Tough Talks: Tactics for Communicating About Difficult Topics

couple standing on a hill looking out to the distance

Joao Silas/Unsplash

It's the rare person who actually likes to tackle hard emotional topics with their significant other. But, doing so — in a healthy way — is essential for the strength of your union.

The most common sources of tension in marriages are money, sex and affection, family members (from in-laws to kids), household responsibilities, sharing space (especially for newlyweds), and simply being "available" according to experts. However, there are a few tactics that promote effective and loving conversation around tough issues. We can't promise the talks will be any easier, but they'll certainly be more positive and productive — and that's exactly what you want for your relationship.

Don't Assume

Unless your guy is an actual mind reader, don't assume he knows what's bothering you and why — even if you think he should. Similarly, don't assume you've done something wrong if he appears distant or in a bad mood, says Christine Weber, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist with a practice in Seaford, NY. "Take a more proactive approach to eliminate any false assumptions. A simple, 'Are you upset with me?' can put an end to any ambiguity," she advises. Assumptions amplify the way you perceive a problem — and not in a good way — so simply eliminate them.

Time Your Talks Right

Yes, problems will arise, you will become angry at each other, and you will mouth off in a moment of anger. But the proverbial heat of the moment isn't the time to hash through the issue. Emotions are too high. According to April Masini, relationship author and advice columnist at, approaching difficult topics when you're heated will lead to an unproductive conflict that "resembles venting more than resolution." Acknowledge the problem, set a time to talk about it, and then back off. For example, Masini suggests saying something like, "This is really upsetting me — can we talk about it over coffee on Sunday? That'll give me a chance to cool down and figure out my part in this."

Think About What You Want to Accomplish

Your guy did that thing again. Do you simply want an apology or would you prefer that he stop doing it? These are different goals. "All too often, couples don't effectively communicate because it's unclear what one is looking for," says Weber. When you're talking with your partner, she advises, express your need and what it is you would like from him. If you're on the receiving end, ask what he wants. "Sometimes, simply questioning your partner can mitigate a potential disagreement."

Use "I", Not "You"

When you do talk, try not to be defensive or accusatory — and don't make your partner feel that way either. All of our experts suggest using sentences that start with "I," versus "you." Identify the issue with a goal of finding a solution, advises Weber. "It has a less threatening and accusatory tone. And tone is always important in conversation." Masini agrees: "When your spouse feels that he's not being blamed, he's more likely to want to work towards a solution. Finger pointing escalates into, well, more finger pointing."


It sounds basic, but it's often hard to do during emotionally charged times. However, it's vital. Don't talk over each other. Allow the other to finish thoughts before responding. If you're not sure, says Weber, ask: "Reflect back to your partner what you believe the issue is. Doing this eliminates any uncertainty and allows a proper response."

And keep in mind, says Los Angeles-based licensed psychologist Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. and author, your partner's hot-button issues usually have roots in a traumatizing childhood experience. "When you understand where they are coming from, it's easier to compromise because you don't take it as a control or competitive issue. Be curious about what's going on for them."

Address One Topic at a Time

Don't bring up past offenses or renew unresolved fights. Stick to the topic at hand; otherwise, you'll never resolve anything. According to Weber, "Multiple issues take the focus off the original problem, and may make it impossible to find a solution."

Admit When You're Wrong

Nobody, and we do mean nobody, is beyond reproach. And, yes, it takes two. If you have some part in the issue, own up. "Admitting mistake is important. It shows your partner that you are able to reflect on your own behavior in a thought-conscious way," says Weber.

Accept Some Basic Truths About Each Other

Trying to change someone other than yourself is always a losing proposition. Masini puts it this way: "If your husband was a sloppy kid, a sloppy teen, and a sloppy adult, accept the fact that you married a slob. He is not suddenly going to turn into a walking one-man maid service over night, or ever. Instead, either you take on the cleaning in exchange for his taking on something that's equitable (car maintenance, bill paying, dog walking — whatever you agree on), or hire a regular house cleaner."

Remember, Compromise Is Key

It's natural to want the other person to give, but it isn't compromise unless you both do. "It is important," says Weber, "to recognize that compromise and adaptation are a part of any healthy relationship and are necessary to promote future growth. "

Keep Working at It

Finally, says Raymond, remember that solutions are not static black and white events. "Rather they develop and morph over time when each person has a greater understanding of the others perspective and can make more room for positions on both sides," she says. Strive to always be inclusive, not exclusive, and you'll be well on your way.

Related Stories