By Carlin Flora
We all have things we are not saying to the people we love. When should we open up…and how?
It was a muggy summer evening and Will*, 46, and Lilit, 38, were out on a loosely planned date in a trendy part of town. After visiting an art gallery, they strolled through the neighborhood, its streets lined with cafes and restaurants that appeared like glittering dioramas filled with happy couples and clusters of laughing friends. Lilit noticed an elegant French bistro and imagined sitting on its terrace, tucking into a salad and sipping Chardonnay. She casually pointed out the restaurant to Will (“Oh, look at that nice place with the terrace,”) while making a quick internal calculation not to voice her desire, figuring that he would never splurge for dinner, or even drinks, there. Then she turned to her phone to scroll through reviews of cheap eateries nearby, feeling a tide of resentment welling inside. When Will suggested a no-frills barbecue joint in the area—a perceived affront since Lilit had just gone on a diet—she started to fume.
Her reaction wasn’t without precedent; money had always been the fissure that threatened to crack and shake the foundation of theirmarriage. Their divergent feelings about it had been forged in childhood. Lilit came from a prosperous Iranian-American family who valuedgenerosity and abundance above all. It was a given that heaping platters of food—roasted lamb, Cornish hens, saffron rice, and at least five cakes and tarts —would be served whenever guests visited, and a driving force of her immigrant father’s life was to achieve a measure of affluence. As a result, Lilit says, “I have a deep sense that money will always be available.”
Will, on the other hand, grew up with a markedly different set of feelings about money. In the manner typical of his WASPy clan, he learned early on to recoil at showy displays of wealth, a trait compounded by hisparents, who were particularly tightfisted. After they divorced, he was scarred by a period of genuine lack when his mother had to rely on food stamps. Even as a financially secure adult, Will remains imprinted with anxiety that his well will run dry.
Despite their different attitudes, money issues generally fester unspoken until anger pushes them to the surface. Even then, their arguments often go nowhere or make things worse: One time, Lilit called Will a “cheapskate,” thinking it an innocent if accurate description, only to find out she had offended him deeply. On their date night, things similarly threatened to head south when she confessed that she’d really wanted to go to the French bistro but didn’t dare to suggest it because of his frugality.
“I don’t want to beat up on you for this, but spending for me is tied up with spontaneity and freedom,” Lilit said. “I want to be a person who sees a lovely restaurant and says, ‘Yes!’ without having to stop and think about it. When we have to look and see how much it costs, I’m not interested anymore.”
For Lilit and Will, the simmering topic is money. For other couples, it’ssex, or housework, or relationships with in-laws. For parents and their adult children, it’s issues that arise around aging or boundaries. Everyone has hot-button topics with their loved ones and a host of ways of addressing them (or not). Some hammer away at the problems, lobbing accusations and haphazardly stepping on emotional land mines. Others strenuously avoid the topics, rehearsing what they’d like to say (but never will) in their mind.
In a culture steeped in weepy talk-show confessions and online oversharing, one might conclude that blatant honesty is always the best policy. But when it comes to discussing tough topics, how, when, why, and even whether to express oneself are critical elements of productive conversations and, ultimately, relationship satisfaction. Weighing all the factors amounts to a complex psychological algorithm with the highest stakes: Get it right, and you can fortify relationships and boost your well-being. Get it wrong, and you can put a painful wedge between you and the people you love and need the most.
SHUT UP OR SPEAK UP?
“We all like to feel that we’re completely open, but if you look at even healthy, satisfied relationships and families, they avoid things,” says John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois. Indeed, topic avoidance—which differs from secret keeping in that both parties might be aware of the unspoken subject—is commonly employed by couples and families in small, strategic ways. “Every little issue does not need to be discussed with your partner,” says Jennifer Bevan, a professor of communication at Chapman University in Orange, California. “You didn’t want to go to that particular movie? Well, that’s a compromise—that’s being in a relationship.” Constant venting of tiny stressors and criticisms can quickly hack away at the core of a relationship. Setting privacy thresholds, therefore, is the way we keep the peace and protect our identity and that of others instead of blurting out uncensored thoughts.
