Having a conversation about a difficult topic can bring up a lot of anxiety in both partners. If there is already a history of difficult conversations ending in argument, partners get into a cycle of avoiding sensitive topics, creating a ticking time bomb in their relationship.
Arguments are a natural part of all relationships. But if they occur too often or include unhealthy aspects, relationships suffer. Here is a step by step guide on how to address sensitive topics and avoid them turning into heated fights.
Step 1: Identify a good time to talk. If you want to bring up a topic, ask your partner if now is a good time to talk. As the partner who is asked, be sure you are truly relaxed and ready for a conversation, otherwise your unrelated stress will come out in the discussion and make the situation more tense. If there is any doubt, suggest another time.
Sanjana: I wanted to talk to you about something. Is now a good time?
Kapil: What is it about?
Sanjana: Preparing for your parents’ arrival to visit us in a couple of months.
Kapil: (thinking for a minute) That sounds like a serious conversation. I had a really long day at work and I was hoping to de-stress tonight. Can we do it later?
Sanjana: Sure. When is a good time?
Kapil: (looking at his calendar) How about Thursday night?
Step 2: Use “I” statements to explain how you feel. Speak slowly, clearly and carefully. Starting softly ensures that your partner will be less likely to be defensive and is more likely to listen carefully to what you say. If either of you feel defensive, take a break (even if the conversation started 5 minutes ago) and resume in 20 minutes when you both have calmed down.
“You become really distant whenever we’re around your parents and always take their side.”
Sanjana should try:
“I am worried that our relationship will feel stress when your parents arrive. It makes me feel sad and alone when they come because I feel like we lose our connection.”
She’s saying the exact same thing, but focusing on how his behavior makes her feel instead of blaming him for doing something wrong.
Step 3: As the listener, as clarifying questions. If you don’t understand something that your partner said, ask to clarify. If you notice yourself becoming upset by something they said, take a break immediately. Walk away for at least 20 minutes and then resume your conversation. Talking through feelings of defensiveness and hurt only lead to flooding which often ends in arguments and hurting your relationship further.
Kapil: I don’t understand. What specifically do you think we lose in our connection?
Sanjana: I feel like we don’t talk as much as we normally do and I sometimes feel as if you think your parents are right more often than I am.
This allows your partner to have an open forum to discuss their concerns and feelings and for you to truly understand what he or she is trying to say.
Step 4: Summarize. As the listener, once you have gained clarification on what your partner is saying to you, summarize what you heard your partner say. This will help identify any sources of miscommunication before you attempt to resolve the situation. Miscommunication and misunderstanding is a source of many repeated arguments between couples. If you find yourself becoming resentful during the summary, stop immediately and take at least a 20 minute break. If you have been listening without thinking about your response back to your partner’s feelings, there should be minimal misunderstanding.
Kapil: So let me see if I got this correct. You are worried that when my parents come, I think of you as less important to me than they are. You feel like I like them better than you and you feel like the 4th wheel and as if you don’t belong in the family. Is that right?
After the summary, always ask if you got it right to allow your partner to make any corrections. It is their experience so they should be able to correct it so that you can see their full their experience. Once corrected, repeat this step until your partner feels you understand.
Step 5: Validate and empathize. This step is to help your partner feel as if you can put yourself in their shoes and that you can see their point of view as a legitimate one, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. Validation often begins with sentences such as, “I can understand why you feel…” or “I can see why…” or “It makes sense to me that…”. Validation should never be attempted if you, as the listener, are feeling resentful or defensive as that will make this step backfire and you will be on the road to a larger argument.
Kapil: I can understand why you’d feel like you don’t belong in the family when my parents come. We have a lot of inside jokes and we speak a different language than you which can feel isolating. I also can see why you feel like I might like them better than you. I focus on them a lot during their visit and like to do what they want to do even if that means going out of our comfort zone or routine just to make them happy.
As the listener, provide empathy by identifying how you imagine your partner must feel in the situation that they are addressing. This will help your partner to feel as if you understand the entire experience of what they are unhappy with. Some partners, when sharing their experiences, may tell you how it makes them feel and if they do you can repeat it back to them to show you heard them or you can attempt to guess another emotion based on how well you know your partner.
Kapil: I understand that must make you feel lonely (repeating something Sanjana shared herself) and I can imagine it might also make you feel resentful (adding something that he thinks that Sanjana never shared).
Allow your partner to respond about whether that’s how he/she actually feels and ask clarifying questions until you understand where your partner is coming from.
Sanjana: I don’t feel resentful but maybe more rejected.
If done properly, your partner should feel comforted and open to moving on to the next stage in the conversation. If they don’t, repeat this step until they feel understood.
Step 6: Switch and repeat. As the speaker, if you feel completely understood and empathized with, offer to repeat Steps 1-5 with your partner so they have a chance to speak their mind as well. If now is not a good time for your partner, or you feel that as the new listener you cannot provide an open mind or a calm conversation, make a date for when Step 6 can occur. It is better to do this step another day than to do it when you are feeling resentful, misunderstood or stressed.
If these steps are done correctly, by the end of Step 6, it will become significantly easier to identify a compromise and solution for the situation. Often, terrible arguments occur because one or both partners feel misunderstood, resentful and unappreciated.
The key to avoid these pitfalls is to make sure the conversation moves very slowly. In fact, if you have a strong history of fast moving, heated arguments that escalate quickly, count to 5 before you say anything. If the conversation moves slowly, you are more likely to think about what you will say before you say it and will be more likely to make better decisions as a couple.
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