How to Have Difficult Marriage Conversations

A guide to having a tough conversation with your partner — ABC Everyday

How to Have Difficult Marriage Conversations

No relationship is perfect.

Most of us are just striving for good, and that often means working on the bits that aren't.

But that starts with talking about them — and raising an issue with your partner can be difficult and nerve-racking. The words «we need to talk» drive fear into most of our hearts.

We asked Relationships Australia NSW CEO Elisabeth Shaw, relationship counsellor Paul Gale-Baker and couple and family therapist Jacqueline McDiarmid for their best advice on having a tough conversation.

Plan and prepare for the conversation

When you're going to have a potentially difficult conversation, it's really good to plan and prepare for it — you might for a job interview or speech.

Doing this can help you get your point across. It can also give your partner an opportunity to ready themselves.

Get clear on what the 'issue' is

  • You might be feeling hurt, but it's important to be specific and clear about what it is making you feel that way. «Avoid saying things 'I want to be respected'. It doesn't give anybody a clear picture about what you are expecting from them,» Mr Gale-Baker says. «Respect can mean different things to different people.»
  • If you have a bunch of things on your mind, focus in on one or two of the most important areas you want changed to avoid becoming overwhelmed. (You can always tackle the other things in future conversations if this one goes well.) It might help to write these down.

Consider when you might want to raise a conversation

  • Having the conversation somewhere away from distractions television and kids will help keep you focused. Choose somewhere you and your partner are both comfortable.
  • Weekends are good for a lot of people. You can sit down, go for a walk or even a drive.

Let them know you want to chat

Once you are clear on the issue you want to discuss and when, it's time to loop in your partner.

«The best way is to schedule a time to talk, rather than pouncing on them,» Ms McDiarmid says.

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Maybe mention it after you've had some time to yourself, or you've shared a nice time together.

When giving your partner a heads up that you want to make a time to talk, use language that invites them in.

  • Give them an idea of what it is you want to discuss, without getting bogged down in detail. For example, «I'd really us to spend some time going over how we divvy up tasks. When would be a good time? or «I'd to talk about how we manage the housework». Using «us» and «we» is important.
  • If this has been a problematic discussion in the past, own up to that. For example, «This has always been tough for us and I really want to make sure that we do it differently».
  • Propose the ideal time and place to your partner, but allow them to make a suggestion that might suit them better.

Struggle to express yourself clearly when talking about something difficult? Psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Esther Perel suggests trying a letter.

Having the conversation

The time has come and you're ready to have this conversation.

Firstly, if you're feeling exhausted or angry when the time to chat rolls around, reschedule but make sure it's within the week so it's not avoided long-term.

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If you're good to go, know that it's OK to feel nervous about having a conversation this, but the prep should give you some confidence.

«Starting with your genuine good intentions sets an aspiration for the conversation,» Ms Shaw says.

«If there is a negative history and indeed if you have been the one who has been difficult to get on with, own that and declare what you want to do differently.»

Using the right language and listening skills are the two most important things when having a tough conversation.

You want your point of view to get across, but it's also about listening to what your partner has to say.

What to say

It is good to start with «I» statements «I am feeling frustrated …» or «I am wondering…» It's less of an attack than starting with «You do this…»

Even if the intent to hurt isn't there, the silent treatment can have «torturous and upsetting» consequences for the recipient. Here's how to approach being frozen out by your partner.

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Tone is also important — best to avoid sarcasm and patronising statements. If you go into the chat with good intentions and with kindness, this is less ly to occur.

While each couple has their own pattern of language, some examples of things you might say include:

  • How have you been going? How do you feel about how we're managing bill paying and other tasks?
  • I really want to see if we can get past some of the difficulties we have been having and try to talk about things differently.
  • I want us to be closer and there are some things getting in the way.
  • I realise I can get very triggered when we talk about this because I feel so (hurt, upset, etc) and that can get in the way of me listening to you.
  • I need you to hear what I am saying and understand my point of view, even if you don't agree with it, and I shall try to do the same for you.
  • I love you, but this issue happening in our relationship is concerning me.

