Help for Couples: How to Discuss Sensitive Topics Productively

Loaded topics and serious conversations are an unavoidable part of developing and maintaining close relationships. But before you attempt to bring up a sensitive topic with your partner, it’s best to have a strategy in mind for how to help the conversation go well. In this post, I’ll explain basic steps for tackling tough topics. This post will be most effective if both partners read it individually without hovering over each other and are given some time to digest the concepts before attempting to do the steps.

Signs That You’re Dealing With A Loaded Topic

Emotionally charged topics need to be approached carefully. You’re walking into minefields when you bring up sensitive topics with your partner, and if you don’t use caution and put extra effort into staying calm and managing your emotional reactions, you’re likely to set off a chain of explosions that will leave everyone feeling wounded and defensive.

It helps to recognize when you’re treading into sensitive territory. If you don’t recognize warning indicators, you’re likely to go blundering in and be caught off guard when things erupt. So what are the signs that you need to be extra cautious in your approach? Some common indicators to look for are the following:

  • The topic you want to discuss makes you feel very upset.
  • Your partner keeps trying to avoid discussing the topic.
  • Your partner gets very upset and defensive whenever the topic comes up.
  • There is a history of the topic resulting in arguments between the two of you.

When one or more of these warning signs is occurring, that’s your cue that this conversation will require special handling.

Understanding the Goal

Often in loaded conversations, people are going for the wrong goal, which is to control and drastically change each other. Beth is upset by her husband’s flirting and she wants to see him immediately and permanently change certain behaviors that he has a long history of doing. Beth wants these changes so that her own fears and insecurities will stop being triggered. Beth then decides that if her husband doesn’t bring about these instant, drastic changes, it’s proof that he doesn’t really care about her.

Meanwhile, Sasha finds his wife’s nagging to be extremely irritating. He wants her to instantly cease all mothering/hovering/criticizing comments. Sasha wants these changes to occur because he wants his own fears and wounds to stop being triggered. Sasha decides that if his wife fails to instantly and permanently alter her behavior, she is a conniving little twit who isn’t worth bothering with.

In these examples, both Beth and Sasha are making unrealistic and unreasonable demands. Humans are simply not capable of drastically altering natural or well-rehearsed behaviors overnight. But demanding the impossible is not the only way these two are going wrong. They are also failing to think beyond their own needs and preferences.

In any relationship, there are two people involved, each with their own set of issues and needs. If you try to run a relationship based on the theory that your needs and issues are far more valid and important than your partner’s, the relationship will tank. The same is true if you discount your own needs and issues while exalting your partner’s as the only ones that matter. In every relationship, both partners’ needs and problems must be treated as valid and dealt with respectfully.

Trying to make your partner entirely adjust to you is the wrong goal to go for. Instead, in loaded conversations, there are two goals you need to focus on. The first is education. When these kinds of conflicts arise, it is very rare for both partners to have an accurate understanding of what is motivating the other person to behave the way that they are. Instead, the natural instinct is for you to leap to several wrong assumptions about your partner’s motivations. Those assumptions will be based on your own fears and issues. Once you form these wrong assumptions, there is a tendency to block your partner from correcting your false view of them. This is why the first goal needs to be for both partners to gain an accurate understanding of what everyone’s motivations are. Why is Beth’s husband flirting with other women? Why is Sasha’s wife harping on him so much?

You must listen with an open mind in order to gain a correct understanding of what’s happening with your partner. This kind of listening requires an intentional effort on your part to be open to the idea that you could be completely misinterpreting what your partner is doing. It’s often difficult for humans to accept the idea that they are entirely incorrect about something, and yet this sort of thing is very common in close relationships. In all my years of counseling frustrated couples, the most common problem I came across was partners making false assumptions about each other’s motivations. One of the main ways that counselors help you is by simply helping you and your partner actually listen to each other instead of letting your wrong assumptions rule the day. Your man might be acting like the biggest jerk, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is really trying to hurt your feelings. Your wife might be acting like the biggest nag, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is really trying to make your life a trial. You must leave room for your partner to react to life differently than you do without insisting that their reaction is wrong or inferior.