Yet while topic avoidance is often healthy, it can also trigger dissatisfaction, anxiety, or worse. To understand when people would be wise to speak up, researchers have examined the reasons for avoiding topics, and have concluded that why an issue is avoided may be more important than the subject itself. In a study of dating couples and adult child-parent pairs, Caughlin and Tamara Afifi, a University of Iowa communication professor, found self-protection to be a major reason people don’t bring up difficult subjects—it’s just too unappealing to face the possible embarrassment or vulnerability that might result from, say, admitting that you’re already hoping that your boyfriend of three months is “the one.” Other reasons for avoidance included a desire to protect a relationship from deterioration, anticipation that the other person will respond judgmentally, and a sense that the information is simply nobody else’s business. The study concluded that people who avoid topics to protect themselves are less satisfied than those who do so to protect their relationship.
Reasons abound for opening up, beginning with the fact that disclosure breeds intimacy. “Exchanging information is part of what relationship development means,” Caughlin says. This is evident in the so-called “cycle of disclosure” at the beginning of romantic relationships, where partners take turns expressing vulnerability through personal revelations. Optimally, the process is a tango between talking directly and avoidance. Bringing up past romances can help a new partner understand you, for instance, but you’ve little to gain in describing a former lover’s every talent and predilection in the bedroom. “There’s a point at which giving details is no longer beneficial,” says Walid Afifi, a communication professor at the University of Iowa (and Tamara’s husband).
Clamming up can even be bad for your health. Studies have shown that trying to suppress a thought makes it more frequent and intrusive(Whatever you do, don’t think of a white bear!), which may cause anxiety. In her research, Bevan has linked the tendency to avoid bringing up difficult topics to exacerbated symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Likewise, many families afflicted with cancer avoid talking about the Big C, yet studies have shown that patients tend to get sicker when relatives sidestep conversations about the disease.
“We know that avoiding a topic that’s important to us creates stress, and that stress over time has negative implications for the immune system and for well-being,” says Walid Afifi. “If we can explain something, we can gain some control over it, which is a big reason why talking about difficult topics is beneficial more often than not.”
Furthermore, disclosure often yields better results than people predict. In one study, Caughlin showed that we project our own beliefs onto our loved ones, overestimating how much our (negative) perceptions overlap with theirs. Broaching a sticky subject can be emotionally safer and ultimately more productive than we may imagine.
Such was the lesson that journalist Elizabeth Weil learned when she tackled the issue of sex in her marriage. Along with her husband, Dan Duane, Weil spent a year improving her marital acumen by participating in everything from conversational skills classes to couples therapy. In considering their stagnant sex life, she confronted her own hang-ups around things like the disquieting fact that her husband had spent the early years of their marriage “writing an erotic bildungsroman about [his] nightmare ex-girlfriend.” As she recounts in her book, No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make It Better, “I never quite shook the feeling that my role in Dan’s life was to be the steady, vanilla lay. We never discussed this. We just had strenuously normal sex, year after year after year.”
When they finally met with a therapist who specialized in sex and relationships, it all came pouring out: Dan’s history replete with “dark, aggressive” and ultimately disturbing relationships; the fact that they hadn’t been talking or making eye contact during sex; and, equally important, how Elizabeth herself craved a more aggressive sex life but feared conjuring up the most toxic of Dan’s exes. Dan, intrigued, insisted it would not. She writes: “Fifty minutes later, Dan and I stumbled down onto the street, wrung out and dazed. Then we went home and solved the problem, at least at first…we had excellent sex.”
JUST SAY IT…SMARTLY
In 1995, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a multimillion-dollar research project with the aim of improving fraught conversations about end-of-life wishes. At five teaching hospitals around the country, people were encouraged to talk to their terminally ill loved ones about what pain levels the patients deemed tolerable, whether or not they would want resuscitation, and so forth.
