometimes it isn’t what you are saying, but how you are saying it.   If you start off harshly, using an accusatory and negative approach, chances are it will continue to be negative and harsh.   On the other hand, if you begin the discussion using a softened startup, the discussion will most likely end on the same positive tone.  Instead of: “You are never at home!” try: “I have been missing you lately, and I am feeling a bit lonely.”

4. No talk of breaking-up or divorce    Again, fighting is not a predictor of divorce.  What is a predictor of divorce?  Talking about divorce!   In the heat of an argument, threatening to leave the relationship is manipulative and hurtful.  The first couple of times you do this in an argument, you get the result you want-you strike fear in the heart of your partner that s/he will be abandoned.  Eventually, however, your partner starts thinking to him/herself, “What would my life be like?”   Why is so toxic for your relationship?  Because your partner is now starting to think of his/her life without you in it.    S/he starts to invest less, care less, and check out of the relationship.  This isn’t done because s/he doesn’t love you; it is simple self-preservation!

5. Attack the issue, not the person     Avoid ridiculing and insults. These tactics break-down down communication and destroy trust in the relationship. Once you put your partner on the defensive s/he won’t hear anything you say, no matter how right you might be. S/he becomes too busy thinking about how to defend her/him instead of listening to you.

6. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt    Assume that your partner is not purposely doing something to frustrate you, undermine you, or control you. Think, “My partner loves me. S/he is a different person than I am. Why I don’t I ask how they saw the situation?”

Caroline Madden is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in private practice in Burbank, CA. She specializes in helping adults have more satisfying relationships. She can be reached at (626) 644-1609.


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