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The One Perfect Time To Broach A Touchy Topic With Your Spouse

After all, you don't want a conversation to blow up in your face.

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Indonesian couple chats by the pool
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One piece of marriage advice I often hear is to put tension to bed before going to bed. A quick apology for a careless word is one thing, but the thorny stuff? More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve opened my big yap right before flipping off the light, launching an atomic bomb of a conversation and found it (surprise!) backfiring.

So, exactly when is the best time to tackle a touchy topic? 

Are you physically ready? 

Marriage and family therapist Amber Trueblood says that before introducing a sensitive subject, consider the basics: Are you and your spouse hungry, dehydrated or tired? If you’re physically “out of fuel,” think twice before bringing up a contentious topic. She says that these are simple, obvious things, but we forget when we’re upset. Avoid raising a tough subject right before you or your spouse leaves on a trip or immediately afterward when reuniting, says licensed clinical psychologist Alexandra Solomon. “We want to be as in sync as possible when addressing a thorny issue,” she points out. Instead, intentionally plan ahead and find a window when you have some time to “ease in and ease out” of a conversation.

Are you emotionally ready? 

Body language and tone is important because it conveys receptivity and has the power to end communication, mental health counselor Melissa McDonald explains. Center yourself before and during an emotional conversation. Be aware of your posture, your facial expressions and where you’re holding your energy. If you feel yourself reacting, slow down and breathe deeply, says the relationships and life transitions expert. “Did your spouse just have a really crappy day at work?” asks Trueblood. Observe where your partner is emotionally, then turn the mirror on yourself. If emotions are thin and frayed, it’s not a good time to launch a touchy topic. Trueblood calls it evaluating your emotional bank account. “If both of you have a full emotional bank account, you’ve got a lot of reserves in there, then great, go for it. If not, then you might want to wait,” she advises.

Setting matters 

Some couples prefer handling big conversations outside of the home. “Walking and talking for some provides an outlet to offload physical anxiety while emotionally processing heavy topics,” McDonald says. Movement can positively affect focus and the ability to tolerate related distress.

Similarly, Solomon, who authored Loving Bravely and Taking Sexy Back, says, “Talking while on a walk can stack the deck in favor of collaboration and calm.” However, others may do better tucked in on the couch. In short, setting matters immensely, but what creates the ideal context depends on the couple, she says. 

Consider how your spouse is wired 

Think about when your spouse is most “resourced” and able to deal with a sensitive conversation, McDonald suggests. Do you have a morning lark or night owl? she asks. Lean into this; it will be a guide as you plan for a hard chat. “There are people who are more wired at night — that’s when their brain starts working, they excel at solving problems and feel creative,” says Trueblood. She stresses the importance of knowing your partner and internalizing what time of day they are most mentally astute and emotionally calm.

Sometimes a heads-up is needed 

McDonald points out that if your partner is likely to feel blindsided if approached unaware, a “pregame huddle” is beneficial to clarify expectations and lessen anxiety. It can also aid in affirming the relationship, signaling that “we’re in this together.”

Trueblood, host of the podcast Stretch Marks, reminds us that our partners aren’t mind readers. Just because it has been on our minds doesn’t mean our partner is aware there’s a problem. Depending on your spouse’s personality, processing time could be valuable to avoid an “explosive conversation.” But for others, offering a heads-up will just trigger the jitters and the conversation will happen right then and there, she says.

Establish a healthy routine 

Going forward, consider putting weekly meetings into practice to deal with concerns before they grow, suggests Solomon. The happiest couples have a low negativity threshold, she says, citing research from The Gottman Institute. These couples will address issues when they’re small before heat and tension rise, something an intentional weekly check-in can facilitate.