The initiative was a complete failure. Researchers discovered that even though conversations had taken place, end-of-life outcomes did not improve. Fewer than half of the doctors involved knew when their patients wanted to avoid CPR, for example, and the pain reported by dying patients didn’t decrease. In a scramble to justify the project’s hefty expense, researchers blamed a broken healthcare system and other institutional dysfunctions. But Allison Scott, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Kentucky, the results and saw a fatal flaw in how researchers designed the study. “They assumed that more communication was better,” she says. “It’s just not. In fact, talking about an issue in the wrong way can be more detrimental than not talking about it at all.”
In her work, Scott has recorded adults talking to their senior parents about end-of-life concerns and has analyzed how each conversation participant attended to three primary goals that we often work toward (consciously or not) in a serious parley: task goals, which are the official “point” of a conversation (Let’s figure out who Dad’s surrogate decision maker will be); identity goals, which are the unspoken ways of preserving your as well as another’s sense of self (I’m being responsible and caring, and Dad still wants to feel autonomous even if his health is failing); and relationship goals, which aim to preserve the bonds between the two of you (We’re so close that we can speak freely). The highest quality conversations are those in which both parties are mindful of all three goals at once, a feat that requires cognitive gymnastics. We have to put ourselves in the other person’s mind and create messages that recognize their perspective, while also meeting our own goals for the interaction.
It’s clear, therefore, that conversations are much more than a way to get from point A to point B. They are a tangled knot of messages, spoken and unspoken, fumbling toward different destinations at once, sometimes at each other’s expense. “A lot of communication is more subtle than ‘to tell or not to tell,’” Caughlin explains. “Disclosing and avoiding is not all or nothing.” In a study of adult children with a parent who had suffered from lung cancer, he found that the healthiest way families dealt with competing task, identity, and relationship goals was to be generally open while avoiding a few specific topics. Families who managed this balancing act saw their openness as a positive coping strategy and employed tactful avoidance (e.g., not mentioning a father’s smoking history, which likely led to his lung cancer diagnosis) without acknowledging that it contradicted their rosy family standard of honesty. It’s as if their collective self-image as an “open” family papered over the awkwardness of leaving some topics alone.
From this, Caughlin extrapolates that each family has its own implicit communication standards with unique beliefs about how supportive family members should be, how much humor and sarcasm is allowed, and which topics are taboo.
The risks and benefits of openness and avoidance change with each family and each circumstance. As with so much in messy human interactions, the real answer to how to open up is: It depends. Still, being able to take a loved one’s identity and relationship goals into account can strengthen your intuition about what to say and when. Guy Winch, a clinical psychologist and the author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts, recalls a patient who struggled with coming out as gay to his religious Catholic mother. He anticipated that she was going to have a really hard time, which he attributed to homophobia. In reality, though, his mother was feeling challenged by having to inform her community that her son was gay, knowing they might be intolerant. “She wanted to be open-minded, but her social support network was going to be compromised as a result, and she didn’t have tools to deal with that,” Winch says. “You have to think of the implications for your family members in their context.”
Even doing everything “correctly” doesn’t necessarily ensure a good outcome, however, and there are times when one has to either stay quiet and acknowledge the limitations of a relationship or accept the frustration and hurt that accompanies bringing something up. Christine, 38, is perennially bothered when her mother makes her and her husband feelguilty for not visiting enough. “Each time we arrive, she’s eager to begin planning the next time we’ll see her,” says Christine. “It makes us feel that we’ve already disappointed her, and it makes me less eager to plan the next trip. That’s the irony—we could all get more of what we wanted if we dealt with this dynamic that bothers me.”
Yet Christine doubts there’s any effective way to broach the issue, even with sensitive consideration of her mother’s identity. “Any perceived criticism would likely trigger her defenses and lead her to bring up her life’s hardships, which are significant,” she says. “And with very direct communication, she would want tears and hugs, which feels overheated and makes me want to flee.” The point at which the pain of keeping it in exceeds the pain of bearing her mother’s manner may be when Christine just says it, but that doesn’t mean it will lead to positive change.