Both have a say and hear one another

  • Try reflective listening. It can feel artificial but it's a good way of making sure both parties are heard. Repeat back to your partner what they have said. For example, «What I am hearing is that you want me …»
  • A pen and paper can be helpful for taking notes and staying on track.
  • If you start to escalate into conflict, just stop it and say «Let's take time out and come back to this». Make sure you set a time, however, and no longer than an hour is best. But think about how you can do it differently this time.
  • Don't feel everything has to be solved, but instead have an outcome. «Any conversation needs to have a clear outcome that people agree to, even if that's 'we can't make a decision now',» Mr Gale-Baker says.

Common pitfalls to look out for

  • Opening the conversation with an attack rather than an invitation. «I'd to hear what you think about…» is better than «You always do this…»
  • Not listening because you are planning the next retort.
  • Bringing others into the situation, «All my friends agree with me».
  • Widening the dispute into every other grievance you have. Stay local for the issue to be solvable.
  • Calling one another names or using insults.
  • Body language — crossing your arms and avoiding eye contact aren't helpful. You want to be able to read each other's facial expressions.

«If you are delivering new information, and your partner is shocked, upset or whatever, you need to also consider that could be appropriate and reasonable,» says Ms Shaw.

«Don't assume that a negative reaction is a show stopper. But it might signal a need to take some time, slow things down and let your partner catch up with your point of view.

«A regular bad reaction or an inability to own the reaction, or change the provocative approach, says that you should speak to a couple therapist to get some good guidance about new ways of relating.»

If an argument makes you feel unsafe or you need to talk, you can call:

Posted 16 Oct 201916 Oct 2019Wed 16 Oct 2019 at 8:04pm, updated 30 Jun 202030 Jun 2020Tue 30 Jun 2020 at 8:59pm


Challenging Conversations with Your Partner

How to Have Difficult Marriage Conversations
See also: Communication in Difficult Situations

In any romantic relationship, there are times when you have to have a difficult conversation.

Perhaps you are worried about a particular aspect of someone’s behaviour, or want to suggest a major change to your lives together.

Whatever it is, there are a few ways to make the conversation easier.

It can take courage to initiate these conversations.

However, you are handing all the power to your partner if you always wait for them to initiate discussions and, if you are afraid to assert yourself, you will not get what you want. This can lead to resentments building up over time, which can damage your relationship, so it is better to discuss things together before it gets to this stage.

Before You Begin

Before you start any difficult conversation, it can be helpful to decide:

  • What you want to achieve from the conversation; and
  • What your response will be if you do not get the outcome that you want.

The first is important because it is difficult to get what you want if you are less than sure what that is.

It may be helpful to look at our pages on Personal Empowerment and Setting Personal Goals to clarify your goals.

The second is important because you need to be clear about your next steps.

For example, if your partner does not want to get married yet but says that they might be open to it in the future, how long are you prepared to wait? Are you happy to be in a relationship with someone who does not want to have children?


Be very careful before you issue any ultimatums. You may end an excellent relationship if you cannot be flexible with your demands and few people enjoy being put under pressure.

Conversely, if you say that everything is over if you are not engaged to be married by the end of the year, but have no real intention of leaving if it does not happen, you create confusion about what it is that you really want.

Your partner may not take future pronouncements seriously.

Rules to Improve Conversations

Some people seem to be better at handling difficult conversations than others. It may not be an inbuilt talent. Instead, they could just be following some simple rules:

1) Pick a good time

Few people are at their best when rushing the house to go to work or very tired.

Try to initiate a conversation when you have enough time and the other person is not obviously stressed, for example, in the early evening or at the weekend. If it is hard to find a suitable time, ask if the two of you could set aside a time to talk, and agree when that will be.

2) Avoid making accusations

“I” statements are much better than “You” statements. For example, it is less confrontational to say: “I worry that you are often very drunk when we go out” than to say: “You drink too much and you are embarrassing me.

” Our page on Tact and Diplomacy may help you to express your feelings in the least confrontational manner that you can, and you may also find our page on Giving Feedback in Relationships is helpful.

3) Ask for the time that you need

If you are feeling a little nervous and want some time to talk before you are interrupted, it is best to say so.

