Kevin Leman often says that the five scariest words for a husband to hear his wife say are, “Honey, we need to talk.” And they can be, for sure! In addition, many wives feel the same way about these words. The thought about “the talk” can bring up all kinds of emotions and anxieties.
So, when we need to talk to our spouse about a serious subject, what is the best approach? Honestly, it can be a bit different for every couple. That’s because the dynamics of your marital relationship is different than anyone else’s.
However, no matter what, it’s important to make as “safe” of an approach as we can, so we don’t kill the chance of the “talk” going well right from the start. Too many times spouses do that. We confess that we have. But we have learned and are still learning to do better. And we want to pass some of those tips on to you.
We do know that when we talk, we need to truly hear each other. And we also have the need to be heard. Our opening approach can often make a difference in whether or not that will happen. So, below are a few tips you can glean through. Use what works for you. We hope they help.
THE APPROACH TO “TALK”
First, it’s important to realize:
• Timing is important when we approach our spouse to talk about serious situations.
That’s what we’ve learned. It used to be that we would bring up sensitive subjects any time of the day when they hit us as being important. But that brought up all kinds of problems. (You can only imagine. Or maybe you discovered this first hand in your ill-timed “talks” with each other.)
We eventually learned that there are H.A.L.T. Times when we should wait. It’s best to H.A.L.T. or avoid discussing sensitive subjects when either of us is exceptionally Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and/or Tired. Instead, pick another time that is less problematic.
You may not always be able to follow this principle. But when you can, it works best to do so. That’s because we aren’t as receptive to interact with our spouse in healthy ways during these times. We’re more vulnerable to turn a talk into a fight. Several marriage experts give these insights concerning this point:
“Pick the right time and place to discuss difficult issues. Not right before you get into bed, or when you’re exhausted, or when the baby is crying, the dog is barking, the TV is blaring, and/or the phone is ringing. Pick a time when you’re both rested, and it’s a setting where you can be undistracted. You may have to get out of the house, even if simply retreating to the back porch, grabbing a table at the nearest Starbucks, or walking around the block a few times.” (Terri K. & Paul C. Reisser)
“As you go out the door, or sit down for dinner, or put your head on your pillow for a good night’s rest—these are not appropriate times for contentious conversation. With great kindness say, ‘I agree that this subject is important. So I want to give it thought. When could we sit down and discuss it?’ Sometimes spur-of-the-moment disagreements aren’t worth the time for talk later. But if the topic is important, jointly set the time for talk and then follow through.” (Caryl Krueger)
“Before you download your trials onto your spouse, check to see how his or her day has been. You might wait until a better time.” (Bill & Pam Farrell)
Some spouses are experiencing overload. So before you dive in, check to see if it’s an okay time to have that important conversation. If it isn’t, then figure out together what would be a better time. That guideline has helped up immensely to resolve important matters peaceably.
• Timing is important, but so is the location—even where you stand or sit together.
Here’s a strange tip we didn’t even realize until more recently. But experts claim it’s true:
“Do you want to get on her [his] good side? Whisper sweet nothings into the left ear. A Sam Houston State University study found that ‘emotional words get through to people better when spoken through the left ear, not the right. The findings are consistent with the brain’s right hemisphere’s ability to perceive emotions.’ So sit or stand on his or her left when you’re communicating something important —to be better heard.” (Marriage Partnership Magazine)
Now we realize that seems like weird advice. But you might want to try it. Who knows? Perhaps it will work for you! Also, to the best of our ability, we try not to get into heated discussions in our bedroom. We want that to be a place of peace and safety. That may be a good thing for you to do too.
Plus, don’t bring up serious subjects in front of others. They don’t need, don’t want, nor should they be involved in your arguments. Be respectful! Give them a break.
This principle also honors your spouse’s and your privacy. Sometimes you get into issues that can be embarrassing to your spouse. (They also should embarrass you.) Keep his or her, and your dignity in tact and keep it private!
• Check your attitude and your motives in your approach to discuss sensitive subjects.
Spouses will more likely shut down or ramp up if you approach them in contentious anger, or you have a poor attitude right from the outset. It can put them on the defensive before you even state what you want to talk about. And that can be problematic if you want to find a peaceable solution to the problem.