Once the first goal is accomplished and you and your partner have gained an accurate understanding of what’s going on, you’re ready to move on to the second goal. Really listening to each other will reveal that you each have different agendas going on, but those agendas will boil down to the same basic principle. All human behavior is driven by need. In our interactions with others, we are instinctively trying to get our own needs met while we simultaneously try to protect ourselves from harm. This is true both for the partner who is complaining about a behavior as well as for the partner doing the behavior.

Beth complains about her husband’s flirting because it makes her feel devalued and rejected in the relationship. This causes her pain. By complaining, she is really trying to protect herself from more pain. At the same time, Beth’s husband is rewarding the flirtatious behavior of other women because their attention makes him feel affirmed and valued as a man. Beth’s husband is trying to get his own need for affirmation met while at the same time ease the pain that is caused by his low self-esteem. Once this couple talks things out, they can see that they are both focused on the issue of personal value. All humans need to feel valued, and these two are going about getting this need met in different ways. Beth feels valued when her husband ignores other women and focuses only on her. Beth’s husband feels valued when other women act sexually attracted to him. By identifying the common issue that they share–an insecurity about their personal worth–these two can empathize with each other instead of attacking each other. They can then go on to the second step, which is to try and figure out a better way for everyone to accomplish their individual goals.

When Beth just attacks her husband for flirting and demands that he stop engaging with other women, she isn’t acknowledging his need to feel valued or his struggle with low esteem. To her husband, her demands for behavioral changes sound like “I don’t care what you need. Suck it up and do without because your behavior is upsetting me.” This kind of invalidation is very likely to trigger a hostile response, because humans quickly get upset when they feel like their own needs are being trivialized or ignored. By not taking the time to understand her husband’s real motivations, Beth comes across as uncaring and attacking. He will then probably respond by invalidating her and will likely increase his flirtatious behaviors just to wound her the way she’s wounding him. Driving everyone into their defensive corners is exactly what Step 1 is designed to avoid, so before you start requesting behavioral changes from your partner, you first need to take the time to get educated.

Step 2 is about working together to come up with a strategy that will help everyone get their individual needs met. Both Beth and her husband are struggling with fears that they are undervalued. How can they work together to help affirm each other in this area? Once everyone gets honest about what their real goals and struggles are, new opportunities often arise for partners to help each other. While Beth is focused on her own sense of worth, she might not be bothering to affirm her husband. Or she might be affirming him in ways that aren’t very meaningful to him, therefore he keeps feeling a need to look for affirmation elsewhere. How can Beth help her husband feel more valued? How can he help her feel more valued? Step 2 is about finding a way to help everyone. Often this step requires compromise on both sides with neither person having things go exactly how they’d like. But while many people find the concept of compromising depressing, it’s actually a fabulous element of relationships which helps you become a better version of yourself.

When Beth really thinks about it, she realizes that her panic over flirtatious behavior is really rooted in the fact that her father cheated on her mother, thus causing her parents to get divorced. The divorce destroyed Beth’s happy childhood home and caused her a ton of grief and angst as she bounced back and forth between two households and got continuously pinned in situations where her parents forced her to choose between them. When Beth panics over her husband flirting today, she’s experiencing a resurgence of fears and pain that have nothing to do with her husband. Because of her father’s behavior, she has formed a strong mental association between male flirting and devastating heartache. When Beth sees her husband flirt with other women, it triggers vague yet strong fears that she’s going to be forced to repeat the emotional pain of her childhood all over again. But unless Beth stops to do some serious self-reflection, she won’t make this very important connection.

Behaviors that really upset you today are almost always triggering painful memories from your past. When you can pinpoint the true origin of your stress, you’ll do a better job of managing it. In Beth’s case, it would be very easy for her to blame her husband for causing all of her panic, when in fact this isn’t the case. Certainly her husband could use to dial it down with some of his playfulness, but it would also help if Beth owned her contribution to the problem.

When we can each own our own stuff, it helps take pressure off of our partners and makes it easier for them to empathize and support us. No one likes feeling blamed for something they aren’t doing. Beth’s husband genuinely loves her, and he sees her in a totally separate class than the women who make eyes at him. It would really help Beth to hear her husband’s perspective of the women who flirt with him, so she could be reassured by how differently he views her. But that kind of conversation isn’t going to happen until both partners get honest with themselves about their own insecurities, and then share that information with each other. You’re not going to accomplish that kind of vulnerable exchange unless you create a safe environment for the conversation to happen in, and that means giving your partner your full attention and keeping your tone as calm and gentle as you can.