For example, you may have several reasons for thinking that it is the right time for you to move in together, and you want to explain the complete picture before they interrupt. If so, you might say: “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Can you just give me a couple of minutes to explain my reasons before we discuss it?”

4) Give them time to respond

The other person may be surprised by what you have said, or it might be an emotive issue. Be patient rather than insisting on an instant response. They may need to sit in silence for a minute or two, or may even need to think about it for a few days.

5) Stick to the topic at hand

If you are upset about one thing, resist the temptation to throw in additional minor issues or to refer to previous issues that have been resolved.

For example, if you are angry that they were late home and did not call you, stick to that. Do not add in your minor annoyance about them making a mess the other day, or bring up the way their mother upset you last year. Doing so will just make your partner feel more defensive and makes it less ly that you'll achieve your desired outcome.

for example, an apology and a promise to ring when they are going to be late in future – will be reached. If you find it difficult to stop yourself once you get going, look at our page on Self Control.

Top Tip

If you find that you are shouting and losing control, either take a deep breath to regain it, or walk away for the moment.

Similarly, if the other person becomes angry, it is probably better to suspend the discussion for the moment. Make it clear that you are delaying rather than cutting them off:

“We will get further with this later when we’re calmer, let’s leave this for now.”

Steps to take if the conversation goes badly

These will depend on why the conversation went wrong.

If your partner simply does not want the two of you to move in together yet, you may need to accept that. Our page on Understanding Other People may help you to see if from their perspective.

You might also find that criticizing your partner means that you receive criticism in return, which may be upsetting. Look at Dealing with Criticism to ensure that you can deal with this in a positive manner.

If your partner refused to discuss the issue because you brought it up in an aggressive manner, you may need to apologise and ask for the opportunity to discuss it again.

If it is impossible to discuss anything difficult with your partner without you or them becoming angry, our pages on Dealing with Aggression and Anger Management may be useful.

If they are in denial about an important issue, for example about excessive use of alcohol or illegal drugs, you may need to get some help.

Other people might be able to bring it up with them more effectively as their relationship with them is different.

For example, they might be embarrassed about discussing their drinking with a fairly new romantic partner but more able to be open with an old friend.

Such issues be hard to discuss with other people but it may be worth it in the end, and it is possible that you are not the only one to have noticed that there is a problem.

Ultimately, only you can decide what you are prepared to put up with. However, if you are staying despite your worries because your partner threatens you or because you are afraid of being alone, it is ly to be an unhealthy relationship.

Our pages on Building Confidence and Assertiveness may help you to put you in the right frame of mind to think about your best interests and move on if you need to.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide Personal and Romantic Relationships

Personal and romantic relationships can be difficult to navigate.

Even those who are highly skilled at personal interactions at work can struggle to translate these skills to their home environment. This book is designed to help you do just that: to take your existing interpersonal skills, understand them better, and use them effectively in your personal relationships.

The benefits of difficult conversations

Given the risks outlined here, you may feel that it is better to avoid difficult conversations altogether. However, it will be hard for your relationship to deepen without them.

Having the courage to start (and finish) a difficult conversation can bring rich rewards and will, hopefully, leave you both feeling happier.


7 Conversations To Have With Your Husband When Marriage Is Hard

How to Have Difficult Marriage Conversations

We hear time and time again that marriage is hard work, and that marriage is tough. But what do we actually do when marriage is hard?

While I don’t always believe that marriage is as hard as some people make it out to be (that’s another post for another day), I also know that there are seasons in a marriage where life kind of takes over and you have to put more focus towards your marriage than you normally would. 

During this time, it’s even more important to communicate effectively with your husband.

Think of times when life gets chaotic, when you have children, when work is busy, then there are many demands on you. It’s easy to just focus on your day to day ‘to do’ lists, all the while forgetting to check in with your partner through it all. 

During these busy seasons, or rough seasons of marriage there are some conversations that you need to have.

Simple chats that can help you to make sure you’re on the same page, to reconnect with each other and stay connected through the hard times and to help support each other. 

These are just some of the conversations to have with your husband when marriage is hard.

You may have other things you want to add, but these are a great starting point to get you communicating again and to remind each other that you are there to support and love each other, even when marriage is hard. 

