How to have hard conversations

Every relationship has their ups and downs. When you’re having a ‘down’ moment, one thing that can make everything feel even worse, is also believing your partner has misunderstood why you’re upset or how the argument occurred.

We can get caught in an ineffectual pattern of she-said/he-said/they-said, talking at or past each other. No one is really listening very effectively. No one is really speaking very effectively. We say things to make sure they hurt in the same way we do, and we interpret what they say with the worst possible interpretation.

Even if things aren’t quite that bad, it can be important to get back to the basics and have a structured conversation that can increase our opportunities to resolve an issue and understand our partner. This does not mean we have to like, accept, or endorse our partner’s interpretation of the conflict, but it will likely build understanding and empathy, while reducing contempt and distance.

upset young indian couple after conflict

If you have noticed that there seems to be a particular issue that is regularly raised by yourself or your partner than having a structured hard conversation may be particularly useful. One of the reasons having such a structured or formal conversation is that you both enter it with the intentionality of resolving something. Often, couples only seem to say what is on their mind in the middle of the argument when the issue is least likely to be resolved. During an argument the intention is often to hurt or persuade your partner, rather than understand and resolve. Further, setting a time for a structured conversation will likely mean you engage in it when things aren’t emotionally charged with anger, frustration, or revenge. You’re more likely to engage with a sense of determination, openness, and curiosity. This will be particularly important as you will likely need to say and hear things that are upsetting in some way.

I would typically practise this with my clients in session to both help recognise when either party is engaging in unhelpful practices such as defensiveness or personal criticism as well as provide suggestions to the enquirer if they are stuck on what to say. You can download the hard conversation exercise here.

woman wearing teal dress sitting on chair talking to man

The Hard Conversation

To start, one person must choose to be the speaker and one person must choose to be the enquirer.

The speaker’s role is to give an open and honest account of the problem from their point of view. It is their job to explain the problem is a way that gives their partner the best opportunity to understand it from their perspective. This is best achieved without the use of sarcasm, a raised voice, or by telling the other person what they thought or felt (e.g., “I know you don’t care about how I feel but…”).

The enquirer’s role is to listen, explore, and understand the problem from the speaker’s perspective. The enquirer may only do three things: validate the other person’s experience (e.g., “Wow, that sounds like you were really hurt by that”), clarify something the speaker said (e.g., “Can I just double check, did you think I was referring to you when I said X?”), and ask questions to deeper their understanding of the topic (e.g., “What was going on in your mind when you heard me say X on the phone”). Typically, the enquirer will only be speaking approximately 10% of the time compared to the speaker. It is not the enquirer’s role to try and fix the problem, to explain how speaker is wrong, or to argue for their own point of view.

Example topics for speakers

  1. When I come home from work, I sometimes feel overwhelmed when you ask me to speak about my day immediately. I really appreciate that you take such an interest and I have no problem with talking to you, I just need a good hour to decompress.
  2. Sometimes I want to have sex with you, but I just get this sense that you don’t want to. I know that I then get kind of awkward, sullen, and sometimes a bit snappy at you. I’m typically feeling hurt or rejected and I want to feel desired and loved.

Example questions for enquirers

  1. Tell me more about why this is so important to you?
  2. What are the background factors which relate to this?
  3. What can I specifically do to help here?
  4. Is there a deeper issue that this relates to as well?
  5. Are there other times when you feel like this too?

The Good Enough Sex Model

The media and society at large maintain the stereotype/belief that healthy couple sexuality is hot, lustful, headboard banging, lamp falling off the side table, moans of intense pleasure and the inevitable mutual orgasm. Or, sex is portrayed as a boring chore where often, the woman is shunning away her ‘sexually needy’ husband. Unfortunately, this black and white portrayal of couple sexuality maintains faulty sexual beliefs, assumptions and expectations that can at times lead to sexual difficulties and dissatisfaction amongst couples.

Ideally a couple’s sexual experience is mutual and synchronous, meaning both partners experience desire, pleasure, eroticism and satisfaction (more on this later) within the same sexual experience. When we rigidly hold onto this belief, however, and do not experience each of those components, then it may lead to feelings of disappointment and perhaps thoughts such as “I’m not a good lover”, “I failed my partner”, “why can’t I orgasm with him/her”, “we don’t have proper sex”. However, among happy sexually functioning couples, it is normal to have less than 50% of sexual experiences being equally satisfying at the same time.