The Benefits of Compromise

If you have a broken leg, you instinctively want everyone to keep their distance and not touch it. In the crisis moment, all you care about is avoiding more pain, and yet if your leg is going to heal properly, you will have to push through some surges of pain while a doctor resets your broken bone.

A similar principle is true with psychological wounds. To truly heal from them, we need to push through some spikes of pain that naturally occur when we fully face how broken we are and share those feelings with someone safe.

If Beth had her way, her husband would never communicate with another adult female. Beth is so wounded from her past that her definition of “flirting” is extremely broad, and includes even basic social pleasantries. If Beth’s husband were to agree to her demands for him to never communicate with other women, it would make Beth feel safer at first, but in the long run it would be a bad choice for everyone. Beth needs to face her issues and work on recovering from them. She needs to be pushed out of her comfort zone and see the flaw in her belief that all men are cheaters. It isn’t good for her to go the rest of her life viewing half of the world’s population like a bunch of untrustworthy jerks. It isn’t good for her to base her self-worth on her father’s shenanigans. So when Beth’s husband doesn’t give her everything she wants in this area of his behavior, that’s a good thing all around. But her husband does need to make some efforts to help his wife in her battle with her own issues. It would be very helpful for Beth to think of some practical ways that her husband could reassure her of his devotion to her. Perhaps some at home date nights where other females won’t even be around would be helpful. Perhaps there needs to be an increase in the couple’s daily affectionate touches. In marriages, affirming physical touch is a very important element of the relationship. Even when actual sex isn’t happening for some reason, other forms of positive touch need to be happening on a daily basis. When physical touch becomes too infrequent, any underlying insecurities will tend to flare up.

Now while Beth has insecurity issues from her past that she needs to work on, her husband also has his own emotional baggage. His flirting with other women is a patch that he’s using to manage his own pain, and if Beth just puts up with it quietly, her husband will never be pushed to deal with his own stuff. So when Beth gets fed up and complains, it helps everyone stop and assess where they are at. In following the steps for a productive conversation, both partners are challenged to think about what kind of emotional baggage they are carrying around. They then work together as a team to try and help each other with their individual struggles.

As intimidating as conflict can feel in the moment, once you and your partner hone your communication skills, you’ll discover that conflict can actually help your relationship grow stronger. It is when our individual wounds and fears collide that we end up coming out of denial, getting better acquainted with ourselves, and learning how supportive our partners can be. But it all starts with good communication strategies.

Starting the Conversation

You can’t always pick the moment when these conversations will happen. Often they get kicked off when tempers are flaring, and that brings us to our first important point: in humans, anger is almost always a cover for fear and pain. The next time you find yourself getting furious with your partner, a very helpful question to ask will be “Why am I feeling so threatened right now? What specific fears are being triggered inside of me?” When your partner starts blasting you with anger, they might be too upset to ask themselves this question, in which case you need to help them ask it. Using a calm voice, try asking something like, “You’re clearly upset and I care about that. Can we talk about what you’re afraid of right now?”

While these conversations often start without warning, once you realize what’s happening, put away all of the distractions. This is not the time to quickly glance at a text message or answer an incoming call. When people are upset, they feel very vulnerable, and this causes your response to them to have double the usual impact. This means that if you answer your phone when your wife is on the verge of tears, she’ll feel doubly hurt and doubly rejected. But if you turn your phone off or put it on silent and move it out of sight, she’ll feel doubly cared about and doubly valued. The impact is twice as strong in these moments, so be smart and go for the double positives instead of the double negatives.

Privacy is key in these moments. If all goes well, people are going to share some highly sensitive information about themselves and you really don’t want other ears listening in. If things get launched while you’re sitting in a car and your home isn’t all that private, then stay in the car to have the conversation. If things explode when you’re at home around kids or other people, go into a room and close the door so you can have privacy. If you live with people who are prone to barging in, then lock the door as well. Giving your partner your undivided attention is going to make this whole process a lot less painful and a lot more productive. It will also get you through the whole thing a lot faster.

There are predictable stages to these kinds of conversations. The first stage is usually highly emotional, with extreme things being said and insecurities running very high. Giving the conversation your full attention and focusing on the right goals will get you through this first stage quickly. In Stage 2, people calm down as they realize that they are in a safe environment. But Stage 2 is also when the gut wrenching confessions happen, and that can trigger fresh bursts of emotion. Using affirming touch (hugs, hand holding) is often very effective here as your partner gets in touch with his or her own painful feelings and you get in touch with yours.

