7 Steps to Stay Steady in Tough Conversations

As a couples therapist, I help people learn to hold steady in very difficult conversations with their partner. I know this is not easy, because I had to learn it myself. My spouse, who is much more even-tempered than I, and has been an amazing and challenging teacher for me, particularly when it comes to holding steady and staying in the conversation.

Twenty-two years later, I find it comes much more naturally for me. We are able to make hard conversations look easy. We both know from experience that we can get to a mutually satisfying resolution even if we start off with strong differences of opinion. At least for me, learning to hold steady was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and it would have helped me a lot to know how good the payoff is. The payoff is great!

Today, I’m going to share some steps I take to stay in the game and minimize drama and suffering for both of us. Next time someone you love says something to you that really shakes you up, give this a try.

  1. Pause. Take a moment before you respond at all. Breathe. Breathe some more. Put your feet on the ground and steady yourself. Remind yourself of this: your partner is expressing something about themselves; their perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and meanings they make of various situations. Even if they are pointing their finger and accusing you of something, they are actually telling you about their perceptions, not some global truth. If you want to know them deeply, you will need to listen and get curious.
  2. Set aside your feelings for a few minutes. This was the hardest part for me. I am a person who believes in honoring and expressing my feelings. This is not the time. Remind yourself that you will give your feelings and opinions attention soon, and right now it is not your turn. You will honor your feelings after this conversation. Whatever is still lingering after a break can be expressed fully to your partner. They will be much more willing to hear you out after they experience how amazing it is to feel heard. Your job right now is to give them that experience. Listen. Get curious. Hold your emotions lovingly, and don’t express them yet.
  3. Don’t judge, argue, defend, or convince. Remember: this is someone you love. You respect them, and you don’t have to agree with them. You don’t ever have to agree with them about this. But it might be nice to understand what their internal experience is when this thing happens or this topic comes up. If you truly see this from their perspective, it will probably make some sense, even if their perspective is vastly different from yours. If you argue, defend yourself, or try to convince them you’re right, they will never confide in you about the fear, shame, or vulnerability that underlies their reactions. You will have missed an opportunity for connection.
  4. Get curious. Invite them to give you a tour of their internal culture. How do they see things? How did this get under their skin? What does this issue represent to them? Does this issue challenge something about themselves? The more curious you can get, the more connected you both will feel.  
  5. Focus on feelings and meanings, not details. As you get curious, ask your partner some questions about this activity, experience, or situation–whatever it is they’ve described to you. As you ask, focus your questions on their feelings, rather than on the specifics of the situation. Here are some examples of good questions:    
    • How did that go for you?   
    • At what point did things start feeling bad to you?    
    • What didn’t you like about it? What was going on for you inside?   
    • What did I do or say that made it worse? How did that make it worse?    
    • Can you explain to me how this felt so bad? What did it mean to you that I …(name the perceived hurtful thing here).
  6. Express empathy. At some point you will begin to see that this is about them, not you. For me, I can tell I’m there when I suddenly think “Oh my gosh, THAT’S what you think when I do that?? Wow. Well, of course you’re upset if that’s how you see it or that’s what you heard. That was not my intention, and I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding.”
  7. Post-process. Now is the time to revisit your feelings if they are still swirling around in a worked-up mass. See if you can think about it, journal about it, or let it go. This might be surprisingly easy. If you got all the way to empathy, and had an “aha” moment about your partner’s responses being different but nonetheless understandable, the hurt you felt might have simply gone away. If not, ask your partner if there is a time you could express your experience to them. When the time comes, focus on your feelings, perceptions, beliefs and meanings made. Express the vulnerability underneath the issue, if you know what it is. If not, ask your partner to help you get to the bottom of why this was so upsetting to you.

What do you do when these steps fail, and your conversation starts to turn into a fight? Read more in my post about how to stop fights from damaging your relationship. 

Nuances of Consent: The Therapist’s Side

Recently, I wrote a blog post about consent, and discussed how the most common kinds of consent violations are much more subtle and insidious than those we see discussed in the media.

Today I want to discuss a related question: as a therapist, how might you see this showing up in your therapy room, and how can you help?

