How to Bring Up the Tough Stuff

By Rachel Zar, LMFT

Most couples have a list of issues that continue to pop up during conflict even when the initial battle was about something totally different. Maybe you started off being irritated by your partner’s dirty dishes in the sink, but then you’re suddenly having a blowout about your feelings about their mother. How did you get there? Why did you go there now? Indeed, the vulnerable issues that live just below the surface often emerge unexpectedly at the worst possible moments.

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It stands to reason that you’d be more equipped to handle the toughest, most sensitive issues when things are otherwise going well. You’re relaxed, you’re connected, and you’re open to hearing your partner’s side. But I often hear from clients that these are also the moments that it feels nearly impossible to bring up a tough topic. After all, why would you introduce a conversation that has the potential to ruin a good, drama-free moment? It feels much more natural to bring up a tornado of negative feelings during a fight because you simply don’t feel that you have as much to lose. Once you’re at war, your instincts tell you to bring out all the ammunition in your arsenal. However, this just makes these conversations so much harder than they have to be.

Instead, I invite you to bring your relationship concerns up in a more intentional way—and, yes, that means bringing them up at a time when everything is actually going well. If you’re in therapy, this is an amazing space to do just that. When my clients say to me, “Everything’s going well, so we don’t have anything to talk about,” I encourage them to use the we’re-doing-well feeling as a foundation for talking about the harder topics.

But how can you avoid blindsiding your partner with an issue during a lovely or benign moment? Enter: the meta conversation. Have a conversation with your partner about the conversation you’d like to have. Gain their buy in first, and the interaction that follows is guaranteed to go much more smoothly.

Here are a few examples of how to do that:

  • “I’d like to have a conversation about something that’s bugging me. Is now a good time?”

  • “I have some thoughts that I’ve been nervous to tell you. Are you in a place where you can hear them?”

  • “I’ve noticed that I’m feeling irritated by something you’ve done. Would it be OK if I told you about it?”

A few important things are happening here: First, each of these statements begins with the word “I” instead of the word “you.” “I feel irritated by one of your habits” instead of “You have an irritating habit” makes a huge difference in preventing defensiveness from your partner.

Second, each of these statements end in a question – a request for buy in that may receive a yes or a no. Wait for an answer before you bring up the issue at hand. If your partner says, “No, it’s not a good time,” respect that, and ask when a better time would be. Once your partner has been able to emotionally prepare, they may be able to lean in instead of putting up defenses. The good news is that if you’re able to bring up the tough conversations with a loving and thoughtful meta-conversation, you’ll set yourself and your partner up for success, and you may actually come out of it feeling more connected than when you started.