“Honey, we need to talk.”

Gulp. I fear I just lost half of my male readers. 

“Honey, we need to talk.” Those are the most terrifying five words in the English language. So I hear from many of my male therapy clients.  It means there’s  a problem, she’s not happy, and she wants to talk about it. And if there is a hint of “tone” in her voice, it’s all over. 

Of course all couples are different. That said, when I ask what brings a couple to therapy, a common scenario is this: She’s angry, lonely, and unhappy, and has presented him with a long list of requests, complaints, unmet needs, and disappointments. He has only one wish: that his wife would be happy. 

Since he has given up on pleasing her, his response to being overwhelmed by her demands is to go behind a big, thick wall of distance. She feels blown off (because he’s avoiding her). Her hopelessness about getting her needs met drives her to pursue him harder. “Honey, we really need to talk right now.”

Their behaviors reinforce each other in getting the exact opposite of what each of them wants. We call this the “Pursuer-Distancer” relationship. 

If this sounds like you, one simple thing will make a huge difference in your attempt to have good conversations is:  Find a mutually convenient time for both of you to talk first.

A word to the Pursuers: Ladies, (okay, I know some of you pursuers are men, but you tend to be females, so work with me). If you pounce on your man you know what will happen. Let’s try something different. 

Start the conversation in a soft, non-threatening way. There is a ton of research showing the softened startup is a useful strategy that leads to a better conversational outcome.

Ask him if it’s a good time for him to talk. Maybe he had a tough day at the office. “No problem.” Maybe he’s tired and wants to watch the series and have a brew. “No problem.” Maybe he just isn’t up to it right now. “No problem, honey. Let me know what time works for you.”

Don’t start the conversation until you both agree that it’s a good time. And when you have the conversation, be moderate and reasonable in what you are asking for. 

Distancers: First of all, thanks for hanging in with me. You reading this blog is the equivalent of me reading an e-book on “Proctology for Dummies.” So, I’m impressed with your motivation and appreciate your willingness to leave the comfort zone. 

I get it. The tone in her voice grates on you like three inch fingernails scratching a mile-high chalkboard. You try hard to please her. You work tirelessly to support your family. You probably deserve more admiration and appreciation than you get. 

And right now, she has an issue she would like to discuss. That’s all. 

If she asks critically, gently remind her that her tone is off putting to you. But please: make yourself available to talk to her. Find out what she needs. Don’t withdraw behind that wall even if it looks safe and inviting. That makes your wife feel lonely, alone, and frantic. And it makes her wonder if being a single mother wouldn’t be so bad. 

If it really isn’t a good time, tell her that. Then offer another time. Then be available and have that talk when the time comes. 

Good job. You’ve just taken the first step towards a healthier, more loving relationship.