Bad news is bad. Especially when that bad news is about some kind of mistake you've made. But, like all things in life, there's a right way and a wrong way for communicating something difficult to your partner. The right way is the harder way, but it's also the healthier way. And healthy is the goal. Or, at least, it should be. Because being forthright and honest with your partner about bad news, screw ups, and difficult topics helps strengthen your bond, build trust, and minimize future resentments.
When couples came to see me during my days as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, they often wanted a mediator to help them deliver bad news. That bad news was usually some kind of secret they'd been keeping, some kind of betrayal they'd committed, or some feelings that made them question if they still wanted to be in a relationship. While it's awesome and helpful to seek out a mediator, you can have these hard conversations with just you and your partner present. You just need to learn a few solid communication skills and some tips for delivering bad news.
And like all things in life, practice makes perfect. The more you talk about difficult subjects, the more you'll learn about how you and your partner need to communicate. Think of it like leg day for your love life.
1. Don't Panic
Go to your happy place for a minute. I know it sounds kind of woo-woo or whatever, but the energy and mindset you bring to a discussion affects how that discussion will go. If you're freaking out, acting like it's the end of the world, you're going to freak your partner out, too. Calm yourself, to the best of your ability, and don't fall into the rabbit hole of overthinking and "what if" and worst-case scenarios. You're strong, even if you feel weak. You're good, even if you've made a mistake. You're loved, even if you don't feel lovable at the moment. You survive hard things all the time. You got this.
2. Be Timely
Timing is an art form. It's absolutely appropriate sometimes to hold off on delivering bad news or having hard discussions until the timing is right. Maybe you don't want to tell your partner you didn't get that promotion on their birthday, or maybe you want to make sure you have your facts straight before you open a whole can of complicated worms. Or maybe your partner is just not in the right mood today for a hard convo. But when I say you have wiggle room with timing, I am generally speaking about days, not weeks or months. The earlier the better. Otherwise you'll also add another complicated later to the discussion about why you didn't tell them sooner. This can damage some of the trust your partner has in you. Never sit on bad news or hard discussions for a second longer than you have to.
3. Be Honest
Here's the thing. Bending the truth to make yourself look better, or to spare your partner's feelings, is never a good idea. Whatever the situation, whether it's a death in the family, a job loss, or a betrayal, you have to come clean about it in the most straightforward, honest way you can. If it comes out later that you were dishonest, your foundation of trust will be destroyed, and you can't have a healthy relationship without trust. You just can't.
4. Own Your Drama
If you did something wrong, take responsibility. If you need to make some changes or address some issues, own that, and make a full commitment to bettering the situation. Don't blame others, minimize your role, pretend like it's not a big deal, or act like it has nothing to do with your partner. A person who never takes responsibility for their mistakes is a person who isn't doing the work of learning and growing in their own lives. It's fair for your partner to think you'll take the same approach to the work of being in a relationship. Plus, handing your scandal is just part of being a grown up.
5. Don't Tell Them How To Feel
You don't get to decide how your partner feels about the news you're delivering. You can say "don't worry" or "don't be mad at me" all you want, but your partner's emotions are theirs. They may be angry for a short time, sad for a while, or totally fine. But that's up to them to decide. Don't guilt, shame, or try to talk them out of their feels. Just support them in the way they need, even if that means giving them space.
6. Don't Compare & Contrast
If you messed up and you're coming clean, the discussion you need to have is about you and your behavior, and how to fix things going forward. It's not a time to compare track records, swap wrap sheets, or use your partner's past actions to make yourself look better. Focus on the issue at hand and safe the conversations about how their past is like your present for another day.
7. Establish & Enforce Your Boundaries
If you messed up, or if you're delivering bad news that you know your partner won't take well, you need to make sure you have some boundaries established. For example, if there are some things your partner can't call you, or say to you, this is a time to protect those boundaries. Boundaries are how we teach others the way we want to be treated. You should have boundaries established about the way you argue, so nobody feels trampled over or disrespected. Then you need to make sure you're protecting and enforcing those boundaries.
8. Fight Like A Grown Up
When you have to talk about hard things, you should focus on the issue at hand, and work to support each other, express your honest feelings, and reach some kind of resolution. Fighting, yelling, calling names, posting snarky memes, being passive-aggressive on social media, getting revenge, and burning your partner's house down are not healthy ways to communicate like grown ups. The same goes for ghosting. It's OK to be angry, and to let your partner know you're angry. It's not OK to be a jerk who crosses the line and makes things worse. You're better than that.
9. Give Them Space
If your partner needs space after you deliver bad news, you have to respect that. It might kill you to not be there with them, talking things out, making sure they're OK, getting validation that they don't hate you, and fixing things that need fixed, but your relationship doesn't just work on your timeline. You don't have to allow months of space (because that's leading more toward avoidance than achieving clarity) but you also can't own the timeline of their emotions. If they ask you for space, hang back. If you force them to talk, you might not like what they say in their conflicted, sad, or angry state.
10.Have A Plan
Say your bad news is something like getting fired, dropping out of school, wrecking your car, or having to move out of where you're living. In these types of situations, it can really help lessen the negative impact if you can offer some solutions. If you lost your job, let your partner know that you have money in savings, and that you have several leads, and that you sent out a bunch of resumes at lunch. If you don't have solutions, that's OK, too. Sometimes just having a loose idea or plan about what you need to do next is enough to take emotions from anger and worry to hope and determination.
11. Put Your Money Where You Mouth Is
If you made promises, put a plan in action, or offered support, you have to make sure they're not just words. You have to act on those words. First of all, it's the right thing to do. Second, it adds to your credibility and trustworthiness. Don't be a person who is all talk and no action. Show your partner that you're exactly the person you say you are.
And as a final reminder, if you feel like you can't tell your partner bad news because you fear for your own safety, that's a serious red flag for an abusive relationship, even if your partner has never physically hurt you. If that's the case, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You can just chat about relationships anonymously, or you find resources and develop a plan for leaving safely.
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