How to Talk to Your Husband or Wife About Serious Relationship Problems
No one likes problems, but handled correctly, they create an opportunity for a closer marriage
Breaking the silence
You love your spouse, but your relationship has serious problems. How can you talk to your spouse about it without making things worse? Some people are so afraid of upsetting their spouse that they suffer for years in silence. Ironically, sometimes both partners suffer in silence for years over the same problem. The time of long-suffering relationships is over and couples are realizing that without open discussion and partnership, their marriage will end. Spouses are less inclined to hang onto a marriage when they are not satisfied and less inclined to work on the marriage as time goes on. You need to get any problems out in the open, early, and in the most productive way possible.
Focus on the way you talk about the problem rather than being quick to offer solutions
“A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” is a line from the movie Mary Poppins. That's good advice for telling people what they may not want to hear--spouses included. In the case of telling your husband or wife that you are unhappy with something about your marriage, you will need to be quick to add that you want your marriage to be better for both of you. Something like this, “John/Jill, I'm not satisfied with our relationship, but I want to work on it and make it better for both of us.” Saying it this way will help your spouse to take you seriously without making it seem like a car crash. Be sure to choose a time when things are going well. Never try to do this during or right after a fight.
Although you say this well, you are married to a human being who is going to have a human reaction
You may have rehearsed what you were going to say to your spouse a dozen times, but your spouse didn't have that benefit. His or her reaction is not going to be well thought out. Whatever your spouse says at this point, it will be your job to stay calm and not to argue. Note that all this happens before you even talk about any specifics. Specifics should come after you get your spouse's cooperation and not before. Otherwise what you meant to be positive will turn into a fight. Good communication happens in stages. Don't try to change a problem that has gone on for a long time in a single discussion.
Here are four common responses spouses have and how you can handle them.
1. If your spouse agrees with you that there are problems and that he or she has also been thinking about how to make the relationship better, then great! You have a marriage that is in the minority, but well on the way to becoming a great relationship. Together, you can explore the way you would like the relationship to be (rather than how the problems started) and make plans for getting the relationship in Romeo and Juliet shape. You will only need coaching help if the communication breaks down or your spouse won't follow through.
2. If your spouse immediately starts to blame you, then your relationship is among the majority. This is still a good position though, because your spouse is recognizing that there are problems. Recognition of problems is the first step to making things better. It is also the basis for starting to talk positively. You can promote good talking by focusing on just listening at first, without defending yourself or suggesting solutions. Agree with your spouse whenever possible and don’t argue about even one thing. All changes that you want are going to start by agreeing with your spouse, not by forcing your spouse to change. If you often butt heads with your spouse, my book Connecting Through “Yes!” will be very helpful.
3. If your spouse denies that there are any problems, then your job will be to raise his or her awareness. People in denial need help becoming aware of a problem before they will even consider doing something about it. Usually, a problem focused approach will just cause more denial. Instead, suggest some of the ways that your relationship might become better--feeling closer, having more fun, more romance, a budget for each of you to be able to enjoy activities you like, etc. If this doesn't' get any kind of positive response from your spouse, you will need to focus on improving your personal boundaries while also connecting. This situation is more difficult than the first two and it often helps to have marriage coaching just for yourself as you learn to overcome any neediness, while also learning to emotionally connect with your spouse.
4. If your spouse says he/she wants a divorce, it's important not to panic. Your spouse didn't just come up with idea the minute you brought up problems. You will have just gotten your spouse to announce what he or she has been thinking or planning to do. If severe problems have gone on for a long time, it's natural that your spouse has considered divorce, and you may have had some thoughts of that, too. As I write in Connecting Through “Yes!” the best response to this is by agreeing that your spouse may be right, but to also say that you want to really make sure that is the best choice for the both of you. This kind of response is not needy, not attacking, and sets the stage for problem solving. Don't commit to divorcing, but focus on connecting and opening up the communication. Handled correctly, this can help to rebuild your marriage in some very important ways that your spouse did not think was possible.
If all you get is rejection when you try to be loving
If all you get is rejection when you are trying to improve your marriage, it means that your spouse either: 1) has burned out on your marriage and completely lost hope in it; or 2) has already made plans for leaving you. These are not reasons to despair, but they are reasons to get help as soon as possible. At this point, you still have contact, are still together, and can make your marriage work with the right help. Marriage counseling is not your best bet at this time because of your spouse's lack of interest in the marriage. Marriage counseling is best when two people want to work together on their marriage. Instead, you will need to begin with marriage coaching for yourself. This is because you will need to learn how to interest your spouse in the marriage again. After that, you and your spouse can continue in marriage counseling, or in couple's marriage coaching.