The Right Way to Tell Your Partner Something They Don’t Want to Hear

It's never easy. But it's easier if you do this.

One of the many, many things about marriage is that it makes you uncomfortably aware of your partner’s bad or annoying habits. There are the small, minor irritations that become big deals: Maybe they have nostril-puckering foot odor or always put their clothes on top of the hamper lid instead of in the friggin’ hamper; maybe they check their phone too often at home or never clean the clumps of hair out of the drain or take two hours to respond to a text when you know they had to have read it. Of course, there are the larger, more nuanced habits: Maybe they lose their cool with the kids too frequently or are constantly late picking up the kids from daycare.

It’s important for the health of a marriage to bring such issues up. And while small irritations might be able to be treated with bluntness (i.e. “Honey, your feet smell like a July subway car.”) other issues need to be treated with a more delicate approach. Bringing up issues your partner might not want to hear is difficult. After all, in starting a conversation you may be shedding light on a character flaw they may not realize or even want to address.

But there is a script to help broach sensitive subjects without making the person feel hurt, attacked, or on the defensive. It simply requires tact.

“Each situation is different,” Susan Petang, a Certified Stress Management Coach, and author of The Quiet Zone – Mindful Stress Management for Everyday People. “The blanket statement would be, ‘I feel ‘X’ when you do ‘Y.’ I’d really like’ Z’ how can we make that happen?’ That’s pretty much the best one size fits all solution”

Petang says that the key to bringing up any sensitive subject is to pinpoint what, exactly, it is about the behavior that bothers you and then try to figure out why they’re doing it without being petty or mean. For example, if they regularly scroll through their phone while you’re trying to talk to them, what upsets you about that? It’s easier to talk to you partner about their own issues when you’ve arrived at the core of the problem.

“Sometimes it’s helpful to try to examine what your partner’s motivation is,” says Petang. For instance: It they have bad breath, it may be because they have some apprehensions about going to the dentist. “You can say ‘Look, I’ll come with you to the dentist. Would you like me to make the appointment for you?’ So rather than finding the pill for the symptom, we need to look at what’s causing the illness and sometimes we have to examine our own motivations.”

Still, it’s difficult to approach a partner without coming off as harsh or men. Here, per Petang, is a step-by-step process that can help your partner course correct their bad behaviors without too much conflict in between.

Don’t Be Accusatory

Sure, your partner’s scraggly toe-nails or lack of tact when speaking with your parents might be irritating, but it’s important that you don’t let that show when first bringing up the subject. In other words, it’s best to avoid statements like, ‘Your toenails are disgusting!’ or ‘You have no common sense!’, which will only breed resentment.

“Speak about your own feelings,” recommends Petang. “For example, ‘I’m concerned about your health when you have so much gas,’ ‘It hurts when your nails scratch me,’ or, ‘I get upset when I feel you’re not taking care of yourself.’

Stay Laser Focused on a Potential Solution

If you keep the discussion centered on whatever your partner is doing, they will feel backed into a corner. Instead, focus on solving the problem. “Asking your partner to come up with the solution is more likely to get them to follow up,” says Petang. ‘I’m worried about your health. Your breath is so bad that I wonder if there’s a problem with your teeth or your stomach. What do you think would be a good idea to start dealing with it?’” Petang also adds that you should also offer to be collaborative. Consider: “What’s something we can do together to fix this? How can I help?”

Listen Actively

During the conversation, when your partner answers your initial statements, it’s in your best interst to summarize and repeat back what they said to let them know that you heard and processed everything. “When it comes to conflict resolution, that’s what people want,” Petang says. “They just want to be heard.” It’s about acknowledging their point of view and empathizing. So, if losing their cool is a problem and they admit that stress is a cause, you might respond with, “Your mornings are really stressful. Maybe we can get up earlier together and have coffee before the kid get up so we have some more time to decompress.” It’s also good to get their say. Consider: ‘What’s a good way that you can think of for us to adjust our morning routine so that you’re less stressed right away?”

Bring it Back Around to Love

Even if you say everything perfectly and with the utmost kindness, there’s a big chance that your partner will react poorly. No matter what, their ego is going to be wounded. It’s frustrating, yeah. But you need to be sensitive to that. Otherwise, things can implode quickly. If this happens, it’s important to indicate that you come from a place of care, not criticism. “Make sure your partner knows that you love them, no matter what,” Petang says.