Healthy Relationship Practices: Tackling the Taboo Topics

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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Relationships usually start out in a rush of connection that allows for two people to suddenly talk about all their deepest desires and fears in a way they never thought possible. We love everything about the other person, the darker their secrets, the closer we feel after they’ve divulged them, and the easier it is to share our own. We start out as strangers, and quickly find the intimacy growing giving us that all too familiar oxytocin high.

But like any high, this one must come down eventually as well. In healthy relationships, the high makes room for a strong and steady base line of love and connection. We learn to trust each other, build upon the relationship. We invest time, energy and large parts of our emotional life in the relationship. With that, it often happens that we lose some of that initial openness. Some of the things that made the other person so exciting at first (their wild dreams of moving abroad, their unconventional views of relationships, their specific desires) may now seem threatening to that solid base line. So we avoid talking about them. We learn, without any specific discussion on either part, which topics become taboo.

There are many couples who share some of these familiar taboo topics: your partner’s family relationships, lack of intimacy, sex in general, feelings for other people, feelings of unhappiness, lifelong dreams that may threaten the relationship, feelings surrounding parenthood, the other person’s childhood, the other person’s challenges, etc.

What ends up happening is that we file the thoughts we have on these issues in our private mind-cabinets. We keep them to ourselves, or maybe vent to a friend about them, but won’t discuss them with our partner. Perhaps we want to avoid the confrontation that comes with bringing them up, or we don’t see the point in ‘upsetting our partner for no reason’. When you’re struggling with something, however, and you’re not telling your partner about it because you’re afraid of their reaction, the relationship always suffers. When you feel like you can’t be 100% open about the things that really matter to you, that make up an important part of your experience, you lose part of the intimacy that you built up in that initial first love phase.

Over time, you may find yourself drifting away from the other person. Perhaps you reach a plateau at which you are both comfortable, each in your own space of mind, living alongside one another. There’s always the risk, though, of suddenly finding one of those hidden parts of yourself becoming too strong to ignore. And there’s always that feeling of not being completely seen and loved for who you truly are.

So how do you go about discussing the undiscussable? How do you break the taboos?

In order to have a discussion about these issues, it is important to, first of all, create safety around them. Make your intentions clear before you tackle the issue. Ask yourself these important questions and discuss the answers with your partner:

  • What do you want to have happen after this discussion?
  • What does this issue mean to you in the relationship?
  • Where do you want it to go?

Maybe you find that you have feelings for someone else but you have no desire to break the relationship. Maybe you have a dream that you can’t let go of and you’d like your partner to see how you can realise it together. Maybe you’re not feeling fulfilled in the relationship and want to grow as a couple.

When talking about taboo topics, it’s good to agree on certain rules beforehand. For example: you don’t blame your partner for feeling what they feel. Our emotions are something we have little control over. All we can control is how we respond to them (and even that only to a degree, as I noticed again today). You let the other person finish talking without interruption until they indicate that they have finished. You can also agree not to take any major decisions until the issues are completely talked through, and even then only in mutual understanding and agreement. You could agree to let issues settle for an agreed upon time (2 weeks, for example), before going into them again. Find out what you need and what your partner needs to feel both safe and heard. And remember: the aim here is to get to more honesty, intimacy and a deeper understanding of each other’s feelings and needs.

Honesty does not mean telling your partner everything that comes up in your mind. There are certain things that just don’t matter enough to risk hurting your partner. Saw a cute girl at the grocery store? Your wife probably doesn’t need to know how that made you feel (unless this is something you both enjoy, obviously.) But if you’ve been making special trips to the store in order to see that girl and haven’t told your partner about it, it may be time to have a discussion about which feelings and needs you are trying to fulfil here. The question to ask is: does this impact my life or my relationship in such a way, that I have to withhold information from my partner. Do I have to put up a front to avoid this? Does it keep me from being 100% authentic.

These conversations are tricky, I won’t lie. Even for me and my partner, both quite fluent in NVC and already really open with one another. They may trigger emotions such as fear, sadness and anger. They can leave you feeling like a little child.

There is a payoff, though. For one, you build trust through being open and being heard by the other person. You also build reliability by hearing what your partner feels and needs. And maybe even most importantly: you know where you stand and have a place from which to act. If your partner has been missing something their whole life and is feeling unhappy about it, wouldn’t you want to know?

I hope this may inspire you and your partner to try out some of those taboo topics. Make some space for them in your relationship and see where it might take you. I can make you one promise: it won’t be boring!

Feeling anxious about tackling conversations like this on your own? We offer guidance for couples who want to create more openness and vulnerability in their relationship. Contact us for more information.

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