how to talk to spouse about difficult isssues

How To Talk To Your Spouse About Difficult Issues

Falling in love is so exciting. Yet, it can also nerve-racking. Thanks to all those hormones of lust, attraction, and attachment, those in the falling phase may not be, shall we say, fully grounded. If you are still in that airborne state, you have probably convinced yourself you “can talk about anything.” The possibility that you could end up wondering how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues probably isn’t on your radar.

Psychologists agree that having “the big talks” before marriage can make a huge statement about your relationship. It can also prevent a future split. It is not only important to broach and wrestle with the sensitive, vulnerable, or often divisive topics, but learning how to broach and wrestle with those topics is equally important.

What is your individual communication style, especially during a conflict? And what is your “couple” communication style? How do you each and both resolve conflict? How, if at all, do you come from different beliefs and opinions to a workable, mutually benefitting resolution?

Knowing how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues doesn’t just happen at the moment of need. Having and keeping a healthy marriage takes more than a MO of “winging it.” It evolves, ideally, out of a history of braving the big, bad, and ugly stuff while still basking in those “we’re destined to be together” hormones.

Perhaps you have had the foresight to dig into those far-reaching topics early on. Or perhaps like many you have waited until they have wreaked havoc with your lives and marriage. Either way, there is plenty of good advice on how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues.

Here are some of the most helpful tips:

  • Don’t put off the conversation.

If there is something important on your mind, take the initiative to invite your spouse into a conversation. Expecting your spouse to do all the initiating will only lead to resentment on your part. It will also decrease your chances of getting the outcome you want.

Working on how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues is a task that belongs to both of you. When you embrace the responsibility equally, you help to equalize the power in your relationship. You also increase the likelihood that you will both get your needs met.

  • Be honest about your expectations. 

The biggies of marital talks can be understandably stressful. Negative emotions like anger and resentment may lurk too close for comfort, especially if one spouse perceives a hurtful agenda from the other.

How you enter into a difficult conversation can make all the difference in how you come out of it. Do you expect it to go well? Do you expect to have an open, safe dialogue that helps you know — and ultimately love — your spouse better? What do you expect to get out of the conversation?

Is this about coming to an agreement about how to compromise on very different approaches to money management? Or is this a confrontation in an effort to get the truth about a suspected betrayal?

Spending time with your own expectations upfront will help you stay focused if the conversation starts to veer off-topic or get uncomfortable.

  • Set yourselves and your marriage up to succeed. 

If you are worried about how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues, take the dread out of the talk. We all know how awful it feels when someone says, “Can we talk?” We can’t help the worry and presumptions that make us imagine the worst until we know what the talk is about.

And we all know how defeating it is when someone chooses the wrong time and place for “the talk.” Choose a time when neither of you is rushing, stressed, or tired. If you have children, consider waiting until they are asleep or out of the house.

If you are the one initiating the talk, give your spouse a heads-up on the topic. Avoid the “We need to talk” approach. Think about it. There’s nothing about that intro that would make you eager to show up if you were on the receiving end of it.

Express an interest in your spouse’s thoughts on the topic. Or say something like, “I’ve been thinking about (whatever) and I would like to explore that with you. Can we make some time in the next day or two to sit down together and work on some solutions?”

Obviously, there are topics that may not be so easy to introduce. But at least you can give your marriage the advantage of a comfortable, private, quiet place and a respectful time.

  • Treat one another and your relationship with respect. 

Topics like money, sex, children, inlaws, monogamy, and even what you don’t like in your spouse are not easy topics to tackle. There is the potential for hurt feelings. There is also the chance that one or both of you might not like what you hear or get the outcome you want.

That’s why it is especially important that you practice self-control, healthy boundaries, and uncompromising respect. Remember why you are doing this in the first place. You are invested in one another and in your marriage. Even if you and your spouse have different viewpoints, feelings, or desired outcomes, you should always reaffirm your marriage.

Simple disciplines like using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements can prevent the perception of blame and the defensiveness that follows. Watch your body language and make sure you are not delivering any passive-aggressive messages with your posture or expressions.

  • Don’t make ultimatums.

They come across as threats or power plays, and the response is likely to be anger, defensiveness, or a challenge to follow-through. Ultimatums can also create insecurity and distrust in a relationship, especially if the one who delivers them doesn’t go through with them.

  • Know when to get help. 

You and your spouse may do well with the majority of your communication. But there are usually those areas in even the best marriages where sensitivity is simply too high for an effective conversation. Knowing how to recognize those times is part of knowing how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues.

Working with a husband-wife therapist team can be a highly effective way to safely navigate those “don’t touch” topics. In addition to providing gender balance, the therapist team will prioritize your marriage over any individual desires or expectations.

Diving into the tough topics of a marriage is never fun. Chances are you weren’t given a premarital education in how to talk to your spouse about difficult issues.

But the willingness to do so with assertiveness, self-control, and integrity makes a huge statement about how you value your relationship. Those conversations may be stressful and hackle-raising, but they can also raise your confidence that you and your spouse can get through anything.

If you and your spouse are having trouble talking through difficult subjects, consider reaching out to schedule a couple of telephone or Skype sessions with us. You will learn effective communication skills and get clarity about possible underlying issues that are getting in the way of resolving specific issues.

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats