Handling Difficult Conversations with Your Partner
In any romantic relationship, there are times when you have to have a difficult conversation.
Perhaps you are worried about a particular aspect of someone’s behaviour, or want to suggest a major change to your lives together.
Whatever it is, there are a few ways to make the conversation easier.
It can take courage to initiate these conversations.
However, you are handing all the power to your partner if you always wait for them to initiate discussions and, if you are afraid to assert yourself, you will not get what you want. This can lead to resentments building up over time, which can damage your relationship, so it is better to discuss things together before it gets to this stage.
Before You Begin
Before you start any difficult conversation, it can be helpful to decide:
- What you want to achieve from the conversation; and
- What your response will be if you do not get the outcome that you want.
The first is important because it is difficult to get what you want if you are less than sure what that is.
It may be helpful to look at our pages on Personal Empowerment and Setting Personal Goals to clarify your goals.
The second is important because you need to be clear about your next steps.
For example, if your partner does not want to get married yet but says that they might be open to it in the future, how long are you prepared to wait? Are you happy to be in a relationship with someone who does not want to have children?
Be very careful before you issue any ultimatums. You may end an excellent relationship if you cannot be flexible with your demands and few people enjoy being put under pressure. Conversely, if you say that everything is over if you are not engaged to be married by the end of the year, but have no real intention of leaving if it does not happen, you create confusion about what it is that you really want. Your partner may not take future pronouncements seriously.
Rules to Improve Conversations
Some people seem to be better at handling difficult conversations than others. It may not be an inbuilt talent. Instead, they could just be following some simple rules:
1) Pick a good time.
Few people are at their best when rushing out of the house to go to work or very tired.
Try to initiate a conversation when you have enough time and the other person is not obviously stressed, for example, in the early evening or at the weekend. If it is hard to find a suitable time, ask if the two of you could set aside a time to talk, and agree when that will be.
2) Avoid making accusations.
“I” statements are much better than “You” statements. For example, it is less confrontational to say: “I worry that you are often very drunk when we go out” than to say: “You drink too much and you are embarrassing me.” Our page on Tact and Diplomacy may help you to express your feelings in the least confrontational manner that you can, and you may also find our page on Giving Feedback in Relationships is helpful.
3) Ask for the time that you need.
If you are feeling a little nervous and want some time to talk before you are interrupted, it is best to say so.
For example, you may have several reasons for thinking that it is the right time for you to move in together, and you want to explain the complete picture before they interrupt. If so, you might say: “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Can you just give me a couple of minutes to explain my reasons before we discuss it?”
4) Give them time to respond.
The other person may be surprised by what you have said, or it might be an emotive issue. Be patient rather than insisting on an instant response. They may need to sit in silence for a minute or two, or may even need to think about it for a few days.
5) Stick to the topic at hand.
If you are upset about one thing, resist the temptation to throw in additional minor issues or to refer to previous issues that have been resolved.
For example, if you are angry that they were late home and did not call you, stick to that. Do not add in your minor annoyance about them making a mess the other day, or bring up the way their mother upset you last year. Doing so will just make your partner feel more defensive and makes it less likely that you'll achieve your desired outcome.
for example, an apology and a promise to ring when they are going to be late in future – will be reached. If you find it difficult to stop yourself once you get going, look at our page on Self Control.
If you find that you are shouting and losing control, either take a deep breath to regain it, or walk away for the moment.
Similarly, if the other person becomes angry, it is probably better to suspend the discussion for the moment. Make it clear that you are delaying rather than cutting them off:
“We will get further with this later when we’re calmer, let’s leave this for now.”
Steps to take if the conversation goes badly
These will depend on why the conversation went wrong.
If your partner simply does not want the two of you to move in together yet, you may need to accept that. Our page on Understanding Other People may help you to see if from their perspective. You might also find that criticizing your partner means that you receive criticism in return, which may be upsetting. Look at Dealing with Criticism to ensure that you can deal with this in a positive manner.
If your partner refused to discuss the issue because you brought it up in an aggressive manner, you may need to apologise and ask for the opportunity to discuss it again. If it is impossible to discuss anything difficult with your partner without you or them becoming angry, our pages on Dealing with Aggression and Anger Management may be useful.
If they are in denial about an important issue, for example about excessive use of alcohol or illegal drugs, you may need to get some help. Other people might be able to bring it up with them more effectively as their relationship with them is different. For example, they might be embarrassed about discussing their drinking with a fairly new romantic partner but more able to be open with an old friend.
Such issues be hard to discuss with other people but it may be worth it in the end, and it is possible that you are not the only one to have noticed that there is a problem.
Ultimately, only you can decide what you are prepared to put up with. However, if you are staying despite your worries because your partner threatens you or because you are afraid of being alone, it is likely to be an unhealthy relationship.
The benefits of difficult conversations
Given the risks outlined here, you may feel that it is better to avoid difficult conversations altogether. However, it will be hard for your relationship to deepen without them.
Having the courage to start (and finish) a difficult conversation can bring rich rewards and will, hopefully, leave you both feeling happier.