How to Talk About The Tough Stuff

February 24, 2013

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We are proud to have the below insights from Adam D. Blum, MFT on how to discuss challenging topics with your partner. As a licensed psychotherapist, Adam has worked with gay individuals and couples. In addition, his advice has been informed from his relationship of over 24 years. We sincerely appreciate his contribution and hope that you will find the below tips helpful in strengthening your relationship. 

There is an essential skill that every couple needs:  how to successfully talk about the touchy subjects that typically end in fights and hurt feelings.

Here’s how you do it.

It’s About You

First, you only talk about yourself.  You do not bring up him.  You do not say, “You keep ignoring me.”  You say something like, “I’ve been noticing that I’ve been feeling lonely lately.”  Notice that there is a “feeling” word in that sentence.  That’s another important element:  you identify and then share a feeling.

One reason this approach works is that you are the expert on yourself.  No one can tell you with authority that you aren’t feeling lonely, or sad, or vulnerable, or hurt.  So this technique tends to shut down a fruitless debate.

The other reason this approach helps is that you are not attacking your partner, which of course would only make him defensive and inspire a counter attack.  You are simply stating your own experience.  Try not to make it about him.  It’s about you.  It’s your feeling, not his.

If you really try to own the notion that it is about you then you are more likely to evoke your partner’s empathy and curiosity.  Most of us are interested in stories about other people.  This is why gossip, books, and movies are so popular.  But few of us welcome negative assessments about ourselves.

When you commit to focusing on you it is also easier to let go of the blame in your tone.  He’s going to notice if your words are about you but your tone sounds like you are blaming him.  So keep asking yourself the question, “What happens inside of me when my partner does that thing?”  Start talking about what happens inside of you rather than about that specific thing your partner does that you can’t stand.

You’ll Need Structure

This process works much better with structure.  You take turns:  one person speaks from the “I position” and shares what he knows about his own feelings on a subject for a minute or two.  The other person listens without speaking at all.  Then the listener reflects back what he heard his partner say.  This feedback gives the talker the opportunity to say, “Yes, you heard me” or, “You heard most of what I said but I think you may have missed this part.”

Then you switch roles.  This exercise is a key component of most couples counseling, but many couples can also do this at home without a therapist present.

It may sound easy, but it takes practice.  The listener will often find himself triggered by what the speaker is saying and then he’ll stop listening.  So it can take some time to learn to keep coming back to really hear your partner.

Here’s why this process is so central to healing from hurt and mistrust in relationships.  What we really want most from our partners is to be heard.  If we feel deeply heard—if we truly believe our partner really gets what we are experiencing—we can forgive most kinds of actions.

This practice, when repeated regularly, can bring us to a place of empathy.  And that is just what is needed for intimate, effective communication.

Adam D. Blum, MFT is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco specializing in relationship and self-esteem issues for gay men. He writes a blog on these topics at http://gaytherapist-sanfrancisco.com/blog.  His work is informed by his own gay relationship of 24 years.  He has been helping gay men and couples build better relationships for over ten years.