How to Have a Difficult Conversation with Your Partner

by Helene Brenner | Jun 20, 2022 | Art of Feeling, Emotional Intimacy

Setting the Stage

Has your partner been doing something for a while that’s bothering you so much you want to talk to them about it? 

Is there a problem going on in your shared life together that you know needs to be dealt with, and your partner’s not on board yet?

Do you have a secret you need to share with your partner and you don’t know how they’ll react?

Then you’re wanting to have a “difficult conversation.” 

This is the beginning of a series on how to have difficult conversations with your partner and other important people in your life in a way that will bring you closer rather than further apart.

Difficult Conversations Are Not—Well—Easy 

Practically no one looks forward to initiating a difficult conversation. Difficult conversations, by definition, are risky. They make you feel emotionally vulnerable. They can make your relationship feel less secure, or even shake it to the core. You might hurt your partner  with what you say. You might get hurt by how your partner reacts. It’s perfectly understandable, then, why you might want to avoid having one. 

Nevertheless, there are times when having a difficult conversation is necessary to maintaining a close, emotionally connected and intimate relationship. There comes a point when pretending that everything’s okay just doesn’t work anymore. On the positive side, getting through difficult conversations successfully makes intimate relationships stronger, more stable and more emotionally intimate. 

So how do you do? Especially when your partner’s someone who’s good at avoiding things?

One of the hardest parts of having a difficult conversation is getting one started. We’re intuitively aware that a false start can derail the conversation before it really begins, and make it harder to revisit the issue later. That’s why setting the stage for your conversation may be the most important step for ensuring its success. 

Here are some pointers on how to set the stage for a difficult conversation.

First, a Caveat

But before we talk about having a difficult conversation, let’s get something clear: If your partner habitually reacts to the slightest hint of criticism from you by screaming and yelling at you for hours, or by threatening physical harm to you or themselves, or by punishing you with withdrawal or silence for days (or even longer), that’s not normal, you didn’t cause it and you don’t deserve it no matter what they tell you. That’s an emotionally abusive relationship. What’s more, it’s similar to being with an alcoholic or substance abuser in that there’s little chance anything you can do on your own will turn them into an emotionally safe partner. You need—and deserve—help to deal with it. Bottom line, if you feel terrified to bring anything up with your partner, listen to what your body’s telling you. Look to the end of this article for resources to help you with your situation.  

Emotional Safety Is the Main Issue

In a normal, non-abusive relationship, the main issue when approaching a difficult conversation, is emotional safety—for both of you. You may rightfully feel scared about how your partner will react. They may get defensive, dismissive, reactive or even angry. But underneath it all, what’s really driving these reactions is that they’re feeling scared too! 

They may feel like you’re totally unhappy with them. Nobody likes feeling like their partner is unhappy with them. They may feel like they can’t change what you want them to change, which will make you permanently dissatisfied with them. 

If you’re bringing up a life problem, they may feel like it’s “impossible” to solve, so it’s less painful simply to avoid it. Or the two of you may have real differences of opinion on an important matter. In that case, both of you may be afraid of being overpowered by the other.

Whatever their reaction is, it’s probably based in fear. That’s why it’s so important to lower the “threat level.” How do you do that?

Don’t Just Blurt It Out  

Have you ever done this? You hold back on something bothering you until something happens and you can’t hold it back anymore, and you explode. Sometimes that works out okay, but other times, the whole conversation becomes all about your “overreaction,” and not what was bothering you! These spontaneous outbursts occur because fear, and the feeling that you’re not sure you have the right to express what you feel, makes you hold back until you just “have to.” But you do have the right to express what you feel. Decide that you’re going to have the conversation, and wait for a moment when you’re in a good frame of mind. 

Get Clear Within Yourself 

Clarify in yourself the essential things you want to get across—and get clear that they are important. Often, when we’re afraid of “rocking the boat,” we tell ourselves that what we have to say isn’t “really” important. But if you’re thinking about it over and over and over, running dialogues in your head about it all the time instead of talking to your partner, then it is important. 

Then clarify what you definitely want to get across to your partner. Too often, in the heat of the moment, we “thought-block.” Or, we get sidetracked by our partner, who gets us to defensively react to something they bring up because they don’t want to deal with what we want to talk about. It’s okay to be flexible and let the conversation go in different directions—but remember that you have something specific to communicate that’s really important to you. 

Pick a Good Time – and Then Offer Choices

Find a time when you can count on some privacy and neither of you are overly exhausted, stressed or emotionally upset. You might want to look for an opening in a conversation you’re already having. Then say, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to bring up with you. Should I bring it up now – or would you rather I do it later? When would be a good time?” 

This gives your partner some time to prepare—and some control. You may have been thinking about this for a long time, but they probably haven’t! They’re less likely to feel caught off-guard, and you won’t then be accused of “ambushing” them. (By the way, they’re probably going to either say “now,” or “give me a few minutes.”)

Lead With Vulnerability

Signal your good intentions and make yourself less threatening by being vulnerable first. Say, ”I’m nervous to bring this up because I’m afraid you won’t like it” or “…you’ll be angry with me.” It’s very hard for any normal person to react angrily toward their partner after their partner’s just told them they’re afraid of it! Another thing to say is, “I know you don’t like talking about this—it’s not easy for me either —but I really want to talk about it so we can be closer to each other/work better together.” That both acknowledges that you understand how they feel, and that your intention in talking is to “get closer” or become a better team “together.” This alone can help your partner feel calmer, less tense, and more open to what you have to say. 

You’ve now set the stage for a difficult conversation. In the next article in this series, we’ll talk about things you can do during the conversation to help it go more successfully. We’ll also talk about typical ways men and women feel before and during these conversations – ways that you may never have thought of before. 

But you may not need to know all that. If you follow the points above, you may already be on your way to having a very successful difficult conversation. Good luck!

About Larry Letich, LCSW-C & Dr. Helene Brenner

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.


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About Us

We’re Helene Brenner and Larry Letich. Helene is a licensed psychologist in private practice for more than 30 years. Larry is an individual and couples therapist. Besides being therapists, we’re co-authors and partners in life and love for more than four decades.

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