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Have the Conversation

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joe dubowski_rev1By Joe Dubowski, MS Associate Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Ever find yourself rehearsing a conversation with someone in your head? Has that conversation ever been with your husband, wife or romantic partner?

Have you ever, at a later time, actually had that conversation with them? How did it turn out? Was it anything like what you expected—that is, did your partner say what you thought they would say?

It is surprising how often we hesitate talking with our loved ones about a matter of some importance to us, having already imagined how that conversation might go in our minds. Either we assume (and fear) that our partners will reject what it is we need of them, or we presume that they already know our minds and will come through for us without our saying anything. In either instance, the outcome of the situation can lead to disappointment, and repeated disappointment can lead to loss of trust, erosion of intimacy, and emotional distancing between two hearts that started as “one.”

Imagine for a moment that there is something you want to do, or something you would like to purchase. It could be something as benign as wanting to go out for dinner instead of dining at home, or it could be something as extravagant as buying a car. Or, perhaps you have come home at the end of a difficult day and would simply like a hug. You and your partner arrive home and you finally have a chance to communicate with them what your idea or need is. But before that opportunity arrives, you have already imagined how that conversation is going to go, rehearsing it with the “loved one” who lives inside your head.

Presented with an opportunity for connection and discovery, this is sadly where so many of us get off track in our relationships. What we choose to do with this opportunity can lead to intimacy, mutual understanding, and acceptance. It can also be a birthplace for misunderstanding, loneliness, and despair. Which of the following choices do you find yourself most often making in your relationship?

If the “partner” in your head was negative in some way to your idea or need; if the way you have come to perceive them is “unavailable,” “can’t be trusted with my feelings” because they have hurt you once before; if you fear a quarrel if you bring it up with them now (or ever), or don’t believe you can stand up for your own ideas or needs; or worse, you have given up on asking them for anything—those unconscious thoughts will influence how you will engage with them. If your tendency when faced with disappointment is to try to satisfy your own needs on your own or dismiss them, then often you will just keep your ideas and desires to yourself, or back down from confrontation. But, if your response to unmet needs and desires is driven by anxiety, you might say something to them in a more accusatory way, even in anger.

On the other hand, if you think they will agree with you, without a doubt, you are more likely to come right out with what you are thinking, first chance you get. You will directly say what is on your mind the best way you know how.

So we see that the way we choose to approach our partners is influenced by the conversation we imagine in our heads, as well as by our inclinations toward attack or withdrawal in the face of conflict with intimate others in our lives. I emphasize “influenced” because we do not have to march in lock-step with our programming, with the ways we have learned to interact with others from our families and other close relationships we have had, or even from the past history of the current relationship. We can choose to respond—or initiate with our loved ones— differently.

Even when doing so seems risky (based on that imagined conversation that did not turn out the way we would like it to), we can choose to have a conversation with the real person, overriding the “voice in our head.”

“I would like to talk with you about buying a new car.”

And if that seems too risky by itself, you can still honor the fear of disappointment in your own mind by acknowledging it up front. For example:

“I know you are concerned about the money (and I am as well), but I would really like to talk to you about buying a new car. What do you think?”

In return, they will respond to you based on—well, just like you, they will either respond to the “you” in their head, or to the real you standing in front of them, using their own communication style.

The key for any relationship to stay intimate and secure is in choosing to have the conversation with the person in front of you, and not the one in your head. It means letting go of the fears of rejection and abandonment, not letting them rule over you. It means taking a chance on connection, which is only forged through the willingness to be seen by another as you truly are.

“I wonder if my partner would mind if I ______.”

Have you asked them?