Couples’ guide to navigating difficult conversations

Illiana Reyes, a freshman nursing major from Riverside, California, is going to have a tough conversations with her significant other. These difficult conversations are easier to navigate by meeting face-to-face, knowing what you want before you go into the conversation, not letting your emotions run the show, and others. Photo Illustration by Breanna Biorato.

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 This Valentine’s Day, conversation hearts aren’t always so sweet.

  With Feb. 14 swiftly approaching, it may seem like every couple is rushing to plan their perfect evening with flowers, chocolate and a fancy dinner by candle-light, but the reality is that some couples are barely even speaking to each other. 

  It is inevitable to have an argument in a relationship, but through the correct use of communication skills, a couple will be able to navigate their way through any tough conversation at hand in a healthy way.

  Whether this means talking about taking the relationship to the next level, moving in, different religious practices, political views, family situations, financial matters, etc… here is a couples’ guide to having difficult conversations:

Have the conversation face-to-face.

  It is extremely easy to forget how meaningful face-to-face conversations are in our technological era, but when discussing serious topics, it is important to do so in person, James Stein, assistant professor of communication, said.

  “Mediated communication is very different than face-to-face communication,” Stein said. “When talking about something important, you want to make sure the person at hand has your time, your attention and your physical presence there.”

  When you are conducting a difficult conversation with your partner in person, you are able to read their nonverbal cues and body language, said Raisa Alvarado, assistant professor of communication. Your partner’s eye contact and the way they sit can give away how they feel about the topic and your opinion.

  “If you are having a serious talk with someone who is not really making the effort to see you, who is maybe sitting in a way where their posture gives off that they are only worried about themselves and their needs, then that is a huge red flag that will create more conflict while having the serious discussion,” Alvarado said.

Know yourself and what you want as an individual.

  Before initiating the conversation, it is essential to know what you want as an individual and where you stand in accordance to the topic so you can easily communicate that to your romantic partner, Stein said.

  “You have to know where you are as an individual in the relationship,” Stein said. “What are the ‘wants’ that you have? What ‘wants’ does your partner have as an individual? Where does that reflect where your relationship is at?”

  Stein said when you finally know what you want as an individual, this will prepare you to become transparent and vulnerable with your partner about your true feelings.

  “All relationships need transparency,” Stein said. “You have to be honest and open with your partner about your own needs emotionally, spiritually and sexually.”

  Kisa Smith, humanities and social sciences part time instructor, said it is important to identify what you want as an individual, so when something in the relationship bothers you, you will bring it up and never let it fester.

“What are the ‘wants’ that you have? What ‘wants’ does your partner have as an individual? Where does that reflect where your relationship is at?”

James Stein, assistant professor of communication

  While it is important to understand what you want, that does not mean enforcing your partner to agree with your opinions or perspectives when having tough conversations, Alvarado said. 

Attack the problem, not the person.

  Not all difficult conversations have a problem that needs to be solved, but in most cases these conversations can still lead to an argument or differing opinions. 

  “When discussing a difficult topic with a loved one, it’s important to attack the problem, not the person,” Smith said. “Try not to throw every issue and annoyance you’ve ever felt about the person into one conversation. When disagreements arise between loved ones, it’s important for both people to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship.”

  Alvarado said our ego and pride are traits that can hinder us from being able to have an effective talk with our romantic partner, especially in regard to conducting a difficult conversation.

  “So often, the desire to be right overwhelms the maintenance of a relationship,” Alvarado said. “So when you are having a tough conversation and conflict arises, practice putting the other person’s well-being at the forefront.”  

Not only is it important to have an open mind, but we must always remember to be respectful to our loved ones because once we say something hurtful, we cannot take it back, Alvarado said. 

Take a time-out if needed. 

  Being emotional while having a difficult conversation is acceptable, but being too emotional can obstruct the conversation from progressing in a positive way, Stein said. 

  “There is nothing wrong with pausing a discussion and coming back to it later, especially if you are getting emotional,” Stein said. “What you don’t want to do is use that as an excuse to stop having important conversations, so you need to find a balance there for sure and make sure you always revisit the conversation if you leave it.”

  Stein said our emotions are important, valid and need to be acknowledged, but sometimes they can cloud our perspective. The couple will never be able to accomplish what they want if they are too emotional while discussing a difficult topic. 

  “Never hit ‘below the belt’ because of your emotions,” Alvarado said. “You have to establish a boundary, where no matter how heated, how angry, how upset you are, you know you’re not going to cross it. When you’re tempted to say something hurtful, make the choice to step away, go for a walk.”

Remain positive. 

  Although a couple may be having a difficult conversation that requires seriousness, romantic partners should try to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship to guide them through the tough talk, Smith said. 

  “Think about all the ways that you do get along well with each other,” Smith said. “Before insulting the person, it’s best to think to yourself… ‘Will I remember this next week? Next year? Ten years from now?’ If the answer is no, then the issue is probably small enough to overlook or quickly resolve.” 

  Alvarado said no matter how difficult or challenging a conversation can get, it is imperative that a couple remembers to remain positive during a time of frustration with each other, especially if they want to strengthen the relationship.