If you want to get into a fight, then you will most likely succeed with that approach. But if you want to resolve the situation in godly, peaceable ways, make sure you “speak the truth in love.” Check your attitude and your motives beforehand.
“Today, before you initiate, you engage in or respond to any communication, before you’re in the same room or face to face with an individual in question, consider your thoughts, your desires and your actions in light of the kingdom. Is it true and noble? Is it right and pure? Also, is it lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy? Think about such things (See: Philippians 4:8).” (Laura MacCorkle)
• Approach your spouse as a partner, not as an angry, vengeful adversary.
Be discerning. To the best of your ability, try to tamp your anger down, at least a bit. Count to 10 or to 100. Take a quick walk. And/or do a bit of deep breathing to get to a better place emotionally. Praying beforehand is a wise thing to do before making your approach. Ask God for wisdom, discernment, and a calm spirit.
We each have had to use one of the above methods many times over the years in our marriage. Sometimes we do it right; and sometimes, sadly, we don’t. Keeping our marriage partnership in mind is the best way to start things off on the right foot. We know that, and hopefully you keep that in mind too.
We can all get caught up in the flurry of important matters to such a point that we sometimes forget that we are partners, not adversaries. So this is a reminder.
Keep in mind that your spouse is your marriage partner. Sometimes he or she doesn’t do things to make you feel like that’s true. But that doesn’t erase the fact that he or she IS our partner. On our wedding day we made vows to enter into a partnership. So do what you can to act like a partner, and not an adversary. Hopefully, your spouse will make this his or her priority as well.
• Right from the start make sure that your spouse knows you want to hear their point of view.
And then make sure you listen to their insights concerning the matter you want to talk about.
“Our start-up approach will lay down a foundation that opens up a path so we will better understand and work with each other. Words are like slabs of stone in the stream that gets us over to the other side. Listening is the bridge that draws our mate over to us. Whatever obstacle we may have in our marriages, it is communication that spans the gap. Let the redeemed cross over to one another.” (Patrick M. Morley)
Always keep in mind:
“The most important goal is to make certain your spouse understands that you’re giving his or her viewpoint a careful hearing and that you consider it to be of equal value to yours. Why? Because taking the other person’s feelings and opinions seriously demonstrates that you take him or her seriously—and your mate in turn feels respected.
“You can take communication classes till the cows come home. But if you truly believe that your idea is the only ‘right’ approach and that you don’t have to listen to your spouse, the relationship is in serious jeopardy.” (Terri K. & Paul C. Reisser)
The “Right” or Listening Approach?
I’ve fallen into this trap not listening many times with Steve. But when I approach him with an attitude of listening, as well as talking, he is MUCH more open to discuss about serious matters. I do whatever I can to convey to him that I’m not judging; I’m trying to understand his stance on the matter. (And I am.) I may or may not agree with him; but it’s important that I hear him. Then we are able together to work out a solution that satisfies both of us.
If I’m judgmental or I’m not safe for him to talk to without my being accusatory or explosive, why would he want to “talk” to me? He’ll run for safety instead, or pull an avoidance maneuver on me. And I don’t blame him or any spouse for doing that. So, work on being a safe spouse—emotionally as well as other ways. Talk, listen, affirm, and work together with one another.
• Put regularly scheduled talk sessions on your calendar.
That way you don’t have to make initial approaches to “talk.”
“We strongly urge couples to commit to a regularly scheduled, look-me-in-the-eye conversation session that we refer to as ‘checking in’ with your spouse. What we’re talking about is an uninterrupted, take-this-really-seriously time to find out what’s going on in your spouse’s inner life.
“It can occur over a cup of coffee or a meal together (assuming the setting allows for undistracted focus on each other and the conversation), on a long walk, during a drive, or in virtually any setting in which a husband and wife are willing and able to listen attentively to one another.
“In addition to a planned time (for example, every Saturday afternoon for coffee), it also can and should occur as a spontaneous ‘I need to talk’ session. This is not the same as a date night, by the way, which it has it’s own valuable place in marriage. (Terri K. & Paul C. Reisser)
Steve and I do this. And it has helped our relationship A LOT! But we’ve found that we can’t talk about anything serious over a meal. Steve is too focused on food, when it is sitting before him. That isn’t a criticism; it’s just the way he’s wired. We can talk over coffee or iced tea, lemonade, or ice water. But food is not a good option for us. So, just figure out what works for you. Also:
• Avoid harsh “start ups.” Soften your approach:
“Many arguments erupt like a lit match to gasoline because of a harsh start-up. You do or say something that hurts your spouse, or vice versa. The offended party likely says “you…” The person on the receiving end feels attacked. They try to explain why they did what they did, making matters worse. It comes off as justification instead of understanding. Make no mistake, it takes maturity to have a great marriage.” (Anne Bercht)
Anne is so right about this! It does take maturity to have a great marriage. Take the high road—the mature one. And as a marriage partner, instead of a harsh start up make sure there isn’t a “bite” in your voice that is accusatory or harsh when you’re approaching your spouse.
“As you pause to think about your own communication patterns, you must learn to pay special attention to the fact that it’s not just the words you use; it’s also the tone that projects your words. Sarcasm, shaming, pessimism, negativity, whining, and insincerity are really more about tone than words. Rolling your eyes, shaking your head, and shrugging your shoulders are obviously forms of nonverbal communication, but they can definitely serve to enhance a negative tone.” (Doug Fields)
Here’s another thought to prayerfully consider concerning this point:
“Complain without blame when bringing up an issue with your partner. We call this using a ‘soft start-up.’ …96% of the time, you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the interaction. Start softly.” (The Gottman Institute) “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)
It’s good to note:
“An effective way to non-verbally communicate your desire for relationship change can involve softening. Softening has to do with your tone of voice, language, behavior and even your body posture. Being intentional to soften will send a message to your partner that you’re trying. The impact can sometimes be dramatic. Soft is easier to embrace and easier to listen to. And soft is safer and more enjoyable to be near.” (National Institute of Marriage)
On the other hand:
• Some spouses respond better to “the talk” when you start out with a “side-by-side” approach.
It’s important to study your spouse. Think about whether or not the following approach might work (whether it’s a husband or wife situation):
“Practice ‘by the way’ conversation—with men who are shy about talking. It helps to first join them in any kind of activity they enjoy. As you relax and have fun together, their talking tends to happen naturally, ‘by the way.’” (Becky Freeman)
Now, this style of talking usually works best with casual conversations. I found that our sons responded well to this when they were teenagers. Often, if I asked them how they were doing their answer would be, “fine” or “good.” They would then offer nothing more. But if I started a conversation when we were doing something side-by-side they would talk like crazy most of the time.
It was heart-warming to hear them talking about all kinds of things. I’ve heard many wives remark about this with their husbands. This method works best for them.
But does this work when you’re dealing with difficult issues? We’ve heard that it can. See if this approach works for you. Within your time together, you can say that you need to talk about a more serious issue together. Then schedule a talk time within the next few days. That approach might be perceived as less threatening.
And then here’s another different approach you might try:
“If there’s something important your spouse has done that has hurt you, use the sandwich approach. Be aware of the fact that few, if any, people find it easy to own their mistakes. But if you start with a word of praise or encouragement, then bring in the correction and finish your sentence with something positive, you make it safe for core issues to be heard and received. You long to feel accepted. So does your spouse.” (Anne Bercht)
Lastly, it’s important to note:
• Approaching serious subjects that are important to you by “hinting” rarely works.
“In marriage, real communication often demands listening between the lines, beyond the words being spoken. For various reasons, we frequently use indirect discourse. Instead of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, we attempt to communicate via hints and innuendoes. Then we wonder why nobody understands us.” (R. C. Sproul)
So, if you need to talk to your spouse, say it. Don’t be mean about it. But also, don’t rely on hinting. That is usually an ineffective way of trying to communicate. When mind reading is taken out of the marriage as an expected form of communication, spouses and families are spared a whole lot of unnecessary frustrations.
There is too much time and energy being wasted on hinting, hoping, assuming, guessing, misinterpreting, and misreading instead of asking or telling what is or isn’t wanted and expected in simple, clear ways.
So, there you have it. Those are a few ways we have found to approach your spouse to “talk.” These suggestions are not set in stone. If you need to, you can vary and adapt them so they work best for you. Plus, we’d love additional suggestions that have worked for you, if you have them. Just include them in the comments below.
As you seek to live with your spouse in healthy, loving ways, we pray:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)
Cindy and Steve Wright
— ADDITIONALLY —
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