Read This Before Your Next Difficult Conversation with a Beloved

Here is an extended quote from psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden. His book, If You Could Hear What I Cannot Say, is a gem from the early 1980s. These two pages out of his book (now out of print) are one of the most thoughtful, beautiful descriptions I’ve seen anywhere of how to be present for challenging conversations with ones we love.

“If I am confused about my thoughts and feelings, if I am unclear as to what I am experiencing or what I want my partner to know, then I cannot express myself well.

When the simple fact of my being overwhelmed by my emotions causes difficulty in communication, I need to describe my feelings at length rather than try to race past them. Otherwise, I may become not only unclear but incoherent.

The first step toward a solution in such a case is to acknowledge my confusion and not to pretend to clarity. I can say to my partner, ‘I know that I am not too clear right now. Please be patient with me while I try, as best I can, to describe what I’m aware of and let’s see where that might lead.’

If, beyond that simple confusion, I am out of touch with my emotions, denying my needs and wants, and if I attempt to communicate without setting forth honestly what I am experiencing internally, I cannot possibly express anything that will satisfy you or me. Very likely I will go off on a tangent leaving both of us feeling helpless, bewildered, and frustrated. Back up, take a deep breath; let’s try to describe the experience as we are conscious of it without intellectualizing or psychologizing, asking our partner for the right to think aloud without having to defend or justify each and every sentence. This is a freedom that wise lovers give each other.

If I am afraid of how you will respond, afraid that you won’t understand and that you will be hurt or resentful, my mind may jam up when I begin to speak. I may say everything except what I most need to say, which is that I have these fears, whether well-founded or not. So our effort at communication may lead straight to estrangement.

Whenever we feel the presence of such a fear, we should be able to say to our partner, ‘There are things I feel the need to tell you, thoughts and feelings I want to share with you, and I am aware of my anxiety about your reaction. My fantasies of your exploding at me are inhibiting my ability to express myself.’

Acknowledging our fear accomplishes two things. First, it allows us to relax a little, since we don’t have to pretend about what we are feeling. Second, it increases the probability that our partner will listen acceptingly to whatever we are struggling to express, because we are trusting our partner.

Sometimes, the accumulation of grievances interrupts my present train of thoughts. I try to stick to the point but I feel myself pulled into the past. From my partner’s point of view, I am cluttering up our discussion with references to incidents long ago that don’t bear in any obvious way on the present. So I need to make a further decision: Either confine myself to the present or acknowledge to my partner my need to talk about incidents that are past but still powerfully relevant to me. Again, it is very helpful to describe my state to my partner and ask for a genuine effort at understanding.

It takes time. Communication can break down because I feel I do not have enough time to explain. I may have been preparing to discuss some important matter with my partner when he or she says, ‘Okay, we have half an hour. What’s on your mind?’ The clock is like a gun aimed at my head; I cannot think. Therefore, I cannot speak effectively. Rather than try, it is far better to describe my feelings and ask for another time when we can speak at greater leisure.

Obviously, none of the difficulties we are describing here is confined to people in love. If they appear to come up more frequently in love relationships, it is because we are most likely to be speaking from deep emotions in such relationships. Fears and blocks are that much more likely to sabotage our efforts.

If I see that my partner is struggling to tell me something and the message isn’t getting through, often I can be helpful by saying, ‘Stop. Take a deep breath. Forget about the subject under discussion. Just describe to me what you’re feeling right now in as much detail as you can.’ We have found that such an approach has an almost magical power between two people who love each other, even when they feel cut off.”

Branden is known for working with individuals and couples using a creative process of sentence completion. He’s written DIY books about his method (including the book that this quote comes out of, which can be purchased used). Besides his work with couples, he focused on self-esteem and how to help people develop it. Therapists and clients alike would benefit from reading his descriptions and exercises for how to use sentence completion to access deeper levels of self-knowledge.