The secret to long-lasting relationships
What do the following have in common?
- A “define the relationship” conversation with a crush
- Mentioning to your roommate that you never check your Facebook messages
- Telling your friend that the way he acts when he’s angry is scary to you
These are all what I call “metaconversations.”
A metaconversation is a conversation about the way people interact. It can be about frequency of interaction (e.g., “I’d like to see you more often”), modes of interaction (e.g., “I’d like it if we spent more time on the phone than messaging each other on Facebook”), patterns in interaction (e.g., “I notice that every time I get angry, you shut down.”), and more.
Generally, the goal of a useful metaconversation is to reinforce or change something about interactions with a particular person in the future. They’re an incredibly powerful tool for maintaining long-lasting relationships, since metaconversations can help people adapt to changing wants, needs, and circumstances, all of which are basically guaranteed given a long enough period of time. If you’re planning to be close to someone for a long time, metaconversations are key.
They are clearly pretty powerful, but they can also be challenging to initiate. Of course, there is no “right” way to have a metaconversation, and different strategies will work for different people, but here are some tips for your next metaconversation:
- If you can, start having metaconversations (both “positive” and “negative”) early on in any sort of relationship. This sets a precedent and makes it easier to have harder metaconversations down the road. Are you appreciating how the other person gets back to you over text quickly? Let them know. Do you get anxious when they interrupt you? It might feel nerve-wracking to bring up, but the earlier you talk about it, the closer you’ll likely feel to each other, both in the short and long term, and the less anxiety-producing those types of conversations will likely be in the future. Of course, you can still have metaconversations in relationships where you’ve gone most of your relationship without having any, but it might feel a little more intimidating than if you were having metaconversations from the very beginning.
- Plan your first sentence and whatever key points you want to be sure to mention, if you have more than one. The conversation might be anxiety-producing, and anxiety can make it difficult to get the ball rolling. Anxiety can also lead you to forget some of your main points. Try to solidify what’s important to mention before you get into the conversation.
- If you think the metaconversation might elicit hard feelings for either party, pick a time to have the conversation where you are both feeling relatively low-stress. If you’re not 100% sure, ask if this is a good time to talk. It’s hard to take in new information when you’re already feeling agitated or distracted. Make it as easy on both of you as possible by choosing a time that works for both parties.
- Talk in terms of how things make you feel. Don’t say, “You’re bad at communicating when you’re angry.” Try instead, “When you get angry, I notice that I feel scared.” Don’t say, “You never initiate contact with me.” Say, “I feel nervous when I don’t hear from you for a few days.” Framing makes a huge difference in how people react to conversations, even if the content of what you’re saying is nearly identical.
- If either of you becomes nervous, angry, or otherwise agitated, ask open-ended questions. It may be challenging to get into a curiosity-based mindset when you may also be feeling heated, but try your best to ask questions and get the other person talking. If they get defensive, try not to join them. Instead, get curious. Some useful questions are:
“What is it like for you when I... ?”
“What was that experience like for you?”
“What was it like for you to hear that just now?”
“What do you think I meant by what I just said?”
“How does it affect you when... ?”
“What’s coming up for you right now?”
“What do you think of... ?”
Be careful to keep your tone calm and curious if you can, or else the meaning of these questions might be misconstrued. Another way to help de-escalate the other person is to validate and reflect what the other person says, which are skills you can learn about here (they don’t just apply to teenagers, and are actually a favorite tool of mental health professionals who work with folks across the lifespan). If you see things escalating instead, that might be a sign that you could both use some time to cool off. Take as long as you need, and once you reunite, go back to asking open-ended questions, validating, and reflecting.
- Once they’re feeling calm, if you’d like, make a request. An easy template for this is: “How would you feel if... ?” For example, “How would you feel if we texted each other every day?” Or, “How would you feel about planning to take a few minutes to cool down the next time you’re angry?” This phrasing allows your request to be the starting point of a collaborative effort as opposed to a demand, and makes it easy for the other person to tweak it if they think of something that might work better.
- End with gratitude. Name at least one thing that went well with the conversation (even if it’s just the fact that the other person was willing to have it) and offer your appreciation for it. Expressing gratitude will help you both associate metaconversations with something positive, and it’s a great quick way to help you feel more connected after a challenging conversation.
What’s the last metaconversation you had? Is there something you wish you’d done differently?