How useful a conversation will be to the health of your marriage can be determined within the first five seconds of engagement. If you approach the conversation with an angry, impatient, demanding or frustrated tone, it’s likely the discussion will go south from there. If you approach it with a soft, calm, appreciative tone, the possibility of having a productive marital conversation is significantly improved.

As you begin a sensitive conversation, the following guidelines can help you engage your mate appropriately:

  1. Check your emotions. If you feel anger, anxiety or any other feeling that may hinder a positive outcome, take a few minutes to check in with yourself, notice how you’re feeling and ask any self-protective parts that seem “on guard’” to step back and relax.
  2. Clarify your intention. When you decide to address an area of conflict with your mate, ask yourself what your goal or hope is in bringing up the issue? Do you want persuade your mate to agree with you or are you seeking a mutual understanding? Do you want to win an argument or foster closeness? Do you want to get your mate to change, or are you willing to compromise? Consider the needs of your mate and of your marriage.
  3. Approach gently. Starting a conversation with a harsh tone or “edge” will likely trigger some defenses in your mate and reduce the likelihood you will have a useful conversation. The Bible says it well: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1 NIV) Softening your tone as you approach your mate will do wonders in promoting a positive outcome. Offering an affirmation or expressing appreciation for some aspect of your mate or his behavior can help him lower his defenses as he is reassured you see the good in him.
  4. State your intention. When you ask your mate to discuss the problem with you, let him know the positive outcome you’re hoping for (increased understanding, compromise, a resolution that will benefit both). For example, “Seth, I’d like to talk with you about our upcoming visit to your parents. I want it to go smoothly, so I’d like to discuss some concerns I have.”

Once you have set the stage for the conversation by approaching your mate gently, you will want to express your issue in a way that is non-blaming and increases the chances you will be heard by your mate. To do so, it is helpful to use an “I” statement.  An “I” statement allows you to assert yourself, sharing your thoughts, feelings and hopes without putting your mate on the defensive.

The “I” statement is constructed of three parts: what happened, the feeling you had when it happened, and why you suspect that feeling came up for you. For example, “When we visited your parents last time, and your mom criticized our parenting and you did not respond, I felt frustrated and resentful, because I was hoping you would set a boundary with her.” This statement is direct, honest and clearly expresses the issue and feelings without blaming.

This approach is far better than an attacking, blaming “you” statement like, “You don’t stand up for me when your mom is critical” or “You care about your mom’s feelings more than mine!” Such statements will provoke defensiveness in your mate and reduce the chances they will respond well.

When you express your feelings in an “I” statement, it is important to use a one-word feeling that expresses your internal experience. “I felt resentful” or “I felt lonely.” If you find yourself saying “I felt that . . .” or “I felt like . . .,” you are probably not going to be expressing a feeling but a thought. It is important to express your feeling, as this gives your partner an opportunity for deeper understanding and empathy.

Being intimate partners and best friends requires you to have meaningful, honest conversations with your mate. These guidelines can help you initiate safe and productive communications that will deepen understanding and connection. Try it out and let me know how it goes!

(An excerpt from Making Love Last: Divorce-Proofing Your Young Marriage) Originally developed by Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training (Harmony, 2000)

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