We likely all have a fairytale love we saw on TV that we admired and hoped to experience one day. One thing that we often forget is that even the couples in these “perfect” love stories had some sort of conflict. In Love and Basketball, Quincy and Monica had issues they had to work through. Likewise, Nina and Darius from Love Jones had to have some hard talks before getting to their happily ever after too.
If you’re in a relationship, then you may be familiar with uncomfortable conversations. Perhaps they’re something you avoid because you’re afraid of conflict or hurting your partner’s feelings. If the latter is the case, you’re not alone. “Difficult conversations can be intimidating and triggering, as many of us were not taught how to have them productively or at all,” says Dr. Jessica Smedley, licensed clinical psychologist, owner of Smedley Psychological Services, and adjunct professor.
“Difficult conversations, when done fruitfully and with love, can lead to better intimacy, relationship health, overall happiness, and investments in the future in the event children are involved, as it role models emotional resilience and love even when tough,” she says.
The ability to have difficult conversations in a relationship can indicate positive emotional health and an investment in the relationship. An inability to do so could be a red flag, Smedley warns.
Avoiding difficult conversations could also mean someone isn’t expressing themselves honestly. And when you aren’t expressing yourself and suppressing your needs, this can lead to resentment, says Melissa Ifill, a therapist and coach.
Now that we know why having these conversations is important, how do we actually have them? You can start by assuming your partner has the best intentions for you and vice versa. For instance, if the difficult conversation is about them not respecting your boundaries, you could start the conversation assuming they love you and aren’t intentionally out to disrespect you. You should then think about what you’d like the outcome of your conversation to be, Ifill advises.
“This perspective will help shape how you communicate, which will support your partner’s ability to hear you and encourage the best outcome between you,” she says.
Sometimes, even when you have the best intention at heart, difficult conversations can go left and your partner can become defensive. Although you can’t always predict or control their reaction, you can try and steer the conversation in the right direction and focus on your delivery and emotions.
“Find your calm. When we enter difficult moments calm, we are adding to the calm energy in the space. Energy is transferable, so your best bet is to find your calm before you enter the conversation and have tools to maintain it in the conversation,” Ifill says. She advises you engage in a ritual or practice that helps keep grounded before having that talk. It is also a way to build more tolerance and reduce your fight or flight reactions. Examples of calming practices could include meditating, praying, listening to your favorite song, or breathing exercises.
Another way to reduce the occurrence of fight or flight reactions on both sides is by making loving and supporting statements before communicating your thoughts and needs to your partner. An example would be saying, “I know how much you love me and I appreciate when you anticipate my needs; here is another example of how you can show me you love me,” says Smedley.
She also advises having difficult conversations in a neutral environment where there are limited distractions. “Going for a long walk or drive minimizes distractions and often keeps people’s defenses down.”
If the conversation begins to get heated, it’s ok to take a break. You may notice the conversation is getting there when your body language changes, voices are raised, or you’re talking at each other as opposed to taking turns and actively listening. Taking a break could also increase the chances of you having a healthy outcome. When taking a break, remember this is to regroup and not to avoid the conversation altogether.
“It’s important that when you take a break it is with the intention of calming down and that you resume communication when you both are able to engage in a healthy way,” Ifill says. “This is different from leaving the conversation as punishment towards your partner or suppressing how you feel to keep the peace. It’s okay to say that you need to stop now and resume later, but be sure to actually do so.”
A final tip for having difficult conversations is to be as honest as possible. This doesn’t equate to being mean. You still want to be loving and diplomatic where needed. How can you do this? By thinking about what you’re trying to say beforehand, using “I” vs. “you” statements, and focusing on expressing how their actions make you feel. Nonetheless, be honest, as it helps you address your needs. Plus, it’s important to remember that hurting your partner’s feelings doesn’t mean you don’t love them.
“I often say, honesty is the most underrated relationship value. There is so much fear around hurting our partner’s feelings, or challenges with advocating for ourselves that we aren’t honest about the dish we don’t like, the pet peeves we have, the sexual practices we prefer, or the family member we don’t feel comfortable around,” says Dr. Smedley. She adds that honesty can help you achieve the ultimate emotional and physical safety in your relationship.
If you’re ready to have a difficult conversation in your relationship, Dr. Smedley shares a quick 4-step recap on how to go about it.
1. It can be helpful to schedule the conversation. This gives both parties time to gather thoughts, work through other responsibilities they may have and discuss when emotions are settled.
2. Assume you’re on the same team and your partner wants the best for you. If there are concerns here it could be a sign of your relationship health and longevity.
3. It could be helpful to write out what you want to say and read it aloud. If it sounds too aggressive or direct, assume you are setting your partner up to be defensive. Be mindful of how you are packaging your message.
4. Strive to identify a mutually agreed upon action step or repair item. This will help to ultimately bring healing to the issue.