“I don’t know what I did wrong, James!” she said. “I did everything I was supposed to. I planned out what I was going to say, I wasn’t critical, I asked for what I needed in the nicest way possible.”
She rubbed her eyes with her sleeve. “And now he’s gone. All because of me.”
Avery was hurting.
Her boyfriend broke up with her less than a week after Avery had tried to have a difficult conversation with him.
They had issues in their relationship like any couple, but they’d been able to coast by until the past month. Avery noticed they were fighting more. She decided to do something about.
She just wanted to help.
She just wanted to make the relationship better.
Instead, she told me, she wrecked everything.
The Doubled-Edged Sword of Need
It can be terrifying when you need something from your partner.
You need him to help you. Or support you. Or do this one little thing differently.
But the thought of telling him strikes fear into your heart.
You don’t want him to see you as needy. You don’t want to risk having a fight. You don’t want to criticize him.
But you DO need this thing fixed.
You’re not sure you can keep going the way things are. You need to talk about it.
If you keep this to yourself, you’re just going to feel more alone than you already do. And sometimes it feels like the only person in this relationship you can rely on is yourself.
It’s not that he isn’t a good partner. He is. He tries. Most of what he does is great.
But he’s not perfect. No one is. We all have room for improvement.
And if we can’t talk about where we can improve, our relationships won’t get better. They’ll stay stuck. They won’t grow.
So why won’t he listen to you and try to do what you suggest?
Why does any request end up in defensiveness and a huge fight?
Maybe because there’s one fear you’re forgetting about…
… a fear we all experience in moments like these.
He’s Terrified of Rejection
The pain of loss was tearing Avery apart.
“Was I worth so little to him?” she asked me. “That he would rather lose me than try to fix the problem?”
She was focused on her pain.
What she couldn’t see was his pain.
Human beings were designed for emotional connection. It’s our bonds with others that help us survive. In fact, loneliness is as great a health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Because emotional connection matters so much to us, the threat of disconnection fills us with dread. Our ancestors could not have survived without the protection of others.
Even though that link between rejection and survival has been broken, our ancient wiring remains.
We are terrified of rejection.
We can train ourselves to deal with it, but that instinctive fear never fully goes away.
Men experience the fear of rejection as acutely as women. They’re just more motivated to deny it or hide it.
Women are often able to share the pain of rejection with trusted friends who can help them process it.
But many men stay silent and push that pain away somewhere deep inside where they don’t have to look at it.
Some of these men have spent their whole lives not measuring up. Not measuring up to their mother’s expectations, not measuring up to their father’s expectations, not measuring up to what society expected of them, not measuring up to the dreams they had for themselves.
For these men, falling in love feels like joy.
In the early days of a relationship, they more than measure up. Their new girlfriend looks at them with stars in her eyes. They can do no wrong.
Then, as the relationship matures, their girlfriend inevitably says—in the nicest possible way—“Hey, I think this could be better. Let’s try something different. Let’s work on this.”
What does he hear?
He hears the message that’s always running inside his head.
He’s not good enough for her.
Just like he’s never been good enough for anyone.
He’s a failure.
No matter how much he does, she’ll always want more.
And what does he do?
He doesn’t tell her those thoughts.
He just ends it.
3 Steps to Broaching Difficult Conversations
As I told Avery, it is not her fault that he ended things.
She didn’t make a mistake by talking to him. She needed to be able to talk to him.
Relationships cannot thrive and grow when we are afraid to ask for what we need.
But we can get better at asking for what we need in a way that draws our partner closer.
Here are 3 steps to start practicing today.
1. Good faith
See your partner as a resource and an ally who is the perfect person to help you, rather than an opponent or a potential minefield.
Asking for his support and help is always more successful than laying out your case that something needs to change.
2. Lead with vulnerability
We often start off a conversation by explaining the problem and suggesting solutions. Instead, try starting the conversation with a confession that makes you feel vulnerable.
You might say, “I notice we’ve been fighting more, and it makes me feel so distant from you. I love it when we’re close. I worry that we’re growing apart.”
Because these conversations are so nerve-wracking, we often deliver our entire speech all at once. We don’t pause to check in with the other person.
Don’t deliver a monologue. Keep pausing and asking him, “Do you see it that way, or does it seem different to you? Do you feel this way, too?”
Difficult conversations don’t have to end a relationship. They can be an invitation to share what we’re afraid of and what we yearn for.