Tag Archives: relationships

Effective Communication: Bring Up Tough Issues in 8 Steps


You know the one I mean…that issue.  The one that’s been on your mind.  A lot.

Tough Issues

Maybe it’s his spending-spree habits.  Maybe it’s her way of disappearing when she comes home.  Maybe it’s his “close friendship” with his ex.

Whatever it is, big or small, it bugs you and it just HAS TO CHANGE!  Or at least, that’s how you feel sometimes.

Tough issues are hard to bring up effectively.  You might have every intention of talking calmly, figuring out solutions, and reassuring each other, but it turns into a fight.

How can you bring up your next tough issue so your partner will listen and consider a change?  There’s no magic formula, but these 8 steps are a great way to start the conversation right:

  1. Take a deep breath: Instead of turning into the Hulk or retreating to wallow when you find that credit card bill or he takes 5 hours to text you back, take a moment to breathe and sort out your thoughts. Ask yourself why you’re upset. Get curious about your reaction.
  2. Before you speak, figure out what you DO want: It’s easy to complain or accuse—“You bought WHAT? You are out of control!” or “You obviously don’t have any energy for me or this relationship!”  It’s much harder to say: “I want us to be free of money worries, to build a secure financial future together” or “I love when we do something fun together in the evening, and I’d love to find time for that this week.”
  3. Time things well and ask if it’s a good time: Bring up your issue strategically:  when your partner is well-rested, feeling good, and has time to talk. After 10pm or right before work are not great times for an important conversation. Try your partner over coffee on Saturday morning, or during an after-dinner walk. Say something like, “I’d like to talk about a request I have—would now be an OK time for that?”
  4. Touch your partner while you talk: Tough conversations often go better if you can hold your partner’s hand or touch them somehow while you talk. Touch conveys reassurance and helps you both soften and remember that you care about each other.  (If your partner is not a big touch person, though, skip this part!)
  5. Start with affirmation or appreciation: Instead of launching right into the issue, start with how you feel about your partner and what the relationship means to you.  “I love you a lot and our relationship is really important to me.  I know you love me and want me to be happy, too, and I appreciate all you do to take care of us.”
  6. Express your frustration in 1-2 sentences, if at all: It’s often more effective to skip this step and launch straight into asking for what you want.  Most people react better to a positive invitation.  If you do need to reference the problem, keep it short.  Use “I-statements” and express it in terms of your opinion and preferences, not as something you’re right about or that your partner is doing wrong.  “Lately, I’ve been feeling like we’re spending too much and I’m really worried.”  Or, “I’ve been feeling a little sensitive about your friendship with Sally. I know you’re with me and not her, but sometimes I feel jealous of the time you two spend together.”
  7. Move quickly to what you DO want: Suggest 1 or 2 specific solutions and encourage your partner to choose one. “I would feel so much better if we kept track of all our spending for the next two months, or if we went to see a financial planner together” or “I would feel really reassured if I knew Sally better and if we spent time with her as a couple. Maybe we can meet her for breakfast this weekend or could invite her over for dinner next week?”
  8. Then, stop talking, and listen as your partner replies.

If you make it to this point, then props to you–you’re already succeeded in bringing up your tough issue.  You’ve communicated in a way that invited your partner to listen and consider change.  No matter what happens next, you’re already talking solutions, and that is progress.

Have a tough issue you want to bring up?  I’d love to hear about it.  Shoot me an email (melissa at luvwise.com) and tell me what you’re planning to say.  I’ll do my best to respond with thoughts and encouragement.

Or, leave a comment below to tell us all what effective communication strategies have worked in your own relationship.

Here’s to great relationships!

Want to solve problems, connect better, reduce frustration, or get over a breakup–from your couch?  I offer down-to-earth relationship coaching for daters, by phone, Skype, Google Hangout, whatever works.  Click here to find out more! 

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Top Three Predictors of Successful Relationships: PI.C.L.

I love making up a good acronym as much as the next relationship researcher, and today I’ve invented one about the top three predictors of a successful relationship:  PICL*.

PI=Positive Illusions


L=Love Continue reading

Chocolate And Online Dating: Do We Get Overwhelmed with Choice?


Can the tasty cacao bean predict your next love-life move?  Not necessarily…but since I’ve already drawn one dubious parallel between food preference research and matters of the heart, why stop there?

Good, that’s what I thought too. Let’s consider, then, how our behavior in the presence of proliferating chocolate choices could predict our course of events when faced with a clamor of potential dates. Continue reading

A Pithy Thought From Jane

I recently read Jane Austen’s Emma for the first time–a great read if you like the romantic antics of Victorian England.  (And who doesn’t?)  This quote reminded me of the series I’ve been posting lately, called “How Exactly You Talk Yourself Into Dating the Wrong Person:”

Emma, the novel’s heroine, has just heard that her friend Harriet has accepted a marriage proposal from a local farmer.  In surprise, Emma says: “I had reason to believe her very lately more determined against him, much more than she was before.”

