How to Have a Difficult Conversation Without Upsetting Your Spouse

Just over a month ago I sent out a survey asking people what their biggest question was about communication, conflict resolution, and intimacy. There were several answers that I’ll be addressing over the next couple of months, but overwhelmingly the biggest question was, “How do I tell my spouse something difficult without either making them angry or hurting their feelings?” It’s interesting that such a broad question could be asked and 1/4th of the people would answer with nearly the same words. It goes to show you just how often marriages are affected by this very concern.

Most of us do what we can to avoid conflict in our marriage. Nobody likes the idea of being at odds with the person they share a bed with. But because of our gender differences, personality differences, or differences in our behaviors or core beliefs; conflict is an inevitable part of marriage. Luckily, you can learn some ways to have hard conversations that will not necessarily lead to conflict. And, when it’s avoidable, not fighting will always win out over having an argument. 

Be mindful of those gender differences!

I have a fellow blogger friend named Stuart who wrote an article about how much broken promises can hurt. He specifically talks about the times when men break promises due to forgetfulness and how much this can hurt their wives. He also notes that men are far more likely than women to forget the tasks they’ve said they’ll complete. He’s totally right on this front. One of the major differences between men and women are the way we each process information. Women process from the left to right sides of their brains where men process information from the front to the back of the brains. Both genders follow their own patterns over and over again. These differences cause men to focus on one item and then let it go as the pressure lifts. Women, on the other hand, tend to think about something over and over again until there is resolution. Yes, this means that we can think about something years after it has occurred and connect it to something that seems completely separate.

We can’t really help these differences because they are part of our brain structure. Even so, those differences don’t have to destroy us. Instead, let’s use those differences to help us communicate better. Women, as Stuart suggests, can write down information that they really need their husbands to remember. And men, remember that your wife isn’t trying to nag you when she talks at length about something. She just has a need to speak almost 3x as many words as you do. Love each other beyond these differences.

How Do I Use Our Gender Differences As A Strength?

Women: when your spouse forgets something or focuses on problem-solving, know that this does not mean that he isn’t caring for you. I’ve heard many women talk about their expectations not being met and how this can cause serious damage to the relationship because it really does feel like their husband doesn’t care. This is also true when their husband has one of those moments of forgetfulness. “Why do I have to remind him of everything? I tell him all the time. It’s like he doesn’t even care.” Your husband is built as a practical thinker and a problem-solver. Help him see that the bigger problem has to do with the relationship, not him completing certain tasks.

Men: your wife is going to see everything as relational. Her emotional centers in her brain are much larger than yours. If you decide to finish your TV show instead of immediately getting up to take out the trash, she will likely translate that as you care more about the TV than her. I know… You care more about the TV than taking out the trash. But, even so, your wife will see this as a relational issue. Remember this and work to focus on how she can feel relationally connected to you. 

Remember that you’re on the same team!

Chris from The Forgiven Wife wrote a powerful blog on the power of “and.” She reminds her readers that couples should look at how they both contribute to any difficulties in the marriage. Much of the time, when couples are talking about their relationship, they really struggle to talk about what they do that needs to be worked on. Instead, they focus on the changes that their spouse needs to make. I agree with Chris that once we learn to look at the responsibility we each hold, we can see some major shifts in our marriage.

What concerns do you currently have with your spouse? As you think of the tough conversation that you need to have, can you see where you may play a contributing role? Let’s say for instance that your spouse never cleans the dishes. Is it possible that you always take over this task or that you tell your spouse all the ways that they’ve incorrectly cleaned the kitchen? Think of the role you might be playing regarding the difficult conversation you need to have.

Three Big Tips For Starting A Difficult Conversation:

So let’s imagine that you’ve got those two important factors in mind; our gender differences are playing a role and we’re a team. There is still some finesse needed to have a meaningful and effective conversation so that you can talk about difficulties without hurting your spouse. Here are three tips that could help.

Location, location, location!

This doesn’t just apply to where you want you home or business to be. When you need to have a tough conversation with your spouse, you want to make sure that your conversation happens in a place where you can both be comfortable. In front of other people, or in a crowded restaurant or hallway will not be a good place to start a tough talk. Also, don’t have one of these in bed. Your bed should be for sleeping and for sex – not conversations that put one another on edge. Look for a place that’s private, feels safe, and is distraction-free (basically kid and electronics-free zone).

Think of solutions – not just problems when you get ready to talk.

This is going to take a little planning prior to addressing your spouse. One of the most helpful things you can do when talking about a touchy subject is to spend a few minutes thinking of how you can help solve the problem that you’re addressing. For ease sake, let’s go back to the fairly safe cleaning the dishes problem. How can you help here? Maybe you’re tired of doing the kitchen all the time and you’d like your spouse to help some. Try to think of a solution before you bring this up to your spouse. Maybe you can offer to get housecleaning services to come in once a week, or you can offer to do the dishes weekly if your spouse would clean the bathroom once a week. Whatever you decide, make sure that you are showing how you’re going to help – not just telling your spouse they need to make some kind of change.

Stay away from the absolutes like always and never.

When we’re upset about a certain behavior, it gets really easy to accuse our spouse of never picking up their laundry or always running late. And, while most therapists would tell you to back off the always and never and use words like often and rarely; I’m going to tell you to not make the behavior the focus of your conversation at all. While you’ll have to point the behavior out, it doesn’t need to be the focus. Let’s say that your concern has to do with you spouse not helping out around the house. Instead of saying, “I need you to help out because you rarely do any chores now,” try asking for a change like this. “Hey can I ask you something?” Then, after they say yes, say, “I’d really like to keep a clean house and could use some help. Do you mind doing the dishes tonight (or whatever specific task you’d like help with). Asking permission to have a talk will make your spouse much more receptive to hearing your request.

Praying God’s greatest blessing on your marriage and your communication.
Dr. Jessica

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