When things are rough, it’s nice to remind each other that you’re there for them and that you can offer support in any way, even if it is to help or just to listen.

Sometimes just offering help, and showing that you care is more important than the actual help itself. 

Be sure to follow up on anything your spouse asks you to do for them. When you’re going through a stressful time, knowing you can hand off a mental load to your partner is huge.

When our daughter was born, I knew I could hand off so many tasks to my husband so I didn’t have to worry about it.

He would ask me daily what I needed from him because he knew we were adjusting to this new dynamic with our little girl and that the question needed to be asked. 

When stress comes into our lives and the busyness takes over, one of the first things we tend to let go of is time together with our spouse.

We convince ourselves that we are too busy or we don’t have the time or that we are too tired. When really, what we are saying is that it’s not a priority right now. 

This is totally normal, and doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your marriage.

It just means you’re going through a rough season. Which is why it’s important to ask each other ‘how can we take time together?’

Think of it an appointment you have to keep. If you made an appointment with your doctor you’d make it happen and you’d be there.

Do the same with your husband.

Work out a time together that you can schedule in and make it happen. 

During the hard times, you can get so caught up and you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Every little thing seems a big thing and the details of your days seem to just pile up.

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and ask ‘how can we simplify things?’

Perhaps there are some stressors you can drop or delegate to someone else, or eliminate completely.

Maybe even canceling a commitment will free up the time you need to connect with each other again and just have that time together. 

Often, when we feel overwhelmed, we start to internalize things and don’t communicate, or we externalize things and don’t communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, what this means is that we often take it our partner because they’re the closest to us, and we allow ourselves to feel vulnerable with them.

By taking things back to basics, and finding ways to simplify our lives, we can eliminate some of this overwhelm and determine if that was the problem, or if there was something underlying that we need to address.

4 – What Help Can We Get?

There are two parts to this question that can be addressed.

What help can we get to alleviate the day-to-day stress and what help can we get to help us with any problems we are having?

For the first question, what help we can get to alleviate the day to day stress, this is more considering things perhaps hiring a cleaner (this can be a marriage saver and can reduce so much tension if there are arguments over housework), extra help with kids, asking family or friends for help or any help you can give each other. 

The second part to the question is addressing if you feel you need help from counseling to help with any problems.

I am a firm believer that all couples should go to marriage counseling before there are problems, so if you are going through a rough season in your marriage you already have the skills to handle it.

But, this could be a good to time consider help from a third party. 

Through everything, it’s nice to just be reminded that you are loved because… (insert reason for love here).

What this does is brings you back to focus on the little things that make your marriage sweet.

The whole ‘I love you because you make me coffee in the morning’ or ‘I love you because you make me smile’ can be the little connecting moments that are so needed when you’re going through a rough time. 

You can even add a little romance to this and write a daily note to each other that just starts with ‘I love you because…’ This also shows gratitude towards each other each day. 

If you are going through a particularly rough patch in your marriage, focusing on why you love each other can bring these positive points back to the forefront of your marriage. Reminding yourself why you love each other can help all the negativity pass. 

If you’ve been together for a while, chances are this isn’t your first rough patch or difficult season. So how have you handed rough times in the past? What worked? And just as importantly, what didn’t work. 

Talking and reflecting on how you’ve handled issues in the past can help you determine how to handle issues now. 

It can also remind you that you’ve been able to work through issues before and you can do so again.

7 – What Can We Do Moving Forward?

All of this communication is good, but the next step is to actually put a plan into motion so you can move forward.

What is your plan of attack? Who is responsible for what and how can you support each other? When are you going to check in again? 

Maybe it’s something that is ongoing, or maybe it’s something that actually has a step by step plan you need to follow to get to a place you want to or need to be.

Whatever it is, be sure you’re both on the same page and know where you’re going from here. 

Marriage can have its difficult times, there’s no doubt about that, but doing what you can to keep communicating and keep putting each other first will help you get through these rough seasons.

Start with these questions and conversations you can have with your husband when marriage is hard, and continue to keep the lines of communication open.

Remember, this is a partnership and you can get through it together, you don’t have to do it alone. 


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