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  • Do you avoid having difficult conversations with your partner for fear of their reaction?

  • Do your conversations often end up in conflict?

  • Do you and your partner find it difficult to resolve issues?

Being in relationship with another is hard work. People bring their own agenda, history and triggers to the relationship and negotiating all that can be tricky! When difficult conversations with your partner end in conflict, you may avoid talking about the issues and the quality of your relationship can suffer.

Luckily, there’s another way to approach difficult conversations with your partner…

Conversations with your partner are only difficult if one of you perceives the topic as threatening in some way. The top five topics that couples find most difficult to talk about are money, sex, in-laws, parenting and the division of household chores. Perceptions of threat for these topics vary from person to person and are often the result of our life experience up to now.

For example, if your parents argued angrily about money in your childhood home and this made you feel afraid and guilty as a child, it’s possible that you’ll be triggered during discussions about money with your partner. You’ll feel unsafe (triggered) and overreact, your partner will feel attacked and the conversation may end in tears.

Here’s another example. Say your partner in a previous relationship insisted that other people’s wishes were more important than yours and this made you feel your opinions were worthless. As a result, a conversation in your current relationship about sex may be difficult because you’ll be triggered by your fear of letting someone down or by your frustration at not being heard. Typically, your overreaction as a result of being triggered will threaten your partner and the discussion is unlikely to go well.

When either you or your partner is triggered by fear, guilt, frustration, shame – or a host of other unpleasant emotions – you’ll feel threatened and do whatever you can to keep safe. Our ‘safety response’ is usually anger or withdrawal, which explains why difficult conversations with your partner can end in raised voices or radio silence.

Take a step back…

Learning to step back and observe what’s really going on for you during difficult conversations with your partner can be hugely beneficial.

When I talk with couples about conflict in conversations, I refer to ‘upstairs thinking’ and ‘downstairs thinking’. Upstairs thinking uses the part of the brain that controls logic and reason and is therefore much more rational. Downstairs thinking uses the primal, survival part of the brain which is very reactive. For conversations to be successful, we want to major in upstairs thinking so that negotiation can happen, and avoid downstairs thinking which is highly emotional.
SIX tips to maintain ‘upstairs thinking’

Here are my six tips for maintaining upstairs thinking during difficult conversations with your partner.

Practice will help you remember that you’re safe even when triggered. This, in turn, will enable you to communicate with your partner calmly and clearly, as well as negotiate in a non-threatening way.

Here are 6 Tips for having difficult conversations with your partner

#1. Timing is everything

When you know a conversation may be triggering for either of you, plan ahead and don’t rush your partner. Say something like, “I’d like us to have a calm conversation about [topic]. I know this can be sensitive for us, so when would be a good time for you?” Agree a time where you won’t be distracted (chores done and the kids in bed) and are both likely to be feeling calm.

#2. Be positive

Help your partner feel safe from the start by saying thank you. “Thanks for talking about this stuff…I appreciate it.”

#3. Stay on topic

Don’t let the conversation stray as this may threaten either or both of you. If other topics come up, suggest you some back to them another time.

#4. Active listening

Resist the urge to talk over your partner or dismiss their views. Show that you’re listening by reflecting back to them what you’ve heard them say (in your own words) and acknowledging how they’re feeling about it. This is very affirming. The more heard and validated your partner feels, the less likely they are to feel threatened.

#5. Give up the need to be right

It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Try to negotiate your way to a win-win solution that acknowledges both of your wants and needs and accommodates them as far as possible. Be prepared to pause and pick up the conversation again another time if you get ‘stuck’.

#6. Be ready to ‘circle back’

If either of you gets reactive, either angry or withdrawing, acknowledge that and suggest you circle back and try another time. Not much successful negotiating is done when a participant is reactive and defensive do don’t push through. Say something like, “I sense you’re feeling uncomfortable, should we take a break and come back to this later?”. Or, “I’m feeling uncomfortable and I’d like to take a break for now.”

There’s no quick fix when it comes to knowing how to have successful difficult conversations with your partner. But practicing these tips will enable you to develop a rhythm of conversation that isn’t triggering. As a result, your relationship will benefit enormously.

P.S. Are difficult conversations with your partner leading to a loveless relationship? You can read here how relationship counselling helped one couple change their loveless relationship to one with passion again!