Having been in numerous relationships throughout my life, I have learned a lot about behaviors that either support or damage a relationship. And unsurprisingly, open, honest communication is one of the most important ways to keep your relationship healthy and happy.
I recently had a fight with my boyfriend about how we weren’t effectively communicating. As a result of both sides being closed off and uncommunicative over the past couple of weeks, assumptions and misunderstandings engendered a fight. It wasn’t until both sides were willing to be vulnerable that we were able to hear each other out and come to a solution.
If there’s something that’s been bothering you and you don’t know how to bring it up to your significant other, below are five tips on how to prepare yourself for a conversation in a healthy and non-emotionally charged way.
(These tips are useful in other types of relationships as well! Being a good communicator in all aspects of your life is definitely a wonderful skill to have.)
5 Tips on How to Handle a Difficult Conversation
1. Write down what you are feeling
Journaling is a great way for you to understand exactly what you’re feeling. A lot of times we’ll discover that we’re not really angry about what we think. Our brains can convince us of something through the lens and perception of the past. Projecting these past traumas or hurts onto your current partner and present situation can be damaging to the relationship.
Writing out how you're feeling and asking yourself, “Why am I feeling this?” can provide clarity and help you get to the root of the situation.
For instance, I was mad at my boyfriend the other day for not calling when he said he would. I projected this to mean that he didn’t care about me and took me for granted. What had actually happened was that he was in the middle of a conversation that needed to finish before he could call me. Since our phone call wasn’t anything serious, it could easily have waited, but I took it to mean something more.
And even underlying that, was a feeling that I am not respected or respecting myself for allowing myself to wait around for a man, which I told myself I wouldn't do anymore. I felt like my values were being compromised and took it out on the situation without gathering all the information. Asking myself, "Why am I feeling this?" allowed me a lot more clarity into the root of the problem—which is usually deeper than the surface of the situation.
The above instance is a familiar example of what happens in relationships when resentment builds over time because something was not communicated. Keeping a regular journaling practice will allow you to stay in touch with your feelings and bring up moments of hurt before they pass by unnoticed and build into a resentment that clouds future situations.
2. Write down what you want to say
When we have a difficult conversation we are trying to deal with, we can easily allow our emotions to rule our thoughts and speech. Bullet points are extremely helpful when designing how you want to direct the conversation.
Nerves can take over when you are finally talking to the person. Without some kind of structure you may forget what really matters in the conversation and end up disorganized and feeling like you didn’t fully express yourself or say what you wanted.
Bullet points allow you to know the clarity of what you want to say and still allow the flow of the conversation to come more naturally than just a script. By proactively highlighting your main talking points you will have confidence that you’re going into the conversation prepared.
I find that when I can write down my thoughts before a difficult conversation I am more confident and I am happier with the end result, even if the other person doesn’t respond in the way I hoped. The most important part is that I am clear and concise with my feelings and am able to express myself without forgetting or getting distracted.
3. Remember the Sandwich Method
The Sandwich Method is something I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy. It provides a framework for a mature conversation with the desire to be supportive and solution-minded rather than focusing on blame.
The way it works is like a sandwich: you have bread on the outside, which are statements of positivity, and the filling of the sandwich is the topic you want to discuss about how your partner has been negatively affecting you and what you would like them to change.
An example of this would be:
Bread: I really love how thoughtful you are when you make dinner for us.
Veggie burger: However, just like how I do the dishes when you make dinner, I would appreciate you doing the dishes when I make dinner.
Bread: That way we’re both pulling equal loads and I feel loved and supported and I hope you do too.
Of course, for more complex matters there will be more of a full sandwich and conversation, but this is the structure for which you can shape your difficult conversation around. Stick with positivity when suggesting behavior change or when bringing up something difficult and your partner will be much more receptive.
4. Stay open-hearted and vulnerable
Oftentimes in arguments we can become self-righteous—only able to see our side of the conflict and viewing the other person as wrong and the one who needs to change. This will lead us to keeping our walls up and block the flow of love.
Even though we’re hurt and probably afraid, one of the most important things to remember is to stay vulnerable. This will create an environment that will allow the other person to feel safe being vulnerable as well.
Remembering to set the stage, so to speak, in the way you want to be received is especially important if you’re the one instigating the difficult conversation. Set yourself, and your partner, up to succeed.
Try to recall all the ways you love your significant other before going into the conversation. This will allow you to focus on gratitude and love rather than becoming closed off and guarded. If you want your partner to respond to you with love and compassion and understanding, you need to be the one to do the same.
5. Ask yourself, Would I rather be happy or right?
Honestly, I usually have to pause and truly reflect on this one. When I’m in the heat of the moment, I want to be right, but in the long run, I’d rather be happy. It’s this inner conflict of my ego needing to be right which will lead to resistance and my boyfriend feeling attacked.
I realized that when I’m feeling this flare up of ego, what I’m actually wanting is to be seen. If I feel like my boyfriend isn’t seeing me clearly or isn’t trying to understand my feelings, I am hurt. My wounded-ness turns into defensiveness and I'm much more likely to strike outward and forget Tip #4.
So many of my relationships failed because I allowed my ego and fear to run my decisions and actions. Afraid to have deep and meaningful conversations that could have saved most of my relationships, I was convinced I was right and justified in my feelings and ended relationships out of self-righteousness and pride.
These days, and in my current relationship, I have to remind myself of this question.
Do I want to be right or be happy?
The answer will change depending on my mood, but once I allow myself time and space away from an emotional situation and do the above suggested tips, I can generally find myself back in a place of level-headedness.
Above All, Remember This
Relationships are hard. Communication is hard because it forces you to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is scary. Thankfully, I have a partner who encourages me to come back to love and communicate with him. Granted, he doesn’t always receive me in the way I want, but after he has had his time to practice the above advice, he comes back open-hearted and vulnerable.
In the moments when I feel like communication can’t solve my relationship problems, I’m usually wrong. After my boyfriend and I finally communicate, I realize that we have a solid relationship and the fact that we can communicate vulnerably (eventually) makes me feel closer and more in love with him.
If you’re determined to have a loving relationship, you can learn skills to foster that kind of environment with your partner. It takes work and commitment, but can provide a beautifully safe space for love to blossom.
Remember, choosing ego over love will only lead to disconnection.
Choosing love is the most important thing to do in a relationship, and if both parties are doing that, conversations and communication are going to be much easier and more supportive to the development and growth of a healthy and happy relationship.
Brittany Noelle Roa is an interdisciplinary artist with an MFA in Physical Theatre who uses her art and creativity to heal herself and others. She loves learning about health and wellness so she can optimize her human potential to live a full and happy life.