For many sexually functioning couples, the majority of sexual encounters are positive yet asynchronous, meaning the sexual experience is more satisfying for one partner than the other e.g. one partner reaches orgasm but the other does not. It is important to note that asynchronous sex is still usually enjoyable for both partners when the sexual interaction is underpinned by pleasure and consent. Asynchronous sex becomes problematic when the source of a couples conflict is stuck on the idea that partners must have the same levels of sexual desire, the sexual experience must be lustful, and both must reach orgasm at the same time. When couples have the expectation that all of their sexual experiences have to follow one rigid script, they may be setting themselves up for disappointment.

One approach to shift this source of conflict is through adopting the Good Enough Sex (GES) model1. GES inherently recognises that a couple’s sexuality will always be variable and therefore partners need to be flexible in their approach to sexual experiences. The focus shifts from an “intercourse-or-nothing” perspective to a space where the couple works on building and fostering genuine pleasurable connections.

Desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction are four pillars that support the GES model.

Desire incorporates both a psychological and bio-medical aspect of sexual desire. Psychologically, desire encompasses positive anticipation of the sexual experience, a belief that you deserve sexual pleasure, choice regarding sexual practices, and the adoption of positive and realistic GES expectations about sexual function. From a bio-medical perspective, desire is facilitated through maintaining a healthy body and healthy behavioural habits (e.g. sleep, balanced eating, alcohol consumption in moderation, etc) as well as the acceptance of normal biological changes that occur as we age.

Pleasure is the receiving and giving of pleasurable touch, in whatever way this can occur. A helpful analogy is the sexual smorgasbord (see below), where each dish represents the many varied ways of being sexual and sensual. One of these dishes may include penetrative sex, however, if this dish is out or not available (e.g., perhaps due to erectile dysfunction or pain) that would not mean you do not eat from the smorgasboard, instead you could choose a different dish e.g. oral sex, mutual genital touching, massage, or bathing together, etc. While Ssome of the dishes may be more arousing than others but the GES model prioritises pleasure and satisfaction over merely being physically aroused, so long as they are pleasurable for you and the couple, you can enjoy a variety of pleasurable arousing touch. 

Eroticism involves intense sexual feelings and sensations, often where each partner’s arousal may enhance the others arousal, like an erotic couple dance. Eroticism can also involve turn taking where one partner is the giver of sexual and pleasurable touch while the other acts as the receiver and at times may be further enhanced with the involvement of outside resources (e.g. erotica, pornography, or use of sexual toys, etc). The cornerstone of eroticism is being sexually vulnerable with your partner with a strong foundation of trust and consent. Please note: eroticism is not what is depicted in pornography, does not involve breaking boundaries or taking sexual risks without consent.

Satisfaction involves feeling good about yourself as a sexual person and the couple feeling energised after the sexual experience. Bonding activities such as cuddling or kissing after a sexual experience can help enhance satisfaction by strengthening the couple’s attachment and feelings of closeness. Satisfaction may include orgasm but is meant to represent something more than this alone; feeling satisfied as an individual and couple is more important than sexual function/orgasm. It is through satisfaction that desire for sexual connection is again reinforced.

The GES model starts at a place of acceptance that whilst, hopefully, most sexual experiences are positive and involve desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction, the reality for many couples is that some sexual experiences will be dissatisfying or dysfunctional. This viewpoint does not mean settling for mediocre or disappointing sex but rather, when the sexual experience has been dysfunctional/disappointing the couple turn towards one another as their intimate friend rather than blame, reject or shame.

The GES model also recognises that sexual experiences within a relationship can have multiple roles and meanings for a couple. For instance, sex when trying to conceive may have a difference experience and meaning compared to “make-up” sex, romantic sex or Sunday morning sex. A couple’s sexuality needs to hold realistic and flexible expectations about sexual function and activity across the couple’s lifespan. Sexual functioning and needs in our 20-30’s, 40-50’s and 60 onwards will evolve as with changes to work, family, or health. Unfortunately, this reality is not depicted in popular media’s portrayal of sexual relationships, which often depicts the traditional ‘perfect’ sexual performance models and as such, couples are not exposed to a GES model and how it may assist their sexual relationship.

How can you and your partner start to incorporate the GES into your relationship?

