Why "We Need to Talk" Isn't the Best Way to Save Your Relationship

One of you wants to talk more about your relationship. The other one would rather cheerfully submit to a tax audit. Here are some practical suggestions. 

Stephen Snyder, MD
6-minute read
Episode #20
The Quick And Dirty
  • Don’t say “we need to talk.” Say "I need to talk.”
  • Don’t under-estimate the power of non-verbal connection. Your partner may first need reassurance that your intentions are friendly.
  • Speak “adult to adult,” not “parent to child.”  It’s easy to fall into parent-child mode when you’re frustrated and upset. 
  • Be patient with each other. Try to accept the fact that the two of you just experience things differently. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that among the most dreaded four words anyone can hear from a partner are “We need to talk.”

I looked up “We need to talk” on Urban Dictionary. According to one contributor, the phrase means “Listen to me now or I’m walking out the door.” Another defined it as “The end of your relationship, or something that could mean the end of your relationship unless you take it really seriously.” A third suggested it was “the perfect time to fake a heart attack.”

However you define it, these four words are clearly something you never want to hear your partner say.

Why is everyone afraid of being told, "We Need to Talk"?

Sometimes, of course, the thing that makes the phrase “We need to talk” so bad is what comes next. Whatever your partner says after “We need to talk about those text-messages I just found on your phone” is going to be unpleasant for both of you.

You’d think talking about your relationship would be a good thing. But if that’s true, then why do so many of us dread it?

But sometimes the phrase doesn’t mean you’re about to be called out for something. Sometimes it just means “We need to talk . . . about our relationship.” You’d think talking about your relationship would be a good thing. But if that’s true, then why do so many of us dread it?

As Patrica Love and Steven Stosny point out in their book, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, when one person says to the other, “Honey, we need to talk about our relationship,” you almost never hear the other person say, “Wow, that makes me so happy. I’m really eager to share my feelings about our relationship with you, too.”

Let’s take a look at why we’re so resistant.

“We need to talk” really means “I need to talk”

As regular listeners to this podcast will instantly recognize, the phrase “We need to talk” is completely inaccurate. The problem, of course, is the word “we.” What you really want to say is “I”—“I need to talk.” A lot of people in relationships use “we” when they really mean “I.”

'I need to talk' tells the other person that what you’re about to say is subjective. It’s your own experience.

“I need to talk,” or “I need to talk with you,” sounds much better. Because it tells the other person that what you’re about to say is subjective. It’s your own experience. “We need to talk” sounds like some kind of moral absolute.

"We need to talk" makes the listener feel like a five-year-old

Maybe some of you’ve heard of a kind of psychology from the 1970s called Transactional Analysis. One of its main points was that we all have inside us what you might call a parent, adult, and child.

The adult part of you tends to be practical, rational, and mostly interested in solving problems. When two people in a relationship are talking adult-to-adult, that’s usually a good sign.

The parent part of you is mostly concerned with enforcing moral authority. And the child part of you mostly just wants the parent to get off their back so they can go back to having fun.

The phrase “We need to talk” most often sounds like a moral judgment coming straight out of parent mode. That can quickly put the person hearing it right into child mode. Obviously, that’s not what you want when you’re trying to work something out between two adults.

There are two kinds of roles in relationships. Only one of them says "We need to talk"

As Love and Stosny point out, another problem with the phrase “We need to talk” is that, when it comes to relationships, there are two different kinds of people, or at least two kinds of roles. And people in these two roles tend to think about relationships very differently.

In the first role, the fundamental thing in a relationship is to feel connected. If you don’t feel the other person is connecting with you—let’s say they forget your birthday, for example—that can feel very threatening.

In the second kind of role, the fundamental thing in a relationship is to perform well. You’re not so preoccupied with whether or not you feel connected; you’re more interested in whether you’ve done a good job, taken care of your partner’s needs, checked all the boxes.

What someone who doesn’t want to talk hears when you say “We need to talk”

Now let’s explore what happens when people who are accustomed to playing these two different kinds of roles get together.

Let’s say Jamie is the first kind of person. Jamie is most reassured in a relationship when feeling close and connected.

Jamie is in a relationship with Ronnie. Ronnie is more of a “check all the boxes,” kind of person. The thing that makes Ronnie feel most reassured is the feeling of having done a good job.

Jamie and Ronnie start out quite happily together. But as time goes by, Jamie notices that Ronnie’s idea of a relationship seems to have more to do with getting praise and for being a good lover.

Ronnie doesn’t seem to need as much intimate communication about feelings. Jamie needs these things a lot. That’s something Jamie can’t seem to make Ronnie understand.

One night, let’s say Jamie and Ronnie are watching TV. After the show ends, Jamie takes the remote, shuts off the TV, takes Ronnie’s hand, looks deeply into Ronnie’s eyes and says, “We need to talk. We haven’t been connecting lately.”

When Jamie says, 'We need to talk, because we haven’t been connecting lately,' what Ronnie hears is, 'You’ve disappointed me.'

To Jamie, that’s a very loving thing to say. It means, “I really want to feel close to you again.”

But remember, Ronnie’s idea of a relationship mostly consists of doing a good job and performing well. What Ronnie hears is “You’ve disappointed me.”

Of course, disappointing Jamie is the thing Ronnie fears most. So, Ronnie reacts by getting emotionally withdrawn. Of course, emotional distance is the thing Jamie fears most. Their needs are fundamentally at odds.

Jamie gets upset and wants to talk more about those feelings. But that only makes Ronnie feel more inadequate. And so on, and so on. Not good.

"We need to talk" doesn't work — what's the alternative?

There has to be a better way, right? If you’re someone like Jamie and you have a need to talk about your relationship, here’s a better approach.

Don’t say “we” when you really mean “I.” Some people need to talk in order to connect. Other people need to feel connected first before they can get many benefits from talking.

Don’t underestimate the power of non-verbal connection. Sometimes it can be a good idea to connect physically first, in whatever way feels best for the two of you, before trying to communicate with words. As we discussed in Episode 18, language is a really late human evolutionary acquisition. For almost all of human prehistory, our ancestors had to rely on non-verbal behaviors—like picking the bugs out of each other’s fur—to reassure each other. Your partner may need a lot of reassurance at first before they can really feel confident that your intentions are friendly and not hostile.

Speak “adult to adult,” not “parent to child.” It’s really easy to fall into a parent-child mode when you’re frustrated and upset. When that happens, see if you can be aware of it, and get back to speaking to one another as adults.

Be patient with each other. As you’ve heard me say many times on this show, your partner doesn’t exist to satisfy your emotional needs. Your feelings are important, and you have the right to them. But your partner has the right to their feelings, too. Make sure both of you feel acknowledged as equals. If the two of you stay together, eventually you may have to just accept the fact that you’re always going to experience things very differently. No matter how much talking you do.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Stephen Snyder, MD

Dr. Stephen Snyder is a sex and relationship therapist in New York City and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine. He's also the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship. In 2019, he was the host of the first season of the Relationship Doctor podcast.