6 Tips For Talking About Your Feelings With Your Significant Other If It Doesn't Come Naturally To You
Here's the thing: I hate conflict. I will pretend that everything is A-OK even if it hurts. I will bottle things up, grin and bear it, resort to passive aggression, and eventually — when I truly can't hide my frustration any longer — explode. It's very healthy. (Sarcasm.) Sure, being non-confrontational doesn't have to be a bad thing. But this tendency can prevent you from acknowledging grievances before they become full-blown issues, and this is especially problematic in relationships. If you're like me, then it might be time to learn some tips for talking about your feelings with your significant other.
No one likes fighting with an SO, but sometimes, conflict is necessary. I spoke to Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, a clinical psychologist specializing in relationships and helping couples prepare for marriage, and she told me just how unhealthy it is to avoid conflict. "It leaves many things unsaid, making your relationship vulnerable to built-up resentments," she explains. "This can lead to irritability, coldness, passive-aggressive behavior, or just overall unhappiness." 'Conflict' has a negative connotation, but conflict is actually constructive and healthy when it's handled correctly. For those who struggle with acknowledging issues, here is some essential advice to help you get comfortable with conflict.
Pick an effective time
When it comes to initiating an important conversation, timing is everything. Unfortunately, the best time to have a difficult discussion is often the time when you're most reluctant to bring it up.
"Although it may seem when things are going well that it’s the worst time to bring up something negative, it's OK," Montgomery says. "You don’t want to bring it up when you two are stressed, tired, right before bed, right before work, or after drinking." Though you may be tempted to start conflict when tensions are high, it's better to wait until you're both feel rational, well rested, and ready to have a productive conversation. As Montgomery suggests, "Sometimes an activity can be helpful, such as going for walk or sitting outside somewhere peaceful."
Share that you are feeling anxious
You don't have to put on a brave face — this is your partner you're talking to, after all. Let yourself be vulnerable and admit to them that you're feeling nervous about starting this conversation. If they know you well, then they probably already know this anyway.
"Let your partner know you want to talk about something, but you aren’t sure how to bring it up," says Montgomery. "This can help you feel better as you get started and lets them in on how hard it is for you." If your partner is feeling empathetic, you'll probably have an easier time opening up, particularly if you're worried about how your partner may react to the issue you're broaching.
Focus on your feelings, thoughts, and relationship needs
You might approach the conversation eager to bring up all of the ways in which your partner has wronged you, but you should avoid the urge to point the finger at your SO. Rather than focusing on what you feel your partner has done wrong, think about what it is you need and want out of your relationship that you're not getting.
"It is not helpful to label their behavior or make judgments about their character," Montgomery points out. Make a point to share your observations instead of stating facts, and be sure to ask about their observations and experience as well so that you get both sides.
Here's an example that Montgomery provides: "'I’m feeling like I don’t get enough of your time and I don’t feel like I’m a priority. It makes me feel like our relationship isn’t that important to you and I think our relationship needs quality time to stay strong. What do you think? Have you noticed a change in how much time we spend together? How has it been for you to balance time with your other important relationships and ours?'" By framing the conversation like that, you're not making accusations — you're simply sharing what you've noticed.
Try not to give them the benefit of the doubt
When you hate conflict, it's easy to let your partner off the hook simply to end the conversation. Next time, try not to back down so easily. You can always take a break if the conversation isn't going well or you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, but the most important thing is to come back to it later — don't just drop it.
If you need to take a moment, Montgomery suggests saying, "'I don’t feel like this is productive, and I don’t want to fight with you. Maybe we can take some individual time to think more about it and talk about it again in a few days.'" Of course, it's essential for you to approach your partner later on (when you've both had a chance to cool down) to continue working towards a solution.
Ask what they think is the best solution
Just because you bring up an issue doesn't mean that it's your responsibility to solve it. You and your partner are in this together, and just as you would if they approached you with a grievance, it's your partner's job to help you find a solution.
"You’re a team now, so coming up with how to handle it together is the goal," Montgomery points out. "It’s not just on one of you." After all, telling your partner how you expect them to change is just as unproductive as telling them what they're doing wrong.
As an example, Montgomery says, "'I feel like I’m doing more around our place and it’s making me feel unappreciated and resentful. Do you think it’s 50/50 and I’m not noticing, or are there things you’re doing I don’t realize? I want it to feel like we are equal partners.'” When you open the conversation with this, you're demonstrating to your partner what you need and offering them a chance to fill that void.
Ask how they felt about you bringing it up
Conflict can be scary, so getting validation from your partner after a tough conversation helps you feel more confident when approaching conflict in the future. Starting conflict doesn't make you a bad person, and getting feedback from your SO can remind you of this fact.
"After all the talking is done, ask how they felt about you bringing it up," says Montgomery. "Ask how they bring up their concerns. It can be a great conversation to have when you’re not upset to learn about what is hard for each of you about bringing up things and what the other person can do to help." No matter how difficult confrontation may be, unspoken issues always make themselves known eventually. The earlier you acknowledge them, the easier the conversation will be.
"Conflict can feel uncomfortable, particularly if you aren’t used to it or if you have only seen unhelpful examples," Montgomery points out. But with compassion and mutual understanding, conflict becomes productive, not something to fear. And here's the best news: According to Montgomery, the more you practice productive confrontation, the more skilled at it you will become.