My partner and I get into fight after fight. Every time I try to talk to them about a problem in our relationship, I get nervous and shut down or I blow up and forget what started the fight. How can we make it better? I know we can make it work if we talk it out. I just don’t know how.
That is a very common question! Fortunately, I know just the person to ask! Mei-Lani began at New Gen as an AmeriCorps member (super cool program you should check out by clicking here) and when her term ended she so graciously offered to continue here as a volunteer (we are very lucky). Mei-Lani not only has tons of training but she also has counseled hundreds and hundreds of patients and answered this question many times. There are so many knowledgeable people here at New Gen and I think it’s important to share them with you. So without further adieu, here is Mei-Lani’s answer.
You know what? You just asked one of the most common relationship questions we hear in the clinic. Communication is very important for relationships. It builds trust, understanding, and lets a relationship grow. But it can still be very difficult for people. That’s because there are many ways to communicate (with your words, with your body, with your phone…and many more) and many styles that people use to express their feelings (passive, aggressive, assertive, and many more!)
No matter how you are communicating or what you are talking about, there are some basic steps you can follow to make talking to your partner about the tough stuff easier. Many of these tips are adapted from the sex educators at San Francisco Sex Information, but I’ve broken them down into three parts: plan it, do it, and follow up.
PART ONE: Plan It
Plan with your partner to make the conversation happen: Many times people will want to wait for the right time to bring something up, but when the time comes, the place isn’t right. The perfect time and place don’t just fall into your lap. You might have to make it happen. Plan this conversation with your partner. Let them know the issue. Let them have the time they need to think about things before the talk comes up. Think about the times when you have had a big talk sprung onto you out of the blue. It can suck.
Planning can be as easy as …
“I have been feeling upset about ____this____. Let’s plan a time when we can talk about it.”
Set the stage: This means pick a good time and place to talk. Make sure there’s enough time so no one gets rushed. And try to pick a place that allows both people be comfortable and honest. Talking right before class ends or before getting off the bus cuts the conversation short. Plus being around a lot of other people can put pressure to act a certain way.
Think before you speak: Now that you both have the time to think before the big talk comes up, make sure your own thoughts are clear. What is really the problem? Think about what you truly want to come out of the conversation. Do you want change? Do you want support? Do you want trust? How will you know if the talk went well? How will you feel? How will things change? Asking yourself these questions before hand makes sure that if your partner asks you them, you already know how to say what you think.
PART TWO: Do it.
I know, easier said than done. But… you have already thought about things and made the time and space to make this talk happen. So go for it!
Use I-Statements: Saying “I feel… when you….” “I think… because of….” This lets you say what you think and feel without attacking the person you’re talking to. Rather than making assumptions for your partner with “You think, you feel, you do,” you can speak truth about what you know and feel.
Try it out and see how different these statements make you feel.
“You are always texting other girls. Why can’t I have guy friends?.”
“I feel disrespected when there seems to be different rules for you than me.”
Listen: Look at your partner. Check your understanding by repeating some of the things they say back to them. For example, you could say, “So I hear that you feel ____ because of __this and that___.” If you are having a hard time understanding what your partner is saying, ask yourself why? Are you already thinking of what to say next or making judgments? Are you agreeing with everything they say before they say it or putting words and ideas into their mouth?
Pay attention to the non-words: 65% of communication is in our tone of voice and body language. Make sure you aren’t speaking in an angry tone when trying to say something nice. Read your partner’s body language – are their arms crossed and are they facing away from you when they say “everything is okay.” See if their body is speaking a whole different language than their words.
Ask questions: If you don’t understand what your partner just said, ask!
Meet in the middle: Relationships are about give and take. Likely, you both will come up with some ideas to change your own behavior or things you want your partner to do differently. Try to find ways to make changes that leave both people happy. You might not come up with something that leaves you both happy. That’s okay – you both at least said what you were feeling. Sit with that and see where it takes you in a few days.
PART THREE: Follow up.
Bet you didn’t think there was more, right? This conversation just brought up a lot. You both shared how you felt. You probably had some emotions come up and you both probably want to change some things.
Before you wrap up this conversation, make another date to check in. This could be something like “okay, boo, we just said a lot. I appreciate that we both could be honest. I think this was good for us to talk, but I wanna make sure things are going right for us later on. In a couple of weeks, let’s get some food and go for a walk and check in about this again.”
And speaking of wrapping things up, I have gone on way too long about talking. I hope these tips are helpful for you. It might seem like a lot of work, but start slowly. You don’t have to try everything all at once. Try one tip and see if it helps out. If you have any questions, write me back at AskShawna@yahoo.com.
Volunteer Health Educator