The stately and attractive Mr. Knightly, deliverer of this juicy news-morsel, retorts: “You ought to know your friend best, but I should say she was a good-tempered, soft-hearted girl, not likely to be very, very determined against any young man who told her he loved her.”

Ahh…how malleable we are. 

I’ll leave you with Pascal:

Is Playing It Cool Putting Your Love Life on Ice?

Playing it cool.  Maybe you’ve tried it.  You ask someone out (or worse, to “hang out”), but you act like if they say no, it won’t be any big deal.  You keep it casual.  It’s all business as usual.

While surely this is a solid strategy for avoiding embarrassment and keeping yourself safe, if you’re not a Lothario-level ladies man or a recent Siren-inductee, you might want to rethink this approach.  Recent research suggests that signaling your special preference for someone might actually be a better way to score more first dates.

Economists from Stanford and the University of Maryland recently teamed up with the Korean Marriage Culture Institute to run a good old-fashioned dating experiment[i].  They recruited 613 college-educated, never-married Koreans in their 20s and 30s to participate in a five-day “browsing party” hosted by a large online dating service.  During the event, participants could check out as many profiles as they wished, but could message at most 10 people to request a first date.  In an added twist, most participants received a virtual rose they could attach to two of these requests.  After the party, everyone eagerly opened their inbox to see if they had any messages, and any roses, but could accept 10 dates at most.  If you stretch back to Econ 101, you can see what’s going on here:  date requests seemed valuable because of their limited supply, and attaching a rose upped the ante all the more.

Here’s how things panned out.  Only 31% of the ladies received any request messages at all—choosy men!—but nearly 40% of the messages came with a rose.  The ladies were more forgiving, sending offers to half of the men, but they graced only 28% of their date proposals with a rose.

To account for attractiveness and desirability, in addition to roses, the researchers borrowed the host site’s secret “desirability algorithm.”  This algorithm crunches data like age, employment status, income, educational attainment, weight, looks, and appearance, to score a participant’s attractiveness to the opposite sex as a future spouse.  Based on their scores, the sample was split into 3 “desirability groups”: the bottom and top 30% and the middle 40%.  People in all 3 groups received date requests and roses. Men said yes to 29% of their dates, while women said yes to 38%.

Now for the interesting part.  All things being equal, the effect of simply attaching a rose increased the chances of getting a yes by 20%!  That’s a powerful signal.  The effect of the rose was only slightly smaller, in fact, than the effect of actually being in the middle group instead of the bottom group.  This means that clearly indicating a special preference for a date has just as much impact as actually being a more desirable date yourself!  As you might expect, roses packed a little more punch for the middle and bottom groups than they did for top-level hotties.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you need to make every date feel special–sometimes it is just casual, after all.  But you might want to send a signal when you are excited about a person with a lot of potential.  These are off-the-cuff, but try something like:  “it isn’t every day that I mean a cute girl who also likes Spanish guitar bands.”  Or, “I rarely ask guys out, but I like what you said about altruism and I think I could beat you at bowling.”  You can keep it light-hearted but still build anticipation before the date by signaling that something about the person feels special.

You do run the risk of looking foolish, I suppose.  But, if playing it cool means you’re getting turned down by some people who would have said yes if you tipped your hand, isn’t that worse?

From the comment-whisperer:  What works for you?  Playing it cool or making someone feel special?  Tell me what you think…just a teensy comment…you know you want to!

[i] Soohyung Lee, Muriel Niederle, Hye-Rim Kim and Woo-Keum Kim (2011).  “Propose With A Rose? Signaling In Internet Dating Markets.” NBER Working Paper 17340: http://www.nber.org/papers/w17340. Here’s a free PDF download of an earlier version of the paper:   http://hit.wharton.upenn.edu/awfe2010confpapers/LeeNiederle_23sep2010.pdf

The Infatuation Theory: Is Choice An Illusion?

“Love is like a fever that comes and goes quite independently of the will.”  -Stendhal, 19th Century French Author

We’re finally here–the culminating theory of how mate selection works!   (According to the research I’ve been reviewing in this series)

As we’ve discussed, lots of research, including this study, has demonstrated that most of our choices, from vacations to friends to decor, follow a lawful genetic pattern to some degree.  Picking a spouse, however, sticks out like a sore thumb. An important choice for which there is no pattern.

