Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Know When You Need to Speak Up in a Relationship

Talking it out before issuing an ultimatum.

Key points

  • All couples run into problems, which brings up the choice of whether to address them, and how to do it.
  • When partners decide to speak up, they should do it in a respectful, responsible way, or they will create new problems.
  • Some perceived concerns may be minor issues or temporary frustrations, and can be let go.
Source: Pexels/Piacquadio

All couples have ups and downs in their relationships, and it is hard to know how to address these. Should you bring up concerns when they happen? Think about them for a while? Ignore them?

In healthy relationships, there is a mix of all these options, and it takes reflection and practice to determine which is the best for your situation. For example, it is often helpful to consider whether your concern is urgent. Do you need to speak up, or would it help to think about what has happened, and why you are upset? Maybe there were other things contributing to your bad mood, or you might have misinterpreted what happened. You might have contributed to the problem in a way that you aren’t seeing right now. Sometimes it is good to let the dust settle to see clearly.

Speaking Up

If you determine something should be addressed, how should you do it? Some relationship weeds should be dealt with before they spread and take root. Working on concerns is stressful, so it is good to set the stage. A conversation will go better if a partner says: “I don’t want us to fight, and I don’t want to have bad feelings, but I do want to talk about something.” This primes both for an accurate conversation and helps defenses stay lowered.

In one of my studies on escalation, we watched couples problem solve, and when one stated their intentions, it generally had a good effect on the process. Examples included questions: “So, how should I confront you about your house?” “What do we need to do then to get … to where there doesn’t have to be someone around to keep us from fighting?” They also made requests: “Talk with me about it. Ask me why I am mad.” And, “I wish you would just speak your mind a little bit more and … I’ll try to see it your way. I just want you to be a little more open.”

When addressing an issue, it is crucial to start the conversation well, because then it will end well. About 96 percent of the time, a conversation will end the way it begins in its first 3 minutes. If you start with a calm statement or question, the conversation will have a different outcome than if you accuse with guns blazing and emotions erupting. Staying respectful is crucial, and it is important to be honest, kind, and responsible.

One way to take ownership is to use what are sometimes called “I-messages.” This means you speak about your own concerns and feelings rather than accusing the other. For instance, it is better to say, “I am hurt when you won’t get off your Instagram when we are talking,” than, “You insensitive jerk!”

Partners should also avoid extreme statements. Ultimatums like, “If you are late one more time, we are through!” make negotiation impossible. When divorce is used as a threat, the brain becomes negative and preoccupied with splitting up. This makes it more likely partners will dwell on how great other potential mates seem to be, and how annoying their current one is.

Conversing partners also need to stick with the issue of concern, and not throw in every complaint they have had since the day they met. The brain can juggle multiple things, but when too many are put on the table, awareness shuts down. This is especially true when the issues are tense. A fire hydrant of words will not persuade, but only flood the room and the listener.

Standing Down

Conversations are important, but it is good to know when to leave things unsaid. Many irritants in a relationship are simply part of two imperfect people living together, and if each minor bump is brought up, it gets exhausting. When your partner leaves crumbs on the desk or talks to the waiter in a way you aren’t thrilled with, it might not matter. Many frustrations will pass, and some are caused by your own emotions or biases. Mature couples sometimes let things roll and are judicious when choosing which issues to hash out. The next time you find the socks folded the wrong way, you can decide whether it is worth pointing out, or whether you take three seconds and fix it.

Lola Walters learned this lesson as a newlywed when she read in a magazine that to strengthen a marriage, a couple should tell each other all the things that bothered them. She said:

We were to name five things we found annoying, and I started off … I told him that I didn’t like the way he ate grapefruit. He peeled it and ate it like an orange! Nobody else I knew ate grapefruit like that. Could a girl be expected to spend a lifetime, and even eternity, watching her husband eat grapefruit like an orange? … After I finished [with my five], it was his turn to tell the things he disliked about me … [He] said, "Well, to tell the truth, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about you, Honey."


I quickly turned my back, because I didn’t know how to explain the tears that had filled my eyes and were running down my face.

Like Lola, sometimes we are unnecessarily critical. When you address a concern, are you doing it for the wrong reasons? To prove something? To put the other in their place? Or, are you genuinely trying to work through something important? Answering these questions will help you know whether to speak up or stand down and let go.

Facebook image: Justlight/Shutterstock


Jason B. Whiting, and Jaclyn D. Cravens, "Escalating, Accusing, and Rationalizing: A Model of Distortion and Interaction in Couple Conflict," Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy (2015): 1-26. DOI: 10.1080/15332691.2015.1055417

Michael Fulwiler, “The 6 Things That Predict Divorce: The first step toward improving or enhancing your marriage is to understand what happens when relationships fail,” Blog post retrieved from the Gottman Institute, October 10, 2014.

Lola Walters, “The Grapefruit Syndrome,” Ensign, (April, 1993, p. 13).

More from Jason Whiting Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today