How to Have Difficult Conversations with your Spouse
Most people, when asked to imagine one of the most distressing difficult conversations they could have, quickly picture that demanding boss, underperforming coworker, or disappointed coach as the other party.
Rarely do we picture a person close to us.
Yet, the most difficult conversations we can face are the ones we have with the people we love the most—our spouse or significant other.
Why is that? What makes a difficult conversation with a spouse more difficult than one with a friend or coworker?
The answer is simple—RISK.
One of the key principles of what makes a difficult conversation so difficult is the issue of risk—what is at stake and how will this hurt me?
This principle is amplified in an intimate relationship. Because we know each other so well and are relating to one another in such close quarters—we have access to one another’s deepest vulnerabilities.
When a conversation gets heated, not only is the opportunity to get hurt so much higher, the stakes are as well. If the conversation doesn’t go well, we are running the risk of pulling our committed relationship or marriage apart.
Obviously, difficult conversations do (and will continue to) come up in a committed relationship. But when the risk is so high—how do you approach them?
Prioritize the Relationship
You have to prioritize the relationship over winning an argument. As a committed couple, you are in this together.
Frame the conversation you are having with your spouse in a way that will strengthen the relationship—don’t frame it to win the argument.
There is a great deal of research out there that takes the following position, Show me how a couple fights, and I will tell you if their marriage will last.
We joke about this at times, but the reality of the statement is sobering.
Do you approach difficult conversations in such a way that you end up hurting or destroying one another in the process—or are you able to say very difficult things to one another while keeping your commitment to the relationship as the priority?
Define the Rules of Engagement
When we are living with someone, difficult conversations pop up rapidly and sometimes explode on us. So often, difficult conversations in a relationship are not something you can plan for.
That is why it is important to set up agreed rules of engagement at the beginning of a relationship.
- Agree to ask each other, “Is now the best time to have the conversation?” Give one another permission to call a time-out when either of you feels that the conversation is taking a turn for the worse or you are not ready to dialogue about the issue at hand.
- Look to the fruit of the conversation. If the conversation starts to turn destructive, make an agreement that you are not willing to put the relationship at risk and shut it down.
- Think about the timing and place. For example, you may want to establish a rule that you will not fight in front of your children.
Don’t Let It Turn Destructive
Once a conversation turns destructive, it is time to shut it down.
Destructive conversations are not productive and can actually do a great deal of harm to the relationship.
If you find that you are starting to resort to name-calling, verbal attacks, or looking for ways to take the legs out from under your spouse or significant other—STOP THE CONVERSATION.
Take a step back from the moment, regroup, and then return to the subject when you have your emotions better managed.
A word to the wise—if you find that your tendency is to resort to destructive tactics in a difficult conversation with your spouse, it may be advisable to bring in a third-party to help work through the conflict.
Acknowledge That There Are Different Perspectives
“We don’t live in a shared reality, we each live in a reality of our own, and causing upset is often the price of trying to reach each other. It’s always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time-consuming process of understanding them. We have given taking offense a social status it doesn’t deserve: it’s not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.” —Frankie Boyle
Most of us come into a committed relationship with some kind of model of relating to a spouse. We bring a whole set of perspectives, thought processes, and paradigms. As the quote above so aptly states—we have our own reality.
Our different perspectives inform the expectations we place on our significant other. Oftentimes, those expectations are so ingrained in our view of a “relationship” that we do not feel the need to vocalize them.
Have you ever heard or made the statement, “If you really love me, I shouldn’t have to tell you what I need from you.”
It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that the highest percent of difficult conversations in a committed relationship are tied to the issue of unmet expectations.
Growing up, my mom did all of the housework. She did all of the cooking, cleaning, and anything else related to the general running of the household. My dad worked during the day, and at night, he got to relax. My only model of what marital life looked like was the example my parents gave me.
That is not the model my wife had. She grew up in a family where the responsibilities were evenly shared.
We were a couple of years into our marriage before my wife got to the point where she had had enough of all of the household management resting on her shoulders. I felt horrible. What was a huge frustration point for her, had completely gone unnoticed by me because of our different expectations.
Expectations around money, child-rearing, sexuality, and roles need to be talked about. Recognize that you need to clarify the issue of expectations and realize that we don’t have a shared reality.
It is a given that we are going to upset one another in the process of growing in relationship. But that is the price we must pay if we are really going to get to know one another.
We have talked at length about our Six-Step Process for Becoming Effective at Difficult Conversations. All of the six-steps have important implications and applications in the context of marriage. The rules of engagement don’t shift, they just become amplified in a committed relationship.
These are just a few insights that will help you navigate those critical conversations in your life and career, but there’s so much more.
There are powerful tools that can really help you become more effective, and we at Ember Learning are here to help. With over 25 years of professional consulting in top businesses around the country, we want to share some of our top insights with you.
Download our FREE PDF “15 Ways to Turn Hard Conversations into Win-Win Dialogue” now!