Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy Our need for togetherness exist alongside our need for separation. Marriage is not the end of romance, it’s the beginning

Esther Perel

No-one who’s completely sane likes having a difficult conversation. There’s not much joy to be had in criticising the behaviour or commitment of someone else and a lot of us go out of our way to avoid those moments of confrontation.

Sometimes we can get away with that avoidance. Maybe, in the broad scheme of things, saying what you really think or feel serves no great long-term purpose, either because the issue is time-limited, or resolution will have no material effect on our lives.

But where there are problems between you and the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with, whether in marriage or otherwise, failing to be completely honest can have a really negative – or, if left unresolved, catastrophic – impact on the health of the relationship.

My work helps and encourages couples to stop avoiding the difficult conversations that keep a relationship healthy. Without them, unwanted resentment, anger, rage and blame slowly creeps into the relationship because neither person will say, I feel hurt when …  

As humans, we’re pretty good at hearing what we want to hear and filtering out what we don’t, which is why it’s important to learn how to clearly say what we mean and make sure the messages we send are received as they’re given.

If we don’t do that, and only look at how we can ‘win’, we end up in emotional gridlock – which is when clients come to see me. 

Many clients tell me they’ve talking about their issues but that the experience wasn’t a good one. Often that’s due to the fear of the potential consequences: Maybe the other person will end the relationship if they knew how I really feel. Maybe it’ll make things worse.

Many couples resort to relationship therapy when they’ve tried everything else and still find themselves in conflict. But as renowned American psychologist David Schnarch said, conflict is simply growth trying to happen.

With therapy, sessions have boundaries and follow a pattern of psycho-educational work with homework to take away that allows couples to prepare properly and create space to discuss difficult issues together.  

Here are my 6 steps for preparing the ground for talking about hot and cold topics. It takes practice, but if you’re willing to follow them, and perhaps come to therapy, then it’s clear that you haven’t given up and you’re ready to grow in a committed, sexual and intimate relationship.  

Step One: Preparation  

Recognise that this conversation is important – set a time boundary and don’t let anything sabotage it. How you prepare for this it will make all the difference in how you show up in the conversation.

Most difficult conversations fail because this preparatory work hasn’t been done. They happen in the heat of the moment, at the wrong time of day, often coming out of the blue for one of the people in the relationship. It’s a guaranteed recipe for failure.

Step 2: Decide on a topic 

You may have found that every time you try to talk, you argue. That’s often because we have an urge to deal with the hot issues that we know are the cause of conflict and both partners want to be heard.

Hot topics need the calmness that comes with practised communication, so start with a topic that isn’t volatile, that you both agree needs improvement and feel you can resolve together.

Step Three: Seek to understand  

Communication is a skill that, like all skills, improves the more you practise it. Relationship therapy can help clear messages to arrive intact and be received as intended. Listening is an art, but it’s essential in helping to form trust that’s earned in moments of difficulty and stress.

When our loyalties, our priorities and our commitment come into question, listening and being listened to are the ingredients that bring closeness and a conscious relationship.

Step Four: Keeping hold of yourself  

Where do you end, and your partner begin?  Early in the relationship you don’t mind yielding some of what defines you because you’re in the wave of the ideal – and each person showing only the best of themselves is part of the dance of intimacy.

But that gives way to a more objective (or critical) phase as your commitment to one another grows and you assess the viability of a long-term relationship. That emotional merger can lead to one or both people feeling as though they’re losing their individual identity.

Within a relationship we need to hold a clear sense of self. That means holding onto our dreams and aspirations whilst also being able to share these with one another. Without this process, we risk anxiety, resentment, or even hopelessness.

Being in a relationship requires a grown-up attitude because it’s a grown-up experience, so writing a relationship vision can help you both understand what other person wants to achieve for themselves, both individually and as part of the couple.   

Step Five: Share perspective  

Both people need to be able to share what they’re feeling and that happens when each person is given space to be heard and listened to.

A technique known as the Imago Dialogue sets a ground rule that means only one person can speak at any one time, and gives the listener the opportunity to explain what they have heard.

As a way of establishing clear communication, it’s very effective in giving the right amount of attention and space to clearly say, in very small sentences what you are upset about and why.  

The opportunity for your partner to then repeat back what they’ve heard means you’ll have an accurate account of each other’s feelings and the ‘why’ that lies behind them.

Step Six: Explore solutions  

Now you’ve both shared and heard one another, you can explore solutions together. It’s important to suggest ideas that are achievable and sustainable, since giving false hope can result in disappointment. Agreeing on one idea for each issue or situation is ideal.

At the heart of this process is a commitment from both people to make their relationship  a priority. Being yourself and separate within this relationship is as important as being together.  To resolve this conflict, you have to be close, to hear one another and to be willing to change.

Therapy can help you to become aware of where you are now and how available to each other you are. Your relationship vision, which is written down and visual to you, becomes a true reflection of what you want from your relationship.

Each person should write their own vision separately from their partner. This means that the two visions, when put together, become the source of a new ‘contract’ for your relationship that you can both agree.

If you’d like to know more about our relationship therapy services, you can find out more or book a consultation here. Lottie is also available via online Zoom sessions to discuss the way forward for your relationship.