There are some things that I really don’t like talking about with my sweetheart. Things I feel deeply ashamed of or embarrassed by. Things that I think could be the final straw in him choosing something other than our marriage, and so I avoid them as long as I possibly can. It’s unhealthy, unhelpful, and creates distance between us
But, I know I’m not alone. So many of us have topics we avoid out of fear, shame, guilt, or simply because we don’t want it to lead to another fight or disagreement.
Time and time again, the questions that flood my podcast inevitably all come down to one thing: talking about the scary or the uncomfortable thing.
I have endless techniques for easing into conversations, especially if they’re about sex. The way you create a container for discussions, how open you’ve been in the past, and the lead-in you choose all contribute to the way your loved one is likely to respond.
But, in the end, the only way to find out what your partner is thinking is to ask. The only way to know how your partner feels about something you’d like to try is to ask. The only way to say you need something different is to actually say it.
There is no shortcut for real, honest, vulnerable conversation. But you can learn ways to set you BOTH up for success.
Hints don’t work. Mind-reading isn’t a thing (even though SO many of my clients get angry or hurt when their partner doesn’t magically read their mind). Guilting someone or using passive-aggressive jabs won’t make someone change, but they will drive them away.
If there’s something that needs to be said, the hard truth is the only option is to actually…you know…SAY IT.
Of course, communication can take many forms, and often we approach it like a bull in a china shop. If we took a little time to be a tad more intentional about it, we’d find we end up with very different results.
First, you don’t have to have one big, bombshell of a conversation all at once. In fact, it can be a lot healthier to break BIG topics into smaller, easier pieces that you slowly unravel together over the course of many weeks or months.
For example, if you’ve been hiding the fact that you have a fetish, it may not be the best option to just drop the bomb one day on them.
Instead, it can be helpful if you two get really good at having open sexual discussions on a regular basis about all sorts of sex topics (check out my sex mapping game). That can take some practice over the course of a few months, especially if it’s not something you’ve done before.
Then, it can be useful to start talking about fantasies together, maybe by watching erotic movies or reading erotic stories and sharing the pieces you did or didn’t like.
At that point, it’s probably a safe bet that both of you are open enough and skilled enough for you to share your fetish with them. It’s also helpful to let them know you aren’t making a demand of them, it’s simply something you want to share for the two of you to possible revisit or explore down the road.
So, the conversation happens, but you’re being thoughtful and deliberate about it by helping the both of you exercise your vulnerability skills and practice holding space for each other when you share intimate details.
Second, ask your partner when it is the best time to have open, intimate discussions.
It probably won’t be right when you both get home from a hard day at work or when you’re in the middle of getting ready to go out with friends. A really great way to work conversations into your busy life is to SCHEDULE MONTHLY CHECK-INs with each other.
If you have a dedicated few hours that are just for you to talk through your favorite parts of the month and things you’d like to do a little differently in the month ahead, that can be a great time to initiate conversations about needs, wants, desires, and concerns.
Third, it’s OK if feelings run high. It’s OK if someone feels hurt. It’s OK if someone cries. It’s OK if someone needs space. Tough conversations can bring up big feelings. The important part is to allow those feelings to exist and to validate them as real. Then take a break, and revisit the conversation later, if need be.
Finally, do not expect to fix two years’ worth of resentment and slights in a single conversation.
Do not expect one or two sessions of therapy to undo a decade’s damage.
Practice early, practice often, and then give yourselves plenty of time to fail, practice, fail again, practice some more, and work your way through the awkward stuff at a pace that feels good for both of you.
NOTE: If one of you has been sitting with an idea for a long time (like a fetish or a need/desire), you have had years upon years of thinking about and getting OK with this thing. Realize it can take a long time for a partner to unpack and work through some of their own fears and shame to begin to catch up to you. A great example is threesomes. I get SO many questions about threesomes. Some people have had fantasies of having a threesome for literally decades, or it’s always been part of their sexual landscape. I’ve seen this blow up in people’s faces over and over again when they approach their partner about the threesome and then feel frustrated when their partner hasn’t magically figured out how they feel about it after a few weeks or a month or two. As frustrating as it can feel for the partner who has already done a ton of the work, give your partner the space to do some work on their own, too. If the relationship is a priority for you, they deserve that time.
The bottom line is the only way to really communicate with your sweetheart is to actually have the conversations. Since most of us didn’t see open, vulnerable conversations modeled for us as kids, nor did we see how people re-connected after things went wrong, it can feel like trial-and-error as an adult to try and navigate this stuff.
We are all learning as we go.
Many of us are scared or frustrated or feeling lost.
And it is possible to practice with baby steps so that you can create a container within your relationship that is open, resilient, and powerful enough to hold space for conversations that are awkward or uneasy.
As you do that more and more often, you’ll find so much more strength and power in your connection. (Research from Open University has shown that couples who weather conflict and problems are much more resilient over the long-term because they begin to see that each time a problem arises and they survive it, they have more confidence the next time it happens.)
What conversation are you avoiding? What needs to be said that you haven’t? How might you take a small step in that direction today?