First, we have to acknowledge that subtle forms of internal and external pressure around sex are so common as to be completely expectable, and as such, nearly invisible in intimate relationships. Yet this seemingly benign dynamic can wreak havoc in a couple’s sex life.

One example is with the development of an aversion to sex, touch, or physical intimacy. This can range from quite mild to a full on “Ewww” response, complete with a visceral shudder. This is understandably distressing to all involved, and it may not be at all obvious how it developed. Whenever I encounter this in therapy, I look for a very subtle consent violation.

When one partner initiates sexual or intimate touch, are they both willing? And if one is not entirely willing, are they able to say that to their partner? What happens next for the partner, and the interaction between them?

Very often there are hurt feelings and painful meaning-making on one or both sides.  Maybe one hides their lack of willingness to avoid hurting the other. Maybe one partner broadcasts hurt feelings and frustration, thereby reinforcing the less-willing partner’s decision to “ just do it anyway”. Sex shifts from being a pleasurable, connecting experience to being an emotionally painful one. And very often, a slight aversion develops in one partner or the other.

Let me be clear; neither of these partners is an abuser, or a victim, except insofar as ALL of us are abusers and victims. This dynamic is so understandable from both perspectives; who would want to experience their spouse shuddering at their touch? Who would want to feel pressured to have sex or to feel like they are failing as a partner? This couple needs your help to become better able to look inside themselves and figure out what they think, feel, believe, and prefer and then to express that to their partner. They need to get good at holding steady when their partner is expressing something important but stressful.

Start by normalizing communication about sex. While you’re at it, normalize saying (and hearing!)  “yes”, “no”, and “maybe” without making a lot of problematic meaning about yourself, your partner, and your relationship.

Every lover wants to feel like a good lover. Getting and giving guidance sexually should be greeted as a roadmap to a positive, connecting interaction, rather than a threat to one’s self worth.

If you haven’t heard about “Will Lily”, my brief assessment tool, check it out! It is designed to help you identify subtle issues like this early on, so you can be an effective helper right from the start.  

When Consent Isn’t Simple

A few years ago, a 3-minute video called Consent: It’s as Simple as Cup of Tea blew up online. You may have seen it. I like the video; it’s fun and engaging, and the message is important. Better yet, it got the whole world talking about consent. But my years of experience as a sex therapist have taught me that consent is much, much more complicated than a cup of tea.

Rape and assault are, horrifyingly enough, common in our society. Yet many people are suffering under a more subtle and more pervasive form of consent violation. This kind of violation arises, not when your partner ignores “no,” but when you, for whatever reason, can’t say it. This happens in abusive relationships, but not exclusively. In my experience, there are a host of reasons why someone might not be able to say “no,” even if they really want to:

  • They’ve been enjoying the sexual interaction up to now, and feel like it would be unfair to stop or change course
  • They want the experience of closeness and intimacy that comes with sex, without the actual sexual interaction, but don’t know how else to be intimate
  • Penis-in-vagina sex (or some other sex act) hurts and they don’t tell their partner because they’re ashamed or feel broken
  • They think that one thing has to lead to another, and then to “going all the way”, and for whatever reason, just aren’t up to it right then
  • They don’t want their partner to feel unattractive, rejected, or disappointed
  • They believe a “good woman” or a “real man” doesn’t say no or ask for course-corrections

However harmless these interactions may seem in the moment, they each represent a denial of self. Over time, a partner who continually chooses to have sex they don’t really want will begin to feel more and more trapped in the relationship, and sexual interactions will begin to feel like, at best, an obligation, and, at worst, a violation. Slowly, these small violations erode the connection between partners.

Sometimes I work with couples who haven’t touched–not even a kiss on the cheek, or a quick hug–for years. As we work together to unravel how this came about, we often discover that it started with a pattern of these non-communications, in which one or both partners were unable to express what they prefered in the moment. Might it have been simpler and more effective for each to speak up in the moment, even if it felt challenging?

Consider: are you holding back a portion of your whole truth from your partner? Are you too afraid of hurting their feelings to express your preferences, desires, and perceptions? Can you take a leap of faith and reveal your complete, flawed, unvarnished beautiful self–your self who sometimes is not in the mood, sometimes experiences pain in certain positions, or prefers some kinds of touch over others? What would happen if you shared these honest realities? More importantly, what would happen if you didn’t?