  1. After engaging in a sexual or sensual experience, turn towards each other and share some form of intimate touch such as cuddling or gentle kissing. Try to not avoid each other if sexual interactions have been disappointing or dysfunctional.
  2. If it has been some time since you have been sexual because of dysfunction (e.g., pain, issues in physical arousal or desire) set some time to talk about the sexual smorgasbord and what pleasurable, sensual, and sexual options you would like to start including again. Perhaps use this resource to explore what your sexual smorgasbord could include.

Remember, GES priorities pleasure, connection, and realistic expectations.  If it has been a number of months or years since you have engaged in penetrative or oral sex then start slow with showering together, passionate kissing, or massage where there is no expectation for things to progress for now.

1McCarthy, B. W., & McCarthy, E. (2011). Discovering your couple sexual style: Sharing desire, pleasure, and satisfaction. Routledge.

Conflict in the relationship: where to begin?

It is inevitable that conflict will occur in any and all of our relationships. Whether it be with our siblings, our parents, or our friends, or work colleagues, there will be moments of stress, irritability, and conflict that may, at least temporarily, rupture that bond. Conflict is never more inevitable than in our romantic relationships. The human condition demands that friction occur when two or more people, each flawed and neurotic in their own way, try to forge a life with each other. But this is good and healthy and normal! I would suggest conflict is not only health but necessary to deepen our understanding of our partner. It provides opportunities to build kindness and empathy for both you and them. Just as in the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, only when an object has been cracked, chipped, or broken, can we reforge it even more beautiful and unique than before.

However, more serious problems can occur when that object is cracked a little too often, and then perhaps over time, pieces start to go missing. So, while conflict is inevitable, healthy, and can lead to a better relationship, it can also be a part of the dissolution of the relationship.

Broadly speaking conflict or problems in a relationship can come down to one of two issues: an issue of fire or an issue of ice. Problems with fire refer to frequent or intense arguments and conflict, whereby you might both be irritable and quick to react to the other. Problems with ice refer to issues with distance or apathy, it can be like you are two individuals who happen to live in the same house, physically close but emotionally apart.

Again, very broadly, it is more common that issues of fire occur when people are younger or within the first 7ish years of a relationship. Issues of ice tend to occur when people are older or have been in a longer-term relationship (8+ years).

Understanding which of these categories your relationship may belong to is the first step in then being able to implement strategies to resolve and repair your relationship. For example, issues of fire can be resolved by building more effective communication strategies, by knowing how to have “good” fights, and learning how to best negotiate your differences. Issues of ice, on the other hand, can be overcome by reforming the relational friendship, rekindling affection, intimacy, and desire, and strengthening the attachment. Of course, there are many other poignant experiences which may co-occur with issues of either fire or ice such as becoming a parent, negotiating blended families, sexual dysfunction, or one partner having an affair (to just name a few). Often, these problems do not exist in a vacuum (i.e., they do not occur by themselves). While these problems may appear to be the most pressing and obvious, it is very important to understand the landscape in which they occurred as this gives insight into how they may be resolved.

If you are still at the stage where you want to do something to improve or salvage the relationship then it is important to take the view that whatever the problem is, it is separate to both you and your partner. By this, I mean that we do not want to view you or your partner as intrinsically bad or the problem. If one person were the entire problem, they would have 100% of the responsibility to change and make the relationship work. This is never true and, for the sake of improving a relationship, an unhelpful viewpoint.

Often in conflict, we stand face-to-face, pointing forward and yelling “there’s the problem”.

When what would be more useful is standing side-by-side, so we can work together in solving the problem (e.g., poor communication, negative expectations of each other). But to do this, we have to be able to identify what “the problem” is and ensure it is separate to who our partner is.

So, where do you start? You have already identified that something is not right in the relationship. Perhaps you can already tell that your current romantic relationship fits within issues of fire or ice. But now what?

Let us start by asking some questions of yourself and then we will move on to questions that both of you should discuss.

Questions for me

  1. What do I see as the problem in the relationship?
  2. In what way is part of the problem my fault or responsibility?
  3. In what was is part of the problem my partner’s fault or responsibility?
  4. Do I have the resources to resolve or work on the problem with my partner?
  5. Do I have the motivation or desire to try and work on the problem?

