“Honey, we need to talk!” Every spouse knows that what follows will be an uncomfortable conversation – one that will likely be bruising if not outright hurtful.

Yet, having a difficult conversation is sometimes necessary. All couples need to be able to maturely address issues ranging from selfishness, neglect, or simple differences of opinion.

So how can we do that without wounding each other and taking our relationship backwards instead of forward? Here are some thoughts to set those tricky conversations up for success.

Start how you want to finish

Difficult conversations tend to finish the way they start. If we begin our conversation with judgemental words, a condescending mindset, or an exasperated tone, it will likely go poorly.

In the relationship literature, this is known as a ‘harsh start-up’. It stands in contrast to the ‘soft start-up’, which initiates the conversation with gentler words and a kinder tone.

While it’s understandable when we’re upset or under stress, the ‘harsh start-up’ is guaranteed to put negative energy into the conversation. Our agitation may be justified; nonetheless, a ‘harsh start-up’ comes across as an attack.

And when our spouse is placed in a defensive position, all their energy and focus go into protecting themselves. This is the opposite of what is needed to tackle a difficult topic.

Pick a time that works… for the other

When we initiate a difficult conversation, most of us optimise for when we are ready. Part of a ‘soft start-up’ is thinking about the optimum time for the other.

We’ve had many false starts ourselves simply because the initiator launched the conversation at a time when the other was distracted or stressed. Even if our words and tone are ‘soft’, a difficult conversation under pressure will struggle to be productive.

The reality is, many times, our important conversations are not urgent. Being thoughtful about our timing indicates to the other that we are attuned to their emotional state. It establishes connection based on our consideration of their needs from the start.

If we want their full attention and positive engagement, we need to be respectful about our timing. This is not about manipulating our spouse for our advantage, but being genuinely loving.

Signal clearly

What may be an important issue to us may not be obvious to the other. If we want our spouse to engage, it helps to be clear at the outset that this is an important conversation.

Such a signal avoids the confusion and frustration that happens when a casual conversation becomes unexpectedly intense. Our spouse can feel ambushed by the conversation when we fail to clarify our intention.

We’ve all experienced the bewilderment of an intense conversation that seems to come out of nowhere. Signalling up front what we need and expect is an expression of our respect and consideration for our spouse.

Word it gently

Finally, the way we express our concern will be more readily received if it is presented through the language of our emotions and needs. Using ‘I-sentences’ is the simplest way to do this and keeps the focus on our interior experience.

In contrast, ‘you-sentences’ express judgement and can trigger defensiveness in the other. The benefit of a ‘soft start-up’ can easily be undone if our language becomes accusatory and critical.

‘I-sentences’ will also communicate why the topic is important to us. To the ears of one who loves us, that’s more compelling than rational argumentation.

Winning our spouse’s heart

Any conversation between intimates, difficult or otherwise, should bring us into deeper connection. That connection starts with the person who is initiating the conversation.

A ‘soft start-up’, timed for the other, signalled upfront and framed with ‘I-sentences’, orientates both our hearts towards each other. We enter the conversation, and leave it, not as adversaries, but as lovers.


Originally published at SmartLoving. Photo by Katerina Holmes.

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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