The researchers offer an intriguing explanation for this blip:  they argue that picking a partner is not really a “choice.”   We are looking at it all backwards, they say.  Instead of approaching this logically, people are mysteriously drawn to certain people, but not to others.  It starts with “I kinda like him or her,” and while we may subsequently decide against some of these people in a logical manner (e.g. alcoholic, serving jail time, no thanks), the “liking” part is not a choice.

The researchers’ theory is this:  the juicy force prompting these not-exactly-choices is infatuation, it has evolved into a specific mechanism for finding a partner.  Infatuation, they believe, occurs by chance, rather than according to a lawful, genetic pattern.  Sort of like being thirsty or wanting to succeed.  Instead of choosing a partner, they theorize, infatuation goes off like a homing beacon and then…well, you just want that person.

If they are right, and infatuation’s purpose really is to flag potential partners for us, does that mean we should go with the flow?  Not exactly.  Arguably, my body wants me to  produce symmetrical, healthy babies, but might not be thinking about my desire for stimulating weekend conversation.  Lots of dating advice books will tell you to ignore this homing beacon.  Don’t pay too much attention to chemistry, they say,  attraction can develop over time if you have a good foundation.

While I agree this is true, I suspect that one partner usually has the infatuation-homing-beacon thing going on, and then works to win the affection and attention of the other, who might feel a glimmer, or nothing at all.  “Love at first sight,” by contrast, probably happens in those rare circumstances when you both have the homing beacon experience at the same time.  I do think we can say that if neither of you are googley-eyed after a while, then you’re making a logical decision instead of one inspired by chemistry.  We don’t have the data to argue that a logical relationship is a bad approach, but I’ve always been a fan of chemistry, and I think the work of Lykkegen and Tellegen would suggest that a different partner very well could bring out the spark that you’re missing.

At the time (1993), this infatuation theory was just a logical hunch.  The authors did not conduct an experiment to test the role of infatuation; they simply proposed the theory when the other logical possibilities–our genes and our environment–had been ruled out.  Many, many smart people have since run with this theory, and have learned all kinds of good stuff about how infatuation works.  One day, I’ll come back to this topic, but if you can’t wait, check out Helen Fisher’s book Why We Love for a great introduction.

We finished a series!

Very soon, I’ll be talking about sexual satisfaction in long-term relationships.  Stick around–you know you’re curious.

Missed the series?: Post 8; Post 7; Post 6; Post 5; Post 4; Post 3; Post 2; Post 1

[i] Pew Internet and American Life Project, a 2005 survey of internet users.  An additional 55% of singles reported no active interest in seeking a romantic partner!  I think I smell an upcoming post series…

Deep Thoughts on Chucking the “List” When Dating

Back to this “List” topic– (You know, the list you are supposed to mentally compose and check off as good-looking single people flit in and out of your life)–and some thoughts about what it all means.   The authors summed up their findings by saying: “Although twins tend to make similar choices in other areas of living, choices that reflect their genetic and environmental similarity, their choice of spouse is an exception.”   Two baffling conclusions drop out of this unexpected finding.

First, despite the ubiquitous popularity of list-making in dating advice books and love seminars, here we have a logical, well-supported demonstration that real people who actually get married don’t use a mental list when picking a spouse.  You might be tempted to read this and chuck your lists–but wait.  As you’ll hear me say often, just because people do or don’t do something doesn’t make it good or bad.   It’s totally possible that everyone would make better choices IF they composed and used a thoughtful list of must-have spousal characteristics.  On the other hand, we don’t have data to support this claim either.  Making a list could inadvertently scramble your head and direct you away from perfectly good spouses, too.  We don’t know.  We simply know that nobody is doing it!  You want to follow the pack, don’t you?

Secondly, and weirder, this finding suggests that neither our genes OR our environment has much to do with who we end up marrying.  If our genes were molding our spousal choice in some way, then identical twins would have more similar spouses that fraternal twins.  If our environment mattered a lot, fraternal and identical twins would have more similar spouses than randomly paired adults.  Neither of those patterns emerged, though.  This lack of patterns is really non-intuitive, especially because we know from earlier in this series that spouses tend to be similar as opposed to different.  Identical twins are similar…and people marry similar people…but their spouses aren’t more similar than the norm?  Fascinating.  So much for nature/nurture[i]!

Clearly, some other force is at work.  If we pick similar people, but our genes and environment aren’t really involved, then how DO we make this important choice?  The authors have a theory…and in part, they don’t think we make a choice at all.  Stay tuned…

Missed the series?:Post 7; Post 6; Post 5; Post 4; Post 3; Post 2; Post 1

[i] If you missed intro psychology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and human development, then I should let you know that Nature/Nurture is a catchphrase referring to a huge, on-going debate over whether our genes or our upbringing/environment exacts the greater impact on how we grow and develop psychologically and physically.  Implied in this debate is that it’s one or the other.