Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

“Here’s how I felt when you said that,” Tara says to Tom.

Tom feels his heart starting to beat a little faster.

Tara begins by reminding Tom of what he said to her when he came home from work. Yes, pretty much word for word. Not something he wants to be reminded of, though he has to admit she has a good memory. And by the time she finishes describing what he said, and how he looked, Tom is feeling like he is being backed into the corner. He rolls his eyes, just to let Tara know he thinks she is exaggerating.

“I see you’re already getting defensive,” Tara continues. “But I need you to know that when you said that, it was like . . .”

Tom interrupts her at this point. “I am not listening to this,” he states. And then he leaves the house to go for a walk, slamming the door behind him.

So . . . what just happened here? It looks like Tara is unhappy about an incident that had occurred earlier between her and Tom. She wants him to understand how his words had impacted her. Tom, on the other hand, is feeling like he is being scolded (not to mention also guilty about his behavior), and he isn’t about to stand there and put up with that.

Result? Conversation ended. Hurt feelings. Anger. Probably followed by silence and continued lack of communication for the rest of the evening, if not longer. And potentially, ongoing resentment.

Understanding the problem

We’re all human. And we don’t always speak or act out of our best selves. As a result, hurt or angry feelings can result. When a partner lives with a chronic condition, sensitivity can be high on both sides. Living with a chronic condition can leave you feeling emotionally vulnerable, and your partner may not always be as supportive as you need him/her to be. If your partner has a chronic condition, there may be times when you feel like, as hard as you try, you still aren’t stepping up the way your partner needs you to.

Sure, it’s important to talk things out. But it can be hard to listen when you feel like you are being criticized, or if your partner is describing an experience, or feelings, that are just too painful to listen to.

So how do you stay in the room when you want to run for the hills? Here’s how:

Be aware of how you’re feeling. Most likely, you’re having some kind of physical reaction. Your jaw may tighten. Your fists clench. Your heart rate speeds up. This is called the fight-or-flight response.

Breathe. Slowly, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Consciously relax the area of your body that is reacting to your partner’s words. This will help you to feel calmer. That’s important, because the fight-or-flight response can lead to an argument or an exit.

Use some self-talk. Start by reminding yourself, “My partner has something on his/her mind and needs to be heard. In their place, I would expect the same.” Along with, “He/she is speaking their mind. That is not the same thing as attacking me.” And don’t forget, “The person I love needs my understanding.”

Listen! Remember that your goal here should be to learn: about your partner, about yourself, and about how you interact with each other. You can use this knowledge to further strengthen your relationship, which benefits both of you. Keep the calm breathing going. This will help you to maintain an open mind.

Set guidelines for the future. It might help to agree on how to express yourself in a way that doesn’t cause your partner to feel defensive. And, when you are on the receiving end, a way that helps you to feel acknowledged even when you don’t want to hear what’s being said. Simply starting out the conversation with, “You know I love you” can set the tone for a calm and productive discussion.

You and your partner. When the conversation gets tough, resist the urge to resist. Keep calm. Listen with an open mind. And stay in the room. Hard conversations can lead to greater understanding!

What helps you and your partner when you need to talk over a sensitive topic? Share your advice by commenting below.