Stage 1 is when one partner cues the other that a loaded conversation needs to occur. Stage 2 is when partners pursue that first goal of getting educated. The upset partner needs to be specific about what behaviors are triggering their upset. They then need to try to get in touch with the true origin of their distress. This often involves making connections between what is happening now and what crummy memories from the past are being dredged up because of it. Always look for the memories when you find yourself getting very upset very fast, because they are going to be there.

James explodes at his wife when she teasingly grabs at him after he told her to stop. She is shocked by the intensity of his anger over what to her was just a playful game. James is also alarmed by his racing heart, shaking hands, and intense fury. When James gives it some thought, he realizes that her blatant ignoring of his request for space is bringing up really bad memories of being bullied by his brother.

Rita becomes furious and violently shoves her husband off of her when they are in the midst of friendly foreplay. At first Jack is wounded and angry, but then he remembers that sudden, over-the-top emotional outbursts indicate a spike of intense emotional pain. Using a clam, gentle voice, he asks, “Did I just do something that upset you? What are you afraid of?” Caught off guard by his tone and by his question, Rita tries to think and realizes that the way Jack was positioned on top of her triggered a flashback of a time when one of her past boyfriends attempted to rape her. It’s a memory that Rita has kept buried for years and it just now surfaced on her. Because her husband is responding calmly and gently, she feels safe to share about what happened and she bursts into tears as she describes the ten year old event. This couple has now entered Stage 2, where painful confessions are best helped by affirming touch. So Jack gently puts his arms around Rita and gives her his full attention as she shares her bad memory. His comforting response calms her down quickly and they are then able to talk about what specific touches triggered the flashback for her and work out some alternative moves.

When Troy’s wife snaps at him for the fortieth time about how he’s holding their baby wrong, he suddenly becomes furious and shouts a string of obscenities at her. His wife is shocked by the vicious words that are so out of character for him until she remembers that sudden emotional outbursts are indications of pain. She then uses a calm voice to ask him what just happened to make him so upset. Because her tone is calm and caring, Troy’s fury stops ramping up and he tries to think. He quickly realizes that he’s felt criticized and put down ever since they had their child. He feels like everything he does is being judged as wrong and it’s reminding him of his relationship with his father. Troy’s father has always been impossible to please–a fact that has caused Troy no end of heartache. The thought of his wife treating him the same way terrifies him because he desperately needs one important relationship in his life where he can feel successful. Because Troy was able to make these connections about himself, his wife is able to get an accurate understanding of the problem. Because she loves Troy and wants to help, she wants to find ways to communicate to him that she does see him as a success. But to be most effective, this conversation shouldn’t be all about getting into Troy’s head. His wife needs to do some introspection as well and figure out why she is constantly harping at him. When she does this, she realizes she is micromanaging his behavior because she doesn’t trust him to take proper care of their child. She then realizes that she has an underlying belief that men in general can’t be counted on to contribute much to the parenting role, and that she feels bitter about this. Well, Troy does want to be an involved father–he is living proof that his wife’s grim theory about men is wrong. Because both partners are making an effort to get in touch with their own feelings and listen to each other, they are able to brainstorm ideas about how they can help each other in the future.

The Power of Empathy

Don’t underestimate the power of empathy. Empathy is awesome. Even the oldest, deepest psychological wounds can be immensely helped by receiving sincere empathy from your safe person. The greatest benefit of loaded conversations is the fact that they create opportunities for partners to express sincere empathy for each other. It is extremely healing to see your partner attentively listening to you and see their sincere concern for you. In this world, no one makes it to adulthood without being wounded in some way, and many of us have been royally trampled on. Before you experience the power of empathy, you try to struggle on alone, assuming that your partner can’t do anything to help you with your past. And yet your partner can do so much to help you, simply by really listening to you and sincerely caring.

Empathy is about trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling the weight of the stress they are under. You don’t have to have gone through the same experience as your partner in order to empathize with them. All forms of human suffering can be boiled down to a few basic components, such as rejection, humiliation, and loss. Jack never experienced someone trying to rape him, but he has had plenty of other experiences in which he felt humiliated, over-exposed, and scared by physical domination. By focusing on the basic emotions of his wife’s upset, he is able to review his own memory banks and find plenty of material to help him empathize with her. When Jack puts his arms around Rita and comforts her, he really does feel that he identifies with her pain.