It’s the type of impasse that clinical psychologist Ryan Howe sees frequently. “A lot of mental health is about tolerating ambiguity and not having everything resolved all of the time,” Howe says. “We always have to deal with gray areas. In some ways, deciding whether to disclose something or not is about deciding which negative consequence you want to face.”
TALK ABOUT TALKING
As married communication researchers, Walid and Tamara Afifi often joke about themselves. “We know we are doing things wrong, but it doesn’t mean we do them better. We’re in our own hell!” Walid says. Self-deprecation aside, the Afifis have in fact put into practice an important principle: You have to have conversations about your conversations in order to recognize and correct unproductive patterns. “It’s a big theme in the research,” Walid says. “Talking about talking is as important as talking.”
In their case, he explains, both family-of-origin and temperamental differences are at play. “I was much more direct and confrontational, whereas she comes from an indirect family,” he says. “I would want to talk about everything, and Tammy thought that meant that something was really wrong. She had to express that when I brought up X or Y, it meant to her that I wasn’t happy in the relationship. In turn I told her that these issues weren’t a big deal, but that I just wanted to be clear about them and move on. Over time, we’ve moved much more toward the middle, where I avoid more and she is more direct.”
Their deep knowledge of the subject makes the Afifis clear-eyed about how much people can change over time. “Small steps are realistic; personality overhauls are not,” Walid says. Case in point: “Many men are awful at giving support. I know all there is to know on the topic from an academic perspective, and yet I’m still awful at it! So Tammy has learned to tell me explicitly how she wants me to support her and what she needs me to say.”
Similarly, for Weil and her husband, learning how to talk proved to be as significant as what they needed to talk about. “We’ve gotten a lot better and more confident at having difficult conversations,” Weil says. Looking back, one of the most helpful initiatives they participated in was a basic marriage education class that offered simple-seeming lessons about communication, such as a prohibition against exaggerations. If one of them exaggerates in a conversation (“We never go out anymore!”), they point it out and reel it back to reality. Another exercise that’s had a long-term benefit is the practice of repeating back to your partner what he or she has just said. “It’s a way to really listen without just ‘yessing’ them away,” says Weil.
For Lilit and Will, what could have turned into another maddening fight about money was transformed when they both stepped back and considered the matter of identity, which was the conflict’s real genesis. “When Lilit was honest about being upset over the restaurant,” Will said later, “I absorbed what she was feeling instead of yelling back, ‘What are you talking about?!’” I thought to myself, Let me just let her have this reaction. And that opened up the space for us to have a conversation.”
Lilit was able to recognize Will’s need to see himself as generous in a thoughtful, planned-out way that doesn’t incite his anxiety around out-of-control spending. Will, likewise, recognized how being able to pop into the French bistro related to Lilit’s self-image as someone spontaneous and free-spirited.
In the end, their date night was salvaged by their willingness to broach the issue openly and smartly. And they did so in a cute, candlelit restaurant that suited them both just fine. The sushi was midpriced and delicious.
*names have been changed
Elements of a Power Chat
Ask Yourself, Why?
Before opening your mouth, internally clarify why you’re disclosing. “Is it for yourself or for the good of the relationship?” asks communication professor Melanie Booth-Butterfield. The latter is preferable.
Know You’re Worth It
Some people worry whether it’s their place to speak up, says clinical psychologist Ryan Howes. If it concerns a close relationship, you have to speak up once in a while or you aren’t truly close.
Test the Waters
You can bring up a less personal example of a subject (“My cousin got an abortion once”) to assess the other person’s reaction. “In some instances, the impersonal conversation can alert you to avoid talking about how the topic pertains to you,” communication professor John Caughlin says.
Watch for an Opening
To discuss something organically, wait for a door to open instead of breaking the door down, clinical psychologist Noam Schpancer says. “If you bring up an issue at a time when someone is able and willing to hear you, the chance of success increases.”
Don’t Fume and Talk
The worst time to bring up a delicate theme is when you’re angry or anxious—an inconvenient truth, since those are the very states that compel us to vent. When you’re upset, take a walk. And if a difficult chat makes you upset, it’s also wise to step away. But don’t leave the conversation open indefinitely. “You have to hit ‘Play’ again, but not until you’re feeling calm,” communication professor Jennifer Bevan says.
