If you’re going to address an issue, first think about the outcome you are looking for. If you want to waste your energy in a useless fight, you know what to do: put on your armor, pick up your sword, and charge. Leap into the fray, armed to the teeth with accusations, strong words, criticisms, judgments, and angry or plaintive demands. It’s guaranteed to waste your time and DRAIN your relationship (see chapter 2). But if you want to deal with a difficult issue in a way that enhances your relationship, then you’ll have to do the opposite. You’ll have to put down your sword, take off your armor, and approach your partner with open arms.

Naturally, doing this won’t be easy. You’ll probably feel vulnerable. Our word “vulnerable” is derived from the Latin word vulnus, which means wound. Without your armor, you could be wounded. Thus you’re likely to feel anxious or on edge, tense or uptight. You certainly won’t feel comfortable. This is natural. After all, you’re taking a risk here. You don’t know how your partner will respond. He might attack. She might run away. He might be scornful. There’s no guarantee that your partner will respond the way you want. This is the inconvenient truth. And this is where your “opening up” skills (see chapters 11 and 12) will come in handy: you can breathe into these feelings, make room for them, and use your breath to anchor you in the present.

Once again, it’s all about focusing on what is in your control. You can’t control how your partner will respond. And you can’t stop yourself from feeling uncomfortable. But you can make space for those feelings. And you can control what you say, when you say it, and how you say it.

+ What You Say

First think about what you want to achieve. Do you want yet another quarrel, or do you want to build and strengthen your relationship? If the latter, then what sort of words would be most effective? For example, if you were addressing this issue with your best friend or with someone you really admired and looked up to, what would you say to that person? How would you phrase it?

Another thing to consider: do you wish to make a threat, issue an ultimatum, deliver a command, or boss your partner around—or do you wish to make a friendly request? Threats, ultimatums, commands, and bossiness are likely to provoke a strong negative reaction. Not surprising really—after all, do you like people threatening you or issuing ultimatums? How do you feel when someone demands, insists, or tries to order you around? If you want any chance of reaching a friendly agreement with your partner, one that may get your needs met without damaging the relationship, then you’ll need to make friendly requests. Treat your partner as a friend from whom you are asking a favor. Ask politely and warmly for what you want. And express gratitude when you receive it rather than taking it for granted. Of course your mind may say, I shouldn’t have to ask! He should just do it, or If I start doing this, she’ll think I’m weak. So come back to workability: if you get caught up in those thoughts and allow them to dictate what you do, will that help your relationship in the long run?

+ When You Say It

If you’re going to address a difficult or challenging issue, it makes sense to pick your time wisely. When is your partner most likely to respond well? When is he least likely to respond well? Bad times to have these discussions might be when either one of you is tired, irritable, drunk, or having a bad day, or when the kids are acting up, the in-laws are over, or you’re both stressed to the max. Better times are likely to be when you’re both rested and the environment is not too stressful.

Now it’s time for a reality check. Many couples don’t feel like discussing their important issues when they’re in a good mood. This is partly because when you’re in a good mood, your problems seem smaller and easier to deal with. Also, you may think, We’re having a good day. Why spoil it? In contrast, when you’re in a bad mood, your problems seem bigger and you’re more likely to be irritable or frustrated, and therefore you’re far more likely to want to talk about them. So while it’s easy to give the advice in this section, it’s not so easy to apply it in real life.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. The message here is be realistic, while applying this strategy as best you can. You may find it helpful to give your partner advance warning: “I’d like to discuss our finances with you. Can we make time for it one night this week?” You may also find it useful to step out of your usual environment: for example, go for a walk in the park or discuss it over a drink or coffee in a café.

+ How You Say It

While the words you use are important, so is the attitude with which you deliver them. If your voice is loud or hostile, if your facial expression is arrogant or contemptuous, if your body posture communicates
resentment or frustration, then no matter how beautiful and poetic your words are, they will not be received well. I make this point to couples with a little exercise. I ask them to take turns telling each other, “You are wonderful,” but they have to say it with a sneer on their face and a voice dripping with sarcasm. Then I ask, “Which had the most impact on you: the words or the attitude?”

So base your attitude on your values. What sort of partner would you like to be? Caring, compassionate, accepting, open, understanding, respectful, loving, and so on? Or bitter, hostile, disrespectful, contemptuous, cynical, resentful, and the like? See if you can cultivate your preferred attitude before you talk to your partner.

Here are some suggestions for how to do this:

· Reflect on what your partner does that you appreciate.
· Think about your partner’s strengths.
· Bring to mind a fond, loving memory that involves both of you.
· Remember that you are both hurting. Think about previous fights and recall the things you’ve said or done that were hurtful. Use this to cultivate compassion. Tap into your natural kindness and see if you can spare a little for your partner.
· Tune into your core values. Ask yourself, What do I want to stand for here? If this interaction was videoed, and broadcast on national TV, how would I like to come across? What qualities would I like viewers to see in me? Make a commitment to let these values guide you.

***

Excerpt from ACT WITH LOVE: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Russ Harris, MD, is an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer and the author of The Happiness Trap. He travels around the world training psychologists and other health professionals in ACT, a revolutionary new approach to human happiness.