How to Talk About the Things You Don't Want to Talk About

Start by remembering that even if you're right, they may not be wrong.

Posted Jun 29, 2016

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In my extensive work with couples, I’ve repeatedly observed partners that can’t—or sometimes decide not to—talk about things that are vital to their relationship. The discussion topics declared “off-limits," however, are precisely those that brought them (at their wit’s end) into counseling. As a therapist, one of my central challenges in these situations is to show the couple how they can safely broach subjects they find provocative or inflammatory.

Unable to amicably discuss such issues, the couple—assuming they’ve already given up arguing about the topics, despite being continually frustrated by them—have developed the “tactic” of begrudgingly resigning themselves to a situation, or are in some sort of hopeless denial about its existence. That’s commonly the case with couples—going from fighting for what they want and need from the relationship, to protecting themselves from it.

The happiness and well-being of your own union might depend on improved communication, so I'll suggest ways to talk with your partner that can be implemented right away. These methods are simple enough to describe, but you may have to do some serious soul-searching before you’re able to put them into practice.

Improving the quality of your relationship is partly about learning new, more effective communication skills. Yet, immeasurably more important than this, it’s about coming from a very different “place” when addressing your grievances with a partner. You must perceive your partner in a markedly different, more positive light. If you harbor hostility or bear ill will toward your partner, it’s safe to say that regardless of how you initiate a difficult dialogue with them, it's doomed from the start.

If you want to talk persuasively about an issue that’s been hard to discuss in the past, the first thing you need to do is let go of any lingering anger relating to it. If you can’t neutralize your irritation and instead approach your partner antagonistically, they’re no doubt going to feel attacked. And if that’s their experience, they’ll feel compelled (whether from anxiety or annoyance) to attack right back, to commit all of their energy toward defending themselves, or disengage from you completely. None of these reactions will help you move the matter toward a mutually acceptable resolution.

Of the countless examples available (especially in the sexual arena), let’s look at a fairly common relationship situation that demonstrates how communicating your frustrations differently can result in a satisfying conclusion: Say your partner is considerably less organized than you are, and up until now you haven’t been able to get beyond your resentment toward them for not changing their ways, despite all of your well-meaning suggestions and advice. Before anything else, you need to give up your indignation about what you see as their stubborn, unreasonable refusal to cooperate with you.

Are you really willing to let go of your self-justifying sense of righteousness on the matter—and, frankly, your sense of superiority as well? And if you are, just how are you supposed to accomplish that feat?

Disgruntled partners often pose these questions to me. Some people feel that holding grudges against their partners in such situations is totally “legitimate.” It’s only human nature for these people to regard themselves as better than their partner. To suspend or relinquish their viewpoint seems almost tantamount to surrendering to something they really shouldn’t have to capitulate to at all.

There are many good reasons for a person to accept that their partner’s untidy disorganization is simply part of who they are. If that’s how this person emerged from the womb (regardless of whether you realized this when you decided to make a life with them), you must choose either to leave the relationship or adapt to what you may not be able to change.

Beyond that, if you stop faulting your partner for something that perhaps isn’t hard-wired but merely “programmed” by their early environment (i.e., a conditioned habit that is potentially changeable), it’s likely that you will approach them differently. Doing so involves focusing on your personal discomfiture instead of their inadequacies; the result is that your partner becomes much more likely to at least try to alter his or her behavior. Your partner will be more motivated to meet your standards once you stop badgering them about the disarray they leave behind.

If you can approach someone with more patience and forbearing, more empathy and understanding, they’ll be far less inclined to continue to battle you over something that really is hard for them to change. Such an attitudinal shift on your part stands a good chance of prompting a greater willingness to accommodate your desires than belittling them does.

To begin to engage your partner differently, here’s what has to happen: You must begin to appreciate—truly appreciate—that their behavior or perspective is, from their point of view, just as valid as your own. Their priorities or values may differ from yours, but that doesn’t make them bad or wrong. You need to see your partner as not intentionally (or malignantly) trying to make you miserable. They're simply doing pretty much what they’ve always done—they have likely been behaving this way before you even met them. Remember that their wants and needs are just as important to them as yours are to you. Finally, you have to accept the fact that you have shortcomings or challenges, just as they do.

To come from a more tolerant position, you might open your discussion by saying something like this:

Look, I know that being neat and organized doesn’t come as naturally to you as it does me. And I know I’ve constantly put you down for not promptly getting to the dishes in the sink, or leaving things on the floor, or not making our mortgage payment till the last minute. But now I’m thinking that maybe all this hounding is unfair to you—that maybe I’ve even been bullying you.

I’m realizing that you are who you are. And I’m just starting to get how much all of my put-downs are at the heart of so much of the friction between us. I’ll be honest—if you'd make more of an effort to be mindful about putting things away, or getting to the laundry sooner, or anything I typically gripe to you about, it’d make me a lot less tense and a lot more comfortable. But all the same, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve made the decision that from now on, I’m not going to nag you about it.

At this point I doubt that it seems this way to you, but you and our relationship are more important to me than making you feel that it’s always “my way or the highway.” I want you to know that if there’s something about me that’s been bothering you, this would be a good time to share it with me. I’ll do my best to listen to you in a way that maybe I haven’t been able to before. I really want our relationship to be better, and I don’t want you to see me as constantly making “demands” on you, as you’ve been telling me. Sure, I’ll still have the same preferences—that’s just me—but I’m not going to let you doing things your way get to me the way they have up until now.

Note how in this example, the frustrated spouse is making the most caring, sincere effort possible to look at the ongoing relationship problem from their partner’s perspective—and to see their partner’s contrasting mindset with greater understanding, empathy, and compassion. For the sake of the relationship’s harmony and closeness (vs. their own self-interest), they’re more willing to accept the current state of affairs as it is, and to back off from the pressures that they’ve previously put on their spouse to change. Although this altered stance may not necessarily lead to their partner’s changing as much as they want, it should at least increase their partner’s motivation to try, because they can now feel much more comfortable about not trying.

Obviously, if disorderliness is a “genetic” phenomenon (see, e.g., Nature’s Thumbprint, Columbia University Press, 1996), a partner's capacity for such change will be minimal. But if their disorganized behaviors are more of a habit than anything else—perhaps because their parents never properly “socialized” them to clean up after themselves, or virtually “taught” them to be sloppy and absent-minded through their own chaotic behaviors—it may be that with sufficient motivation and effort, it’s within their power to make changes.

Either way, if you show your partner more empathy and stop routinely pestering or degrading them, they’ll be more likely to “return the favor” and—newly empathic toward you—consider how their disorderliness may have caused you discomfort. And that’s something that may not have been possible before because their attention was focused on feeling verbally pummeled by you.

What you want to achieve is an attitudinal shift on your partner's part, by modeling it for them. You’ve determined that your overall commitment to the relationship is more important than a behavior you’ve always disliked—and that you’ve let yourself be aggravated by. You’ve also decided that your relationship—and the emotional safety of the relationship—ultimately outweighs your concern about whether he or she is as neat and orderly as you’d prefer.

Does it make sense to you that continuing to fight a battle you’ve never succeeded in winning—and doing so in the way you always have—is kind of crazy? And that change will only come through approaching your partner differently? Only when you're able to do this can you be instrumental in creating the change you desire. Or you can simply begin to accept, with an open heart, what your partner can't change.

I’ve written many other posts on relationships that complement this one:

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© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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