Challenging Conversations with Partners

Maybe you’ve been in this situation recently. There’s a conversation you need to have with your partner (or another important person) and they’re not willing to have the conversation or they react defensively. Or maybe your partner is trying to have a conversation with you and you’re the one who is feeling defensive. Maybe it’s a recurring theme and you’ve done this dance together before or perhaps it’s a new conflict in your relationship. You just know that what you’re doing together doesn’t feel good and it isn’t working.

What’s next? How do you move through this situation?

First, it’s important to acknowledge the pattern that’s happening. Focus on yourself, on your own experience of what’s happening. “Every time you bring up ____, I start feeling defensive. I really want to hear you and work together, but it’s really hard when I’m feeling that way. I’d like to talk about how to work together when we have these kinds of conflicts. Can we find a time to do that in the next day or so?”

This isn’t a time to talk about the conflict itself, but what happens for each of you when the conflict comes up. This is a conversation about the process rather than trying to resolve something directly.

When you do have this conversation, it is ideally a time when you’re both somewhat rested, fed, and not distracted. If you have small children, it might be when you can have some help with childcare or during their nap or at night.

Some of the things you might consider discussing include requests to talk about the conversation, pauses and talking slowly, and suggestions how things can be phrased so they can be heard. We’ll take each one below.

Requests/permission to discuss now

Sometimes a topic is brought up and the timing is terrible. You’re in the middle of getting dinner prepared while you’re coordinating the Girl Scout cookie order. It’s not a good time to talk about a highly charged topic. Sometimes a topic is brought up and you’re immediately agitated. It doesn’t feel like a good time to discuss it. One solution to this challenge is to actually ask for permission before charging into a topic. “I’d like to talk about your mother and her upcoming visit. Is now a good time?” You both have to agree that if it isn’t a good time that you’ll choose another time in the near future to discuss it. But that you both can say it is not a good time. This helps to create choice about when a conversation happens and is a great first step to changing negative feedback loops in a relationship.

Pauses/Talking Slowly

If you start a conversation and you’re feeling defensive, it’s a great opportunity to take a pause. Pauses need to be agreed to ahead of time, as well, and I’d recommend you practice them together so you each know what your pause might look like. Pausing helps to slow things down. When we speed up, we often get into old patterns that don’t feel good and we’re trying to avoid. The pause is your friend here and can help you navigate difficult conversations. The pause is meant to only be a few minutes. If you need longer or you need more support, bring that up if you need to.

If you can say it this way…

Sometimes the way something is phrased can make all the difference in whether it can be heard or not. There’s a big difference between, “I can’t stand your mother and you need to fix this situation” and “I am feeling really unsafe in the situation with your mother. Can we work together to find ways to help this feel safer for me?”

The first is full of blame and accusation, the second is naming the problem with an “I statement” and asking for help. They feel really different.

Tone of voice, facial expressions, and the way it feels to you all matter here, so if you need something else this would be the time to bring it up. “I feel dismissed when you’re looking off into the distance when I’m sharing something important with you. What would really help me would be a little more eye contact, so I know you’re really hearing me. Is that something you’re willing to try?”

It’s a work in progress

Most of us haven’t learned how to move through difficult conversations with a partner or other loved one in a way that is healthy and feels good to everyone, or at least is respectful. Remember that you’re both learning something new and that takes time. New patterns don’t happen overnight but striving to make it just a little different the next time matters. If there are two relatively emotionally healthy people who are willing to work together, you’ll be able to make the shift over a couple of weeks. Be gentle with yourself and gentle with the other person, too. And keep coming back to the conversation about how to have the conversation, the process, until you find something that works for both of you!

 

For more, watch for Rebecca’s upcoming book, It’s Never Too Late to Heal, which includes support for healing partnerships whether your partner is willing and able to do the work together or not! Coming 2022!

 

  • Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

Rebecca

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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