Questions for us

  1. If our main problems were solved, in what way would our lives be different? What would we be doing differently? What would be the evidence other people could see to show that you are doing well?
  2. What are the concrete barriers that impeded our ability to do the things from the above question?
  3. What are specific and concrete actions that each of us can take to help resolve our problems?
  4. If either of us notice that the other person is doing something unhelpful to achieve our shared goals (of resolving our problems), what would be an appropriate thing to say to the other person?
  5. How often should we both meet to explicitly discuss our progress towards resolving our problems?

Sexual beliefs

One of the many problems with the Romantic view of relationships is that it expects our partner to be the perfect friend, accountant, housekeeper, maintenance person, counsellor, parent, chef, event planner, and sexual entity. How one person is meant to fulfil all of these roles is beyond me and it seems inevitable we can only be left feeling disappointed. Especially the idea that our partner will start off as, and continue to be, our best sexual mate. They are expected to “just know” what pleases us, what evokes our erotic desire, what are fantasies entail, or what we find uncomfortable or awkward doing. Even more so, they are meant to “just know” how these things change over the years, as our sexual needs and desires mature or change. Romanticism sneers at open and honest communication because surely if they really loved you they would just know.

If you accept that this seems a tad unfair then perhaps, like all other aspects of a good relationship, continual discussions about your sex is in order. But again, for our partners to know and understand us we first must know and understand ourselves.

One of the key assumptions that destroy relationships and douses the erotic fire is the belief that you already know everything about your partner. You don’t. You can’t. Most people don’t even know themself very well so I can almost guarantee you don’t know all about them. People change, grow, and have new and different experiences which change their desires over time. Don’t be complacent in your beliefs about your partner.

Here is a list of questions you might like to reflect upon and, when ready, I would invite you to discuss and explore with your partner. It can be an interesting exercise to first guess what your partner’s answer will be before allowing them to agree or update your answer with their own reflection.

  1. How is sex meant to happen? Is it meant to be spontaneous? Can it be planned and organised? Why?
  2. How is sex initiated? Is there a place, setting, or time of day when it happens? Who is meant to initiate it and why?
  3. How easy do you find it to talk about different aspects of sex with your partner (e.g., your fantasies, your fulfilment of a sexual activity, your expectations of frequency, discussing engaging in new activities, etc)?
  4. Can people in relationships watch porn? Does it have to be together or separately? If you watch porn, does the other person in the relationship need to know?
  5. Do you like the idea of being more dominant or more submissive? Do you also hold other beliefs that make it difficult to come to terms with your desires (e.g., a female who likes to be dominated but also feels conflicted because she holds beliefs about what it means to be a “strong” woman; a male who likes to dominate but also doesn’t want to come across as “pushy”; a male who likes to be submissive but also holds beliefs about what it means to be “a man”).
  6. What is something you would want to do sexually that you don’t believe your partner would?
  7. What is something you believe your partner would want to do sexually that you wouldn’t want to do?
  8. What is one of your most pleasant and memorable sexual memories? What was it about the experience that made it so pleasant and memorable? Can you purposely recreate some of the circumstances that made that experience so nice?
  9. How was sex discussed in your family of origin?
  10. What were the messages you received from your family about sex and how do you think that has influenced your beliefs and experiences of sex?

Hopefully, these questions have been able to evoke some introspection about your beliefs regarding sex and perhaps open some discussions with your partner. The next series of questions are designed to specifically discussed with your partner. While you may be able to reflect on them by yourself, they will be even more useful with your partner.

  1. Can you describe a perfect night (or morning/day/afternoon) of sex where the sole purpose is to satisfy you? Where would it start? What would we be doing? How does it progress? What do we use along the journey? What would be done to you? What would you be in control of? How would it peak?
  2. What do you think is the most attractive part of your body?
  3. What is the type of fantasy you do, or would, masturbate to?
  4. What is something you would like to try, but have found difficult to do, with regards to sex?
  5. What aspect of inviting other people into the bedroom (i.e., having a threesome or swapping partners) do you find most difficult to come to terms with? What is the most dominant emotion when thinking about such an experience and what might that say about you (i.e., excitement about trying, anxiety about being naked in front of or intimate with others, jealously that your partner finds other people attractive, shame that you want to try even though you love your partner, etc).
  6. If you wanted to be intimate without having penetrative sex, what might you do?
  7. If you’re not in the mood for sex, what helps you get there?
  8. What is something your partner might get wrong about you, with regards to your beliefs and desires about sex?
  9. If you could put on hold your current sexual orientation, who of the same/opposite sex would you have a sexual experience with? What would happen?
  10. What is the riskiest sexual experience would you have (e.g., this could be using something, in a particular place, with someone, or because it might not strictly be legal)?

