5 Steps For Talking About Your Relationship

If you dread talking to your partner about the state of your union, you’re not alone. Here are five steps to make those emotional discussions more productive and less stressful — even when it’s bad news.

By Margot Carmichael Lester

t some point in every relationship, you need to talk about how it’s going. Maybe you’re ready to move things to the next level… or perhaps you’re just ready to move on. Either way, taking about your relationship is never easy.

“It’s sometimes difficult to initiate a ‘state of the union’ conversation because so many uncertainties are involved,” says Sara Hoover, a
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to begin these conversations.
licensed marriage and family therapist and director of Counseling & Health Services at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, AL. “If the couple has been dating, but hasn’t really discussed where each individual is in the relationship, there can be a big risk in moving into this conversation. Fear, anxiety, anticipation of rejection, and even expecting that one person might be more involved emotionally than the other are some of the reasons this can be such a difficult subject to broach.”

How can you make sure the conversation stays positive, constructive and gets the results that you’d hoped for, then? Here are five expert tips to help you have “state of the union” conversations that are productive and relatively low-stress:

1. Start smart by choosing your words wisely.
There’s no one-size-fits-all way to begin these conversations, but “we need to talk” is probably never a good idea. “As with any potentially difficult conversation, it can be stated something like this: ‘There are some things I’d like to talk with you about and get your input on,’” Hoover suggests. “This seems less threatening.”

2. Check your expectations at the door.
Whether you’re the one who called for the conversation or not, it’s important not to let your imagination run wild. “At the very least, be aware of your expectations, unstated needs and fears,” counsels Kate Larsen, author of Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters. “Instead, anticipate that you and this other person have different styles and temperaments, and so you will likely approach difficult conversations in different ways, too — take it from me, a psychology major who’s married to a finance major! Be honest and set boundaries about what you need, believe and/or want. Allow the other person to do the same.”

3. Be honest (but sensitive) about your needs.
“Own your feelings, thoughts and expectations without trying to place them on the other person,” Hoover notes. “If the other person is just not as into the relationship as the other person is, that needs to be known to both parties, rather than being
Always keep in mind how things can come across.
inauthentic with either of your feelings and potentially hurting someone in the relationship unnecessarily.” She also advocates using “I” statements rather than “you” statements, explaining: “These allow for our own feelings to be voiced without placing the other person on the defensive.”

4. Listen more than you speak.
“Since I have two ears and one mouth, I use them proportionately,” quips Phil Holcomb, co-founder of Extraordinary Learning in Seattle, and co-presenter of Extraordinary Couples — Accentuating The Positive. This means listening more than you talk — and it’s especially important for both parties to feel respected during the discussion.

5. Be clear; ask for clarification when you need it.
Always keep in mind how things can come across. “Language is important, and making sure each person understands and clarifies his or her intentions is essential,” Hoover says. Adds Holcomb: “Ask open-ended — not leading — questions to find out what really matters rather than throwing down the gauntlet of what you think is right in order to test the other person to see if he or she agrees.”

It’s also important to consider the appropriate place and time to have your talk. Choose “neutral ground” — your home, for instance. A quiet park, a meeting room at church or a deserted café can also work. “We don’t want to have potentially heavy or serious conversations at the end of an evening, when we’re tired, or before something potentially stressful, like an exam, job interview, family difficulties, etc.,” Hoover explains.

Following these steps should help you have the best possible conversation and be more likely to get the outcome you want. Good luck!

Carrboro, N.C.-based writer Margot Carmichael Lester has had a lot of difficult conversations.
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