If you’re married, then you’re probably familiar with the knot you get in your stomach when you have to bring up a sensitive issue with your spouse. Discussing difficult topics — whether it be about money, parenting, s*x, etc.— is never easy, and there are many things you can say or do that make the situation worse.
Tension arises over an array of issues, according to Catherine Bronza, an Orlando, FL-based psychotherapist who uses a short-term structured psychotherapy approach with clients called the Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Model (EFT). But no matter what the hot button topic is, Bronza says that there are seven conversation habits that you should STOP doing so your discussion doesn’t spiral into a heated argument.
1. You’re ready for combat.
Avoid combat mentality when you enter, or are invited, into a difficult conversation with your spouse. The discussion isn’t about winning points by cutting down your opponent. It should be about working together to find a solution to the problem.
Both parties need to feel safe and supported in order to take the risk and muster of the courage to present a tough topic. “It takes vulnerability, honesty, courage and a bit of risk to get difficult topics aired out and addressed productively,” says Bronza. Put down your boxing gloves and navigate the conversation with care.
2. You blame your spouse.
It’s not easy to take responsibility for problems in a marriage, especially if you don’t feel that you’re at fault. But don’t assume that your spouse is completely to blame either. You need to listen with an open mind and heart and remember that there are two sides to ever situation. Marriage is a partnership and you need to play fairly.
3. You resort to name calling.
Please don’t act like you’re 9 years old when you’re not getting your way! Respect for your partner is the first step toward resolution, says Bronza. This means knowing what topics may be super-sensitive and not reacting harshly. “Even if your spouse resorts to name calling, try to keep your cool and bring the discussion back to a positive place.”
4. Your tone is nasty.
Your approach to the conversation is just as important as the message. “What’s more, the message will be completely lost or misinterpreted if the other person feels attacked,” warns Bronza. Remember that you’re not scolding your spouse; you’re looking for a way to find answers together.
5. Your timing is off.
Even if you’re ready to boil over with all that you want to say to your spouse, pick the right time to have the conversation.
The topic should be addressed as an invitation to discuss something that’s important to you, and you should be clear-headed and calm. “It helps to start with an ‘I statement,’” suggests Bronza. “This is when a person will say something like, ‘I’m struggling with something right now. I need your help in figuring this out. Are you open to talk for a little while?’”
If your partner isn’t in a space where he or she can be fully engaged, then plan for a time to talk when he or she is totally available.
6. You bicker in front of others.
Keep your struggles between you and your spouse…period. “Bringing up negative issues around others, even children or other family members, brings a natural defensiveness that can be difficult to break down later on,” says Bronza.
7. You use negative body language.
The way you feel on the inside will manifest itself in your facial expressions and the way you carry yourself, so be conscious of this barrier. When possible, be on the same level as your spouse (so you’re either both sitting or standing) and even try to hold his or her hand if the moment feels right. “Show that you’re not walled off from your spouse, but that you’re open to working through the problem together,” advises Bronza.
Couples should never completely bottle up negativity out of fear of backlash, though. It’s important to keep the lines of communication clear and open in order to grow together.
“When issues are left to simmer, they eventually boil over and cause damage to the relationship,” warns Bronza. “It really helps to stay in the moment with each other and talk things out as they occur. Relationships thrive on good clear communication.”