I hope some of the questions and ideas in this post allows you some interesting introspection and opens up a useful conversation with your partner.

In kindness,

Dr Daniel J Brown

Romantic Relationship

To understand why our relationships may or may not be going well, it can be useful to critically evaluate our beliefs about what makes a good romantic relationship.

One of the most important beliefs I often try to deconstruct with some of my clients is that “it is my partner’s job to understand me and meet my needs”. Of course, this would be incredible if our partner somehow could just understand us, read us, and know our every need. But this is typically not realistic.

In fact, Romantics (i.e., those who adhere to the philosophical movement of romanticism [think of a Disney princess conception of love]) would say that that if a partner cannot somehow deduce our exact thoughts, needs, and desires then it must be proof they are not the right person for us. I call bullshit. Nobody is this person. Nobody can be this person. It is, in fact, OUR job to shape our partner and give them the tools into becoming the best version of our partner, as it is their job to shape us into their version of the best partner. To do this we must understand our “stuff” – the beliefs and expectations that shape our feelings and interactions about/with our partner. Only then can we appropriately communicate those needs, in the hope our partner will at least try and meet them.

So here are some questions to first ask yourself, and then to ask your partner. If your partner is happy to play along then perhaps describe what you believe your partner’s answer might be before they tell you. This can be a great way to start to understand how your partner sees you and how you see your partner.

Importantly, the purpose of these questions are not to start a blame or criticism game. If you are going to discuss and ask these questions with and to your partner, start by making a pact that you will be open-minded and kind in hearing your partner describe some difficult things about you. If they get some things wrong, thank them for giving it a go before gently letting them know how your reflection is different.

  1. In what ways [note plural] are you a difficult person to be around or live with?
  2. In what circumstances might these attributes be a strength or be useful?
  3. What are the things that you find most difficult to ask for in a relationship?
  4. What are the things you find most difficult to give in a relationship?
  5. How do you believe people show they care about someone else? What do they do or say? How often do you need to do these things?
  6. What do you believe are “good enough” ways to communicate your frustrations or problems in a relationship? Is this typically how you go about communicating your concerns or problems in a relationship?
  7. How did your parents go about communicating and solving problems? In what way have you been influenced by that?
  8. How did your parents show affection? In what ways have you been influenced by that?
  9. What are some of the most important things you’ve learnt about yourself from previous relationships? In what ways have you not changed (for better or worse) from those previous relationships?
  10. When you see other happy couples, what are the things that are most different about them compared to your relationship?
  11. What are the things that you do well as a couple?
  12. What are the strengths you bring to the relationship?
  13. What are the attributes you find most valuable in a partner?
  14. Which, if any, of these questions have you found most difficult and easy to answer and what do you believe it means about yourself?

So what now?

What do these questions mean about you and your beliefs and expectations about a relationship? I want you to start to reflect on and perhaps discuss with your partner how you can work together to enable each other to overcome any unhelpful beliefs or expectations you may have.

For example, if you recognise that you find it very difficult or awkward to ask for alone time, away from your partner or kids (obviously not because you don’t love or care for them, you just also need some “me” time), you could discuss how you could make this a regular part of your weekly/monthly routine.

Or, perhaps you recognise that, just like your parents, you believe that when a problem arises it must be sorted out immediately (because you can’t possibly go to bed angry, right??), even though you or your partner are rarely in a calm enough state to talk about it calmly, therefore creating more problems than solving. You could decide together that if either of you recognises that things are too heated to solve in the moment, you will agree to raincheck the discussion for 1 / 6 / or 12 hours. In this way, you’re communicating that you believe that this problem needs to be solved but similarly recognising you aren’t in a place to do justice to it, yet.

Have a think about what else you may want to change. Are there ways you can help your partner communicate their needs? Is there something you do to remind yourself to show affection in the way your partner values? Can you set up a regular date to continue these discussions?

I hope this has been helpful.

In kindness,

Dr Daniel J Brown