How to Bring Up a Sensitive Issue With Your Partner

Image source: Wikimedia
Image source: Wikimedia

On April 17 2012, Yeap asked: “How to make the other half confront/face the issue instead of avoid discussing/touching the issue?

Thanks Yeap, for this important question. The short answer to your question is: invite your partner into a safe conversation with you about the issue.

But how do we do that?

When we come across as too demanding, our partners can feel as if we are forcing them against their will. The more we try to pry open their shell, the harder they clam up. Sometimes, by backing off a little and trying to understand their perspective, we can figure out more effective ways of reaching them. Begin by asking yourself this question: why might my partner not want to talk about this important issue with me?

Here are several reasons I can think of.

1. Feeling Safe. Maybe our partners don’t feel safe talking about some issues with us. Maybe there is something about the way we respond that intimidates them or causes them to think that talking with us will only lead to more conflict. And so it feels safer for them to avoid us.

2. Readiness. Maybe they are not ready to deal with the issue for themselves. Although we may be comfortable enough to deal with a challenge, we need to be aware that our partners may not be. Maybe there is something more to what meets the eye — the issue may reflect a deeper childhood wound in our partner. Maybe to talk about an issue would bring up all kinds of deep hurts, and so they avoid.

3. Skills. Sometimes our partners don’t talk about issues because that is how they have handled difficulties all their lives. Perhaps their experiences in their family-of-origin taught them that it is best not to talk about problems. (Sometimes, entire cultures behave in this way — think of Malaysia and the idea of not talking about sensitive issues.) In short, people do what they know. To do something different may require learning new skills, for example, how to enter into and have difficult conversations effectively.

By understanding what is going on for our partners in their reluctance to address a topic, we can better empathize with them. When we genuinely empathize, a certain kindness or love may well up in us that may make it safer for our partners to open up. Sometimes, as the saying goes, soft words can win hard hearts.

I hope this was helpful for you. If you have a follow-up question, please post it here and I will comment more on the topic.

© Johnben Loy, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Johnben Loy and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

9 Replies to “How to Bring Up a Sensitive Issue With Your Partner”

  1. How do you discuss this type of issue if the partner does not see that it is an issue, much less that it is sensitive, and he/she has supersalesmanship to ‘write it off’ as unimportant? Well, just another view.

    1. Yes, Patricia, this would be yet another scenario. I think my short answer to your scenario would be for the one who is bothered to become clearer as to why that issue is a problem, and to learn how to articulate it better. The supersalesman could also be helped to learn how to listen more actively and not continue to shut down the partner’s discontent with his supersalesmanship. Then there might be a chance for the relationship to improve for the both of them.

  2. Hi John, would you short answer to Patricia be used accross all cultural groups, namely the different ethnics in Malaysia? Is is universal?

    1. Hi Mahendran,
      My answer to your question is “yes.” My therapy center is very international and I have helped couples of many different cultures and religions from all over the world. I believe that any human being can learn how to have safe conversations about difficult topics. So long as they can see that it can work well for them, they will be motivated to try. Hope this helps you.

  3. My expat husband move to KL 3months ago. He recently confessed that he did not miss me at all like a husband should. He see me more as a friend. He also said this feeling is at the back of his mind before he move to KL but he didn’t realise how bad it is until now. Perhaps the three months singleton life made him realise how much he call out of love with me. He asked me to come out to see him to see if this marriage can be rekindled. So here I am in KL I realise although he is still willing to stay in the marriage but he feels rigid whenever I try to peruse for more physical connections as a couple. He said he doesn’t feel like it. I got upset and I cried. I try to confront him as to why things turn sour so quickly. And he just went silent. Please can you tell me how to make this sensitive conversation effectively without appearing too desperate? Or is there any hope for me to even try to peruse this topic? I felt really hurt. We were so happy before. All of a sudden it fell so far and so fast.. I still love him very much but I donno how. Please advice. Thanks so much for your time.

    1. Dear Ami,
      Sorry, I did not see your comment earlier. I do not do therapy on my blog, so I do not check comments regularly. It sounds like you are in a very difficult place now. And it also sounds like your husband is having difficulty articulating what is happening for him about your marriage. It would advisable, given the seriousness of your issue, to contact a professional therapist who is well-trained in couples therapy (and someone with experience working with expats) to assist the both of you to explore what is going on for him — that is, if you haven’t already done so. I wish you all the best.

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