Most people struggle to have difficult conversations in a relationship. The fear of hurting your partner and the consequences of that strained dialogue mean the unsavoury task is either delayed or never broached at all. Of course, this is not a good approach for any relationship. And yet, so many of us grapple.
For any conversation, the level of difficulty varies depending on what you want to say. Divorce and break up are on one end of the spectrum. On the other are small, but no less legitimate concerns, perhaps even an innocuous habit of your partner that has been slowly building up the infuriation inside you. Most of us grapple with this end, hesitating to bring up the little things because they’re, well, little.
G, a 50-year client of mine is seeing a man who is twelve years younger than she is. He indulges her, she feels cherished by him and has the sense that he will be there for her no matter what. They’ve already had the conversation about the age gap and it’s no longer a concern in their three-year-old relationship.
However, over time, she’s found it increasingly tough to tolerate the messy way he eats his food and the noises he makes while eating. G finds ways to avoid eating with her partner, she deliberately sets up work calls at lunch time. She spends extra time in the shower in the evening so he, an early eater, can finish his food. A day came when her partner asked G whether she still loves him.
She does. G says it was easier for her to have an open conversation about their age gap than to tell him that she can’t stand the way he eats.
For G, as it is for most people, this seems like a petty thing to bring up in an otherwise fantastic relationship. She tried tolerating it on some occasions and excusing herself on others. Obviously it didn’t work. What G did not realise is that when you are so close to someone, you are very sensitive to each other’s vibe and body language. Your partner can sense your discomfort, annoyance, irritation, sadness and even happiness without you saying a word. What they are unable to understand is the reason for your discomfort. That needs to be articulated.
By the second session we had, G felt ready to tell her partner how she felt about his eating habits. It was decided that she would only talk about the eating noises and not the messy way of eating. G preempted the conversation by letting her partner know how much she valued their relationship and notices every little thing he does for her. Then she gently spoke about her irritation with the eating noises. Her partner was taken aback, but the way it was brought up gently, helped them both figure out how to handle the situation. As a first step, they have agreed that her partner will finish his meals and not wait for her, and they will avoid eating together as much as possible.
I highly recommend that you prepare for any difficult conversation. Focus on the resolution you’re hoping for. Say as little as possible. The more you speak, the more accusatory it can sound. Aim to solve the problem together to normalise the situation.
As couples spend more time with each other and evolve as individuals, there are bound to be differences of opinion, discomfort, or irritation. It could be about money, parenting style, dealing with extended family or annoying habits. It is important to have these difficult conversations to keep the relationship cohesive, honest, and loving.
(Simran Mangharam is a dating and relationship coach and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)