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How to Have Difficult Conversations with Your Spouse—Successfully!

In love and marriage, we often hold back from being fully honest with our partner, even when it’s important. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll hurt their feelings, or we’re fearful of their reaction. Or perhaps we think they’ll feel like we’re criticizing them. However, we may also hold on to resentment or anger toward them until it spills over to spoil our fun or warps our everyday interactions. Our unwillingness to speak up begins to padlock our hearts and closes off the current of our love.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Couple at a small party

Are You Avoiding Difficult Conversations?

What are those conversations you're avoiding? And what are you or your partner doing in the relationship that saps your love and connection? It might be little things that add up or bigger letdowns over time.

For instance, you’re at a small dinner party with friends, and your partner makes fun of you sarcastically about something you shared in confidence. You smile and laugh along with the group, but inside you feel humiliated and hurt. Not knowing how to bring it up without sounding like a killjoy, you swallow it and tell yourself, “It’s no big deal.”

What about when your partner commits to date night at seven at your favorite restaurant, but they show up at seven-forty-five? Or worse, they call and say they can't make it! So you end up eating a late dinner at home of leftovers. Even though you feel hurt and disrespected, you pretend everything is okay.

Or maybe your spouse works late most days and comes home exhausted each evening. They immediately plug into their iPad to decompress, scrolling news or social media feeds. Then they plop down in front of the television until they fall asleep. Feeling ignored, your sadness and resentment boil up, but you shut down and say nothing. After all, your partner is working hard.

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

A man decompressing in front of the television

The Cost of Dishonesty and Withholding Your Feelings from Your Partner

When we don’t open up and talk about difficult topics with our spouse (or partner), we never learn to build strong bridges of understanding. Most of us want to be honest, but we struggle to find the “perfect” words or the “right time” in our busy schedules, so we don’t say anything at all. We postpone crucial conversations to keep the peace.

However, when we bottle up our feelings, deny our needs, or allow disagreements to eat away at our relationship, we deny ourselves—and our partner—the opportunity to grow and build trust.

It’s true; honesty can sting. However, this result usually only happens when we don’t share our perspective lovingly, or we fling our anger without considering the other person’s feelings or experiences.

So how do we shift negative emotions to positive ones? How do we harness the power of our love for greater intimacy?
A young married couple having a difficult conversation

Develop an Acceptance Mindset

Before engaging in a difficult conversation, it’s important to have an acceptance mindset where we unconditionally accept our partner in their humanness. (Sorry to break it to you, but there are no perfect spouses, no perfect humans.) This acceptance doesn’t mean we look the other way, though. We also need to hold our spouse accountable for being their best self and advocate for what’s best for our relationship.

An acceptance mindset allows us to make love with our words, which is guaranteed to create more intimacy and closeness. Speaking our truth, even when it’s hard, shows our partner that we are willing to be uncomfortable and do what it takes to create a healthy relationship. When we tell our partner what is needed to strengthen our bond and deepen our connection, love grows. Our love nudges us to have difficult conversations that will strengthen our relationship and deepen our understanding of one another. Don't ignore the nudge!

How to Discuss What Matters: Steps for Handling Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations can be handled successfully by following the steps below. Having a formula to practice new ways of interacting supports change. By building a bridge between our differences, we increase empathy and experience tremendous growth.

STEP 1:  If you’re upset, calm before speaking. Shift your feelings to ensure you have a loving stance by thinking of three things you love about your partner.

STEP 2:  Ask yourself, “What is my intention in having this conversation?”
(Is it to feel heard, to create closeness, or to resolve an issue?) Get clear.

Signs that indicate you’re ready to have a difficult conversation:

  • You are clear about what you need and want.
  • Your goal is to create more closeness and love.
  • The conversation will promote understanding.
  • You are ready to do what is necessary for repair and resolution.
  • Closeness with your partner is more important than harboring a grudge or being right.

STEP 3 - When approaching your partner, ask them if it is a good time to talk.
If it is, great. If it’s not, follow up with: “When would be a better time?” This simple strategy provides a springboard for optimal timing for difficult conversations. The harder the subject matter, the more you need to protect uninterrupted time and honor the timing for your partner or spouse.

Love means being honest with your partnerSTEP 4 - Lead with your intention for making the relationship better. 
For example, “Our relationship is so important to me. Even though it’s tough for me to talk about my feelings, I’m willing to because I love you.”

STEP 5 - Begin by telling your partner your feelings in a nonjudgmental way.
“I feel lonely when you work so much; I miss you. I appreciate your hard work, too. What I’d like is to plan for quality time together.”

STEP 6 - Give him or her a chance to respond.
Be willing to listen to your partner’s response and allow them to process what you tell them. Release your expectations; they have a right to their feelings, too.

STEP 7 - If both of you are willing, discuss possible solutions.
It’s great to get relief from meaningful conversations. Yet, it’s also critical to prevent the same situation or behavior from happening in the future. Sometimes it’s necessary to circle back to this step later, especially if the conversation has been lengthy or particularly tough.

Related reading: "How to Use Empathy to Strengthen Your Marriage."

  • Avoid sarcasm, putdowns, and belittling.
  • Focus on the situation, not the person.
  • Be clear on the outcome you want.

Practicing the above steps will help you create honest and robust communication.

By using your words to support one another, you can resolve disagreements and conflicts quickly and peacefully. Your increased honesty and openness will strengthen your relationship while loving with words will deepen intimacy on all levels.

It's like making love with your words.

Related reading: “The Stop, Drop, and Roll of Successful Communication in Relationships.”

Deep dive: "If You Want a Successful Marriage, Increase Self-Mastery."

For more tips on relationships or for Heartmanity’s mentoring programs for couples, visit Heartmanity.com. Or contact us about premarital coaching and marriage mentoring programs today. Transforming relationships is our business!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity FounderJennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity Founder
Jennifer, as the Heartmanity Founder, has coached couples for over two decades. With her extensive experience and vast knowledge of emotional intelligence and brain science, Jennifer provides profound insights. She specializes in communication and teaches EQ skills needed to create healthy relationships. Jennifer is happily married and the mother of three grown children who are incredible human beings.

Posted in Love, Marriage, and Relationships, Communication & Interpersonal Skills

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