The Advice That Will Make Tough Relationship Conversations Easier

Conflict is arguably the least-fun part of a relationship. Even if you don't mind confrontation, it can still be hard to talk to your partner about something you know will be challenging.

"Tough conversations are just that — they’re tough to have, they make people feel anxious and uncomfortable, and you want to avoid them a lot of the time, so they often are prolonged in terms of even happening," says Jane Greer, PhD, New York-based relationship expert and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship.

And the thing is, letting things sit could make it even worse. Sometimes, that old adage is true: You just have to rip off the Band-Aid.

That being said, if you're really having a hard time bringing up an issue, or if you think you'd get more out of the conversation with an objective third party, you might consider seeing a couples therapist. (And yes, you can do that, even if there isn't a major issue.)

"Ultimately, a good option is to have difficult conversations that you’re finding aren’t getting you anywhere with a trained therapist," says Kristin Zeising, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist in San Diego. "That way, you could have a container so that things don’t spiral out of control, but aren’t on public display either, while getting some tips on how to communicate more effectively."

If you don't feel like the problem at hand requires professional help, but still want advice on how to have an open, frank discussion, our experts have broken down what you should know about having a tough conversation with a partner.

illustrated by Paola Delucca.
How should you bring it up?

When you're initiating a conversation that you know will be difficult, Dr. Greer says that the best way to go into it is to broach the topic with empathy and consideration for the other person.

"You can say something like, 'Look, I want to talk to you — I know what I'm about to say might not be easy to hear, but it's really important that we talk about this,'" she says.

While you're having the conversation, make sure that you're talking about your feelings, and not telling them how they feel (aka use "I" statements). And try to talk about their behaviors, rather than attacking them as a person.
illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Is a private conversation the way to go?

There are definite pros to having the conversation in private — it gives you the chance to have a longer conversation, and it gives your partner room for an emotional response.

Plus, Zeising says, "You can say what is truly on your mind without feeling like you could be embarrassed. You’re less on stage. You don’t have to feel like other people could hear what you’re having to say. And you want to be able to speak openly without fear of repercussions from other peoples opinions."

On the other hand, Zeising says that, in private, you might feel like there are less boundaries, and you're less likely to hold yourself back from saying something that you can't take back.

And, as Dr. Greer points out, if you're having a conversation at your home (or the other person's home, if you don't live together), it can be harder to end the conversation and leave — particularly if you feel like you might get guilted into staying longer than you want to, or you end up in a in a situation where the other person refuses to leave and you're forced to kick them out.
illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Or should you talk in public?

A public setting could be best if you want to avoid a long, drawn-out conversation. You could go to a casual cafe, or as Zeising suggests, go for a walk in the park, since walking side-by-side with someone might make the conversation feel less threatening and make it easier for you to express your feelings (sitting directly across from somebody can feel intimidating).

"You might feel like you are keeping it together or being more respectful because others can watch you," Zeising says. "You may be more thoughtful about the words you choose and the tone you take with your partner so you don’t make a scene, which ultimately might lead to a more grounded and calm conversation."

But obviously, if you're not comfortable with a potential audience, or you have the feeling this talk might lead to a fight, you might not want to air out your grievances in public.

"You have to know that you’re not reactive or not subject to bouts of temper or raising your voice, and that the person you’re talking to will also will remain calm," Dr. Greer says.

And Zeising points out that if you're hyper-aware of being watched, that could have an effect on how honest or candid you are during a conversation.

"I don’t think many people want the experience of others watching their fights with the concern that they might feel judged," Zeising says. "The sense of being on display can impact the conversation negatively and get in the way of honest communication."
illustrated by Paola Delucca.
What should you do if the other person doesn't react well?

Whether you're in public or not, there's still a chance that the other person won't take what you have to say in stride. (That's probably part of what makes the conversation so difficult in the first place.)

"Be prepared for if the person gets blindsided," Dr. Greer says, adding that whatever you're discussing might have been a long-festering issue for you, but your partner might not react well if they don't see it that way. If they ask how long you've been feeling this way, be honest — especially if you have been thinking about it for a long time. Doing so can help communicate that this is something you've been considering, instead of an intentional sucker-punch.

"You don’t want to get wired back into a situation out of guilt," Dr. Greer says. "Say something like, 'I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I didn’t want to act hastily.' You can relate to the pain and the distress that they’re feeling in that moment, and it might help them to calm down."
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