Go for Quality
One productive talk is better than hinting at something on 10 different occasions, says clinical psychologist Guy Winch. Also, keep in mind that a conversation is usually a process rather than one conclusive talk, Caughlin says. Revelations often create the need for more conversations.
Use “I” Statements
It’s useful to say, “Let me tell you how I feel,” as opposed to “Let me tell you who you are,” Schpancer says, although this shouldn’t be used as a mechanical conversation trick. “Let it emerge out of an authentic realization that if you are hurt, even if it’s not your fault, it’s still your pain, and it’s on you to seek ways to alleviate it.”
Walk in Their Shoes
Balance the truth with empathy and take responsibility for your part of an issue, says Howes. Also, be prepared for a range of reactions: Others may be more resilient or more sensitive than you imagine.
Don’t Get Sidetracked
If your loved one starts “kitchen sinking” by referring to past transgressions and ongoing power dynamics, say something like, “This is a big enough issue for today. Let’s talk about some of those other topics another time.” In some cases, Bevan says, a neutral third party can help narrow the scope of a discussion.
Approaching topics with mild humor can bring a sense of balance and perspective to a situation and allow for easier venting of anger, frustration, resentment, or sadness, Booth-Butterfield says.
How to Discuss the Touchiest Subjects
WHY IT’S AVOIDED: Everyone wants to be a perfect lover—to hear otherwise is problematic for our egos. For spouses the conversation can be especially difficult, since, as Guy Winch says, “this is the person who is supposed to want to be with you sexually forever. Getting rejected by that person is really hurtful.”
HOW TO SAY IT: Don’t hint or assume that your partner knows you’re dissatisfied. Rather than saying, “You seem to be tired a lot,” say something like, “I’m feeling ignored, and I want us to figure out how we can improve our sex life.” After talking, pick a set time in the future to revisit the topic and assess progress. Don’t complain or bring up sex before that, Winch warns, because anything perceived as nagging can become a self-fulfilling prophecy (“She doesn’t think I can change, so why should I?”).
WHY IT’S AVOIDED: Most people don’t want their loved ones to die—or to think they’re welcoming the inevitable, which is how they fearconversations about the end of life might be received.
HOW TO SAY IT: Leverage third-party examples. “If something comes up in the news about a boy in a coma,” Allison Scott says, “you can use that to gauge what a parent thinks about end-of-life decisions. It’s less threatening than bringing up her living will at Christmas dinner.” In general, families should try to talk early and often about the subject without waiting for an official Big Conversation.
WHERE BABIES COME FROM
WHY IT’S AVOIDED: Parents often think that talking about sex is the same as giving teens permission to have it. Yet research shows it’s the opposite: Kids are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors if they haven’t spoken about it with their parents.
HOW TO SAY IT: Accept that there’s not going to be just one birds-and-bees talk. “It’s an ongoing, bidirectional conversation that begins when a child is 2 and notices a pregnant woman’s belly,” says Tamara Afifi. Use the Socratic method, asking questions like, “When do you think is the right time to have sex?” After they offer their thoughts, offer yours. Most of all, Afifi says, “Be receptive and open. If your child sees you are shocked or avoidant when they bring up the subject, they will learn not to come to you any longer and the conversation will shut down.”
WHY IT’S AVOIDED: People often haven’t decided how they feel about a relationship and don’t want to unnecessarily sabotage things by prematurely addressing the question of “where things are going.” Genderdifferences also cause tension: Women are more likely to want to assess relationships than men, who are more passive about how things unfold.
HOW TO SAY IT: In the beginning, rely on indirect assessments. If the answer to, “What are you doing this weekend?” is, “I’m monumentally busy,” you can guess that someone’s not that interested, and both of you can save face. If you’ve been dating for a while, it’s only natural to want to know if the relationship is exclusive or not. Be frank about your questions and expectations. “We all have our own set of rules; it’s important to be explicit so that yours aren’t broken,” Jennifer Bevan says