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Difficult Conversations  

“We need to communicate better” is one of the most common things I hear from couples who come to see me. They are usually right, but often don’t have a sense of where the difficulty in conversation really comes. We think of communicating as just sharing words and getting ideas across, but there is often a lot more going on. This month I start a series about subjects that are difficult to talk about. Difficult topics of conversation are present in most relationships, not just primary intimate relationships, but I will be focusing mostly on primary intimate relationships in this column.

What am I talking about when I say difficult subjects? Two things primarily. One is just topics that usually lead to conflict or hurt feelings when a couple discusses them, so they develop an unspoken agreement that they won’t broach the topic. The other is when something happens that bothers one person unbeknownst to their partner, but they fear sharing it for some reason. What this doesn’t include is secret keeping. Some people in intimate relationships keep secrets about themselves and things they have done and have no desire to share those with their partner. While secrets can be problematic as well, that is not what I am addressing here. The focus of this series is instead on subjects that couples, or individuals, have a desire to talk about but avoid because of the feared consequences.

Why do people avoid having difficult conversations? A lot of reasons, but most of them can be boiled down to one of three categories: conflict, judgment, or rejection. A big reason conversation is avoided is because the person who wants to start it believes it will lead to conflict. This is also the main thing that leads to subjects that are avoided by “mutual agreement.” Fear of judgment can also lead to avoiding a conversation. Sometimes initiating a conversation involves sharing something about yourself, a value or idea, you feel your partner might judge. This, then, may get jacked up even further by fearing that the judgment will change your partner’s view of you. That can be a vulnerable feeling and fear of vulnerability is often what drives avoidance of conversation on an emotional level. Vulnerability is key in the fear of rejection as well. When a conversation involves requesting something or asking for a change, the possibility of rejection exists – and rejection can create a powerful feeling of vulnerability. Sometimes rejection may even lead you to feel like your partner doesn’t care about you.

Given these potential problems and negative feelings, why should difficult subjects be talked about at all? Well, one of the biggest reasons is that disclosing difficult things and sharing builds intimacy. Sharing vulnerability tends to create intimacy, so difficult, vulnerability inducing conversations can build intimacy as well. Increased sharing also builds depth and quality in the relationship. Couples who develop their ability to have difficult conversations will also be able to handle other shared stressors in a better way.