When unhappy long-term couples need to have ‘the talk’
Talking about what needs to change can easily go wrong if it isn’t properly planned
If you’re going to do your talking at home, which is probably easier than doing it in public, you might have to arrange a time when the kids are out of the house or asleep. Photograph: iStock
It’s the conversation a lot of people don’t want to have: the one about what needs to change in a long-term relationship. And it’s very easy for the conversation to go wrong if it isn’t properly planned.
Cork-based relationship therapist Brendan O’Shaughnessy writes on this subject in the current issue of the Irish Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy. His article is meant for therapists, but I have drawn some points from it about issues to bear in mind if you and your partner are setting out to have “the talk”.
First, when will you talk? This is not as simple as it looks. When can you get uninterrupted time, especially if you have kids? If you’re going to do your talking at home, which is probably easier than doing it in public, you might have to arrange a time when the kids are out of the house or asleep. I think it’s a good idea to find a time also that doesn’t require one of you to give up a cherished activity, otherwise the talk can feel like a punishment for an unspecified crime. Also, as O’Shaughnessy points out, “It is unwise to embark on this emotional exercise when one or both is tired after a long day.” Sometimes, I think, taking a walk in the park might be necessary to get the space and peace for your conversation – but no shouting in public, please.
What about interruptions? There is no law that says you have to answer the phone. Let me repeat this in my Judge Judy voice because lots of people don’t get it: there is no law that says you have to answer the phone. Answering the phone is a choice and always has been since the beginning of phones and when you’re trying to sort things out with your partner the choice in 99.9 per cent of cases should be to not answer it. The best choice of all would be to leave the phone on silent and outside the room. The same applies to text messages and the other aural bells and whistles that distract us.
It’s probably not going to be a long conversation. Some people would happily have a heart-to-heart conversation for hours. Others want to run away after 10 minutes. This doesn’t mean that one is more right than the other. It just means that people are different.
“Agreeing in advance that these sessions will not last for more than 30 to 40 minutes, with each person getting time to speak and listen, is an important convention to establish,” O’Shaughnessy writes. I couldn’t agree more and for people who get emotionally “flooded” easily, the length of time might even be less than that.
Remember everybody has to be heard or it’s not a conversation. Sometimes one person is so convinced they are right that they don’t actually see the point in listening to the other’s opinion. That’s a surefire recipe for not getting anywhere fast. One way to structure such conversations is for one person to talk for a while, then allow the other person to say what they understand them to have meant, and if necessary clarify it. Then the other gets to talk and the process is repeated. No, this isn’t easy to do, at all. If each is willing to listen to the other person expressing themselves, they might not need to use a structure like that.
It also helps if each person is prepared to spend more time trying to understand the other than they do defending themselves and, no, that’s not easy at all either. That’s the way it is with these conversations, though: they’re just not easy.
It’s worth making the efforts outlined here, though, because without them the conversation might never take place and an opportunity to repair the relationship lost.
With luck you will get an additional bonus. As O’Shaughnessy puts it, “...even the effort required to make time for each other is a building block in recovering the experience of joy in the relationship”.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).