Learning to Have Uncomfortable Conversations in Your Relationship Will Actually Build the Connection

According to Dr. John Gottman, one of the key indicators of a healthy relationship is the friendship in the partnership.

Couples who genuinely like each other and enjoy spending time together have a healthy relationship – no brainer right?

So what builds and maintains friendship in the relationship? One way to build friendship in the relationship is to talk to each other. Again – no brainer right?

You’d think so, but the truth is the freedom to talk to each other is not as intuitive as you might guess; well at least in regards to the things you need to be talking with each other about. 

It’s Counterintuitive to Share the Vulnerable Stuff and That’s Where the Gold Is.

When I start working with a couple, one of the things we usually address first is related to the things they share with each other versus the things they hide. Usually, couples will edit the information they share with each other out of a fear of something.

They will hold back on talking about something or asking for something they need because they are too afraid, uncomfortable, embarrassed, or ashamed to ask for it. 

That fear or concern usually comes from an experience they had in the past that didn’t go well. They’ve experienced some sort of emotional hurt or wounding that left them feeling vulnerable in some way. In an effort to avoid feeling that way again, they assume not talking about whatever that thing is, will stop them from feeling the discomfort again.

This is simply not true. The tendency to avoid feeling vulnerable really gets in the way of building connected relationships. Sharing your experiences with people who care about you and accept you in spite of your shortcomings and downfalls, builds a true emotional connection.

As counterintuitive as it may seem to lean into sharing what’s really going on for you, it’s through those conversations and the perceived risk you take in having them, that you create deep emotional intimacy. 

In This Case, Leaning Into the Discomfort is What you Want to Do. 

The next thing that is addressed when I work with a couple is how they communicate with each other. Us humans are notorious for thinking we’re awesome communicators when in fact we’re having really incomplete and unclear conversations. 

Most of us think we’re really good at sharing ourselves with our partners and asking for what we need. The simple truth is we’re not. Our tendency to lean away from discomfort is at play here again. Having complete conversations often feels really uncomfortable because we’re not used to having them. 

Here’s An Example:

The background situation here is your partner has been really busy lately and hasn’t had a lot of quality time to spend with you. They’ve been working on a project for work, and as it’s getting closer to the deadline they’ve had to spend more time focused on work than on you. You’re feeling disconnected and are wanting for some QT with them. You know the project should be coming to an end in a couple of weeks. 

That situation, or a version of, happens all the time. So what do you think the usual conversations that stem from that are?

The first example is often saying nothing at all for fear of adding stress to the already busy partner. Instead, you just wait for the project to finish and assume there will be more time together then. 

That Is Incomplete Communication!

That’s you, assuming your partner knows how you feel, assuming they will make spending time with you a priority once the project is complete, and assuming everything will be fine. 

It’s quite possible that is exactly what will happen. However, if it doesn’t, it’s on you that they don’t know what you wanted or needed. You didn’t tell them.

Another way this example situation can shake out is saying something like “I miss you. When the project is done we should plan something special to reconnect.” They say, “I miss you too, and we definitely should.”

Again, that is incomplete and unclear communication.

Nothing Wrong With the Communication, There’s Just Something Missing.

Can you see what it is? 

There’s nothing in that communication exchange about follow-up to make it happen.

Obviously, it’s quite possible (maybe even likely) that you’re both on the same page about this, and a date will be planned and everything will be fine. The trouble comes when the date doesn’t happen and one of you is upset about it. 

  • You assumed they’d let you know when the project was done so you could plan the date.
  • Maybe you assumed they’d follow up with you about setting a date.
  • You assumed that they’d plan something because it was them that had been too busy before.
  • They assumed since they were busy that you’d plan something. Maybe it’s something else entirely. 

But when you look back, you can see that the problem stems from incomplete and unclear communication. 

Even worse, and more often than not in situations like this, is that not only did you not fully communicate, you didn’t communicate the truth.

Because the truth is, you don’t want to wait until the project is over to spend time with your partner! And you don’t say anything because you don’t want to be pushy or demanding or add more stress to what they’re already dealing with. You’ll handle it yourself and wait patiently. 

Anything is Tolerable for a While – it’s When it Happens Over and Over That Trouble Starts

Again, that’s fine for a period of time. After a while, it will become a problem. You’ll become resentful of their busy work life and lack of time for you and the relationship. You may start to feel taken for granted and resentful. You may even start to feel neglected. At that point, the damage is already done and it’s hard to recover. 

Coming back from feeling taken for granted, resentful, and neglected is a lot more work than having a complete conversation about wanting a date before the project is done.

The other problem that arises with this pattern of behaviour (withholding communication) is that it’s tough to overcome. If the pattern is to not talk, breaking that habit and starting to talk is challenging; it’s not the habit you’re accustomed to, and changing it can be hard.  

This is the Spot Where the Discomfort and the Need to be Vulnerable Comes Into Play. 

Depending on what you’ve experienced in the past, asking for something can feel like you’re asking for too much. Asking your already busy partner “will you let me know when the project is ending so I can plan something?” can oddly feel kinda pushy. 

  • They’re busy.
  • You’ve already hinted at wanting to spend time together.
  • They acknowledged they missed you too.
  • The idea that some attention to the relationship is needed is clear and you both agree…

Therefore saying anything else is over the top and unnecessary… right? That’s simply not true.

Let’s put this in another context. Can you imagine if pilots took off from one city without knowing specifically where they were landing? Not just which city but which runway they were landing on? And if they didn’t know that yet, at least there would be a plan in place to get them that arrival runway information before they tried to land? 

It would be madness! Just a bunch of planes up there circling around looking for a clear shot at a runway hoping that no one else tries to land at the same time.

Clear and complete communication is vital for air traffic safety… consider that it’s vital to the long-term health of your relationship too. 

This means you have to give up the notion of “if they truly understood me or cared, they’d just know…”

  • What I want.
  • What I need.
  • How I’m feeling.
  • What to do.

You get to give that up and take on that it’s YOUR responsibility to ask for what you need.

It’s YOUR responsibility to ensure that your whole message is delivered as intended and received by your partner.

What you’ve got going on over there with you is all your responsibility to deal with and communicate accordingly. 

Simple. Not easy. Totally worth it.

You deserve to be happy and fulfilled in your relationships and the Relationship Rulebook series of articles (this is one of them) can teach you how to do that.

Follow along as we continue to dig into the Relationship Rulebook and discover the foundational tools for building relationships that work. If you haven’t already…

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