Don’t discount your partner’s ability to empathize before you give them a chance. Humans have far more in common with each other than they realize. When you tell yourself that “He can’t really get what I’m dealing with because this never happened to him”, you only isolate yourself unnecessarily. When you boil your own emotional upset down to its most basic components, you’ll realize that your pain isn’t as unique as you think it is, and a ton of people could identify with you if they put some effort into it. Give your partner a chance to rifle through their own memory banks and try to find files that sound like emotional matches to what you’re describing. Also remember that your partner reacts differently to life than you do, which means he might have gone through an experience that he found very wounding which doesn’t sound all that bad to you.

Don’t belittle the tools that your partner reaches for to try to help you. Perhaps your wife says “I think I can understand how you feel. It reminds me of a time when my sister refused to let me play with her and her friends.” Don’t instantly respond by saying, “That is hardly the same thing!” While her situation might be very different than what you went through, her emotional reaction might be very similar. Give your partner a chance. Give them some credit for understanding what pain is. All humans experience pain, and your partner might be far more wounded than they’ve let on, which would make them well equipped to empathize with you if you’d give them a chance.

The power of empathy goes two ways. It is not only very healing to the receiver, it is also very encouraging to the giver. In close relationships, partners want to help each other in meaningful ways, but often there simply isn’t any opportunity to be the hero. Loaded conversations create those priceless opportunities, and when you see your partner stepping up to help you when you are truly vulnerable, it greatly strengthens the bond between the two of you.

Loaded conversations don’t result in perfect solutions that will ensure the same problem doesn’t occur again down the line. When you’re dealing with wounds from the past, healing takes time, and it’s guaranteed that the same upset will occur again while the wound is still there. But when the two of you share with each other, empathize with each other, and see each other working together to try and come up with solutions, the bond grows stronger and you end up feeling better equipped to handle the next crisis.

Beth’s husband can’t instantly fix his low esteem issues, but once he realizes how deeply his behavior is upsetting his wife, he starts making an extra effort to stop engaging so much with flirtatious women. He starts becoming more aware of when his wife’s expression changes and he takes that as his cue to stop talking to whoever is flirting with him. He also starts to see certain women more negatively as he realizes they keep tempting him to upset his wife without showing any concern for her feelings.

At the same time, Beth is trying to not overreact by focusing on the fact that her husband does love her and really doesn’t view other women as serious candidates for a relationship. It’s really helping Beth that the couple is now having more at home date nights and cuddle sessions. During those times, she tries to affirm her husband in the ways that he feels would be most effective. Because these two have communicated with each other openly and honestly, they are now informed about how they might practically help each other. They also feel motivated to help each other because they have both experienced receiving empathy.

As soon as you start believing that your partner doesn’t really care about you, you will become far less patient with them and much more prone to interpreting their behavior negatively. Loaded conversations provide opportunities for partners to reassure each other that they genuinely care about each other. Talk is cheap, but when you see your partner taking the time to listen and making an effort to empathize with you, it restores your confidence in the bond and boosts your resources to put up with the little irritations and frustrations that are common to all relationships.

Loaded conversations are vital to developing and maintaining close relationships. You simply cannot keep a relationship healthy by never talking about the important stuff. But to keep things balanced, you need to make sure the sharing is a two-way street. Don’t just let one person spill their guts while the other stands there nodding. Each person needs to be given the chance to share their own view of the situation. If new subjects are also added in as people go off on tangents–which is often the case–then that’s all the better. The more you talk, the closer you will be, and the firmer your bond will become. Most importantly, by sharing your honest view of things with your partner, you give them the information they need to try to help you.

Your partner cannot read your mind, so waiting for them to magically figure out what’s bothering you is a waste of time. You must use words, and lots of them. If your partner isn’t getting it, then restate your feelings in a different way. Use examples. Use metaphors. Keep changing up the words until it clicks for them. Words are essential for clarifying misunderstandings, and they are far more effective than gestures and facial expressions, which are easily misinterpreted.

For more practical tips for discussing loaded topics, see How Can I Help My Partner Feel More Comfortable In Bed?

This post was written in response to a request.

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