Picture this: You just started dating someone new, and so far everything is going great. Then something happens — you notice that “forgetting” to brush their teeth before bed is becoming a habit or they do something you don’t like in bed — that brutally yanks you from your state of new-relationship bliss. Whatever the case, you can’t get it off your mind, and you know you need to bring it up, but the relationship is still so new and you’re terrified to actually start the conversation.
In many cases, it’s important to push your discomfort aside and say what you need to say. But how?
First, be honest with yourself about what kind of conversation you’re dealing with.
As you get ready to navigate a tough conversation, get real about what kind of territory you’re entering. For example, if you’re bringing up something that’s easily fixable like bad breath or changing something in the bedroom, that’s one thing. If you’re asking something more difficult of them — like changing their relationship with their family — that will require a lot more thought and empathy.
It’s also worth pausing to consider whether or not you need to have the conversation at all. “If something is bothering you, try to check in and be honest about whether or not your reaction is coming from ego, projection, a desire for power or control, or resentment,” says Megan Bruneau, a therapist and executive coach. “Relationships are about compromise and reciprocity, and sometimes the best move is to vent to your friends or therapist and practice compassion toward your partner’s humanness.”
Once you decide to move forward, acknowledge that you’re doing something uncomfortable and courageous.
According to Bruneau, the first step in starting this conversation is patting yourself on the back and acknowledging just how hard it is. “Many people wait to feel totally confident before having a difficult conversation, and so never have the conversation — because ‘total confidence’ never comes,” she explains.
It’s also important to set realistic expectations. “There [will] be a certain degree anxiety, nervousness, and discomfort, and don’t expect to be perfectly eloquent when the words come out,” adds Bruneau. “Make room for some messiness in the conversation.”
Practice and remind yourself of your endgame.
It might seem silly, but rehearsing this difficult conversation with a friend, therapist, or even in your journal can help you better prepare for it and figure out if any of the words you want to say are coming out too harshly or simply not getting your message across accurately.
“After you’ve done that, remind yourself that the temporary discomfort you experience as a result of having the conversation will drastically mitigate the enduring discomfort you’re experiencing by not having the conversation,” Bruneau says. “And remember that difficult conversations actually bring couples closer together and strengthen transparency and communication.” Hey, that’s a nice bonus.
Choose your words wisely.
As with most conversations, certain words or phrases hurt more than others — and Bruneau has some specific advice around phrasing that can help. “Just like any time we give feedback that might be perceived as critical, couch it in love and the reassurance you’re not threatening to leave them because of the difficult thing,” she explains.
Here are some examples of how to start the conversation, according to Bruneau:
“Hey Sweetie, I want to share something with you that’s been on my mind lately. I love and/or care about you and our relationship so much, and I’m struggling with _________.”
“Babe, you’re my f*cking hero, but recently I’ve been feeling triggered by ________. Can you ______?”
Try to have the conversation in person.
If the thought of having this difficult conversation in person makes your skin crawl, we get it — but try your best to make this happen. “Ideally you have the difficult conversation at [one of your] homes where you both feel emotionally safe — where, should shame take over for your partner, they don’t feel ‘exposed’ in the way they might in a public place.”
If having the conversation in person truly feels impossible, that doesn’t mean you have to abort the mission altogether. “For a lot of Millennials and definitely for Gen Z, having a hard conversation in person is like asking someone to do a backflip,” she says. “We should all work to be able to have them, but for many people they’re just going to avoid it altogether if they’re told that they can’t have that conversation over text, Facebook, or Instagram.”
If that sounds like you, there are other ways to go about it. “A carefully crafted, compassionate text is better than avoidance and can prime you both for ‘let’s talk about this in person later tonight,’” says Bruneau.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that your partner will react with anger or just be flat-out hurt. In this happens, Bruneau says empathy is your friend. “Try saying something like, ‘I get the sense you’re pissed [at] me right now’ or, ‘It seems like you’re feeling hurt I brought this up.’ You cannot predict or control your partner’s understandable reaction to a difficult conversation, but you can respond to their distress with compassion and understanding.”
She adds that it’s helpful to emphasize how much you appreciate them being open to the conversation to promote and reinforce openness. “Truth be told, It’s rare that partners respond with, ‘I understand, you’re right.’ But that’s OK. Conflict is a healthy and normal part of a relationship, and it means both individuals respect themselves enough to set boundaries and be assertive.”
Long story short, there’s no easy way to have a hard conversation — but there are little ways to soften the blow. And just think about how good it will feel once the whole thing is over, and you can settle back in to those everything-is-perfect new relationship vibes.