Difficult discussions without making waves

Q. “When one is in a committed relationship and doesn’t agree with the other’s point of view on a particular subject, one or both often remain silent so as not to ‘make waves’. How can you talk about difficult issues in a way that affirms the other person and doesn’t create a big argument?”

- Bill K

A. Growing up, everyone has probably gotten advice to not make waves at one point or another. Hearing that it is better to not stir the pot, or bring something up that might be upsetting, as it could start an argument and spoil what could have been a nice day, we make a decision to remain quiet rather than say what is really bothering us.

Imagine what this might look like in a marriage. A couple in a long-term, mostly-healthy relationship are sitting at the table. The husband tells an edgy story over breakfast. Mom does not laugh or respond. Inside she is angry, but they have plans later in the day and she doesn’t want them to argue and be miserable all day. Dad leaves the room feeling irritated and unwanted because no one responds to what he thought was a funny story.

The oldest daughter says to her mother, “Why do you stay quiet when he says stuff like that? I know you don’t like it. Why not tell Dad?”

Lack of honest communication has been a theme in this relationship. It is not only affecting them, it is now affecting their children’s beliefs about marriage, roles and communication.

Not knowing how to start this conversation seems to create an uncomfortable barrier couples trip over. It makes sense that individuals would want to avoid conversations that could lead to tense arguments. Learning how to express opinions and feelings without sounding accusatory is essential for resolving conflicts in a marriage.

Here are some strategies to help start the discussion. Make sure you have enough time to have the conversation. Don’t start it five minutes before the kids are going to be home from school. Don’t start a sentence with “You;” this sounds accusatory and the other person will immediately get defensive.

Use the sandwich approach: Start with a positive, then let them know what you are struggling with and end with another positive about them, such as, “I love that you like to help with laundry. I wish you would remember to hang up my dress pants so that they don’t get wrinkled. Thanks for being willing to pitch in.” Be willing to listen to the other person’s point of view; it takes practice.

In the case of the couple above, without making changes, their mostly-healthy relationship can and probably will begin to deteriorate. Resentments begin, partners begin isolating and often times what once were small solvable issues become what is now a marriage that seems unfixable.

Had the father said, “Honey, could we talk after breakfast,” the conversation could have gone something like this:

“You seemed distant this morning.”

“I know. I love that you have a good sense of humor. I did think the story you told was a little inappropriate and wish you wouldn’t tell them around me or the kids. I like it when you tell the ones about you and your brothers from when you were growing up. Now those were funny.”

“I’m sorry. I thought it was ok, but wouldn’t want to offend you.”

“No biggie.”

Of course, everything is easier said than done. It takes practice, but don’t be afraid to try.

If using some of the approaches we identified above seem too difficult, you can always call any one of the Catholic Charities’ offices and counselors can help. Sometimes it may only take one or two sessions, or maybe more, but don’t hesitate to call.

Amy Bloch is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City. Please send all questions to info@cathchar.com.


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