From money to politics to moving in together, learn when and how to bring up the touchiest subjects
Whether it's the first date or the 50th, there are going to be some topics both you and your partner feel less-than-psyched to talk about. There's simply not an easy way to bring up touchy subjects, like the fact that you've recently lost a parent, or even some good things, like when you feel ready to move in together.
Think of conversation topics as a circle, suggests Kelly Campbell, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino, who researches interpersonal relationships. "In the beginning of a relationship, you'll cover a wide array of topics that are relatively superficial, then the more you get to know someone, the closer you'll move to the center of circle and talk about topics that are closer to your heart," she explains. Here, we'll cover when, how, and why to bring up seven sticky situations that most couples face.
When to bring it up: The first date—but keep it general
In the getting-to-know-you-phase of any relationship, talking about what you do from nine to five is fair game, says Campbell. Your career is a good topic for a first date, since it's not overly personal. One caveat: If you hate your job or feel slighted over not getting a promotion, keep it to yourself on the first few dates. Rather than complain about your boss all dinner long, talk about where you hope your career will go in the future, or segue into other topics outside the office, suggests Campbell. Tell him about training for your upcoming marathon, and ask what he likes to do in his spare time too.
Another area that can be sensitive for some people is discussing salary. “Tread lightly on money issues, like the fact that you don’t make a lot or asking how much he makes,” Campbell says. “Some men are hesitant to discuss specifics if it seems like a woman is overly interested how much they make—and the same goes for women who are extremely successful as well.”
When to bring it up: The first date (if you want!)
Setting an arbitrary, inflexible rule about sleeping with someone is a bad idea, says Campbell, since it can interfere with the organic flow of a relationship. “You never know—you could end up marrying someone you sleep with the first time you meet!” she says. A better approach: Be in the moment with that person, but it’s also important that both partners feel comfortable—if you’re with a considerate partner they should be wiling to wait.
However, if you know you tend to get attached quickly, be careful of scheduling an adult sleepover too soon. “Some people make the mistake of believing having sex will take a relationship to the next level, but when it doesn’t work out it can be devastating if you’ve gotten overly attached,” Campbell explains.
When to bring it up: When you’re exclusive (if you want!)
“In my opinion, the less you know about someone’s past, the better,” says Campbell. Of course, sharing basic details about your past relationships (how many people you’ve dated seriously and how long the relationships lasted) is fair game when you start to get serious with someone. But sharing anything more personal (your sex life and number of partners, for example) is up to you to decide. “Establish your personal philosophy on how much you want to share, and if you’d rather keep certain things private, your partner should respect that, if they respect you,” says Campbell.
When to bring it up: When you really trust your partner
This includes intimate details from your past, like a parent or sibling passing away, or an eating disorder or other health issue. “These are things you shouldn’t reveal too quickly,” says Campbell. “If you’ve recently lost your mother, and your date asks how close you are with your parents, keep your response brief, especially if you’re still highly emotional.” Say yes, then change the subject.
If it’s an issue like an eating disorder, first of all, make sure you’ve done the work needed to feel ready for a relationship, says Campbell. Then, when you decide the person you’re dating is truly someone you trust, you can say, “I feel like I’m getting close to you and want to tell you something, but I’d appreciate it if you respected my privacy and not discuss this with anyone else”—and feel free to share without risk.
When to bring it up: After six months or more
“People should make this leap when—and only when—both partners see a long-term future together,” says Campbell. Today, many couples ‘slide’ into living together, which means they do it for convenience’s sake (if they’re already spending six nights of the week together, for example) or for financial reasons (say one person’s lease is up), she explains. And neither of those is a good reason to move in together.
If you feel ready to take the leap, there’s no set time frame to talk about it, whether it’s after six months or two year. You can subtly bring it up by talking broadly about the future: How do they feel about people living together before marriage? Do they see themselves living in the same cities or states as you want to? That way you’ll make sure you’re on the same page as your partner before packing up your place.
When to bring it up: After two years or more
“When couples first fall in love, research shows they’re in a state of euphoria that last from eight months up to two years,” says Campbell. After this period of passionate romance, your attachment to each other morphs into what experts call “companionable love”— a different type of love that’s not as obsessive, but can be even more beneficial to other areas of your life, like your career, says Campbell.
However, when love transitions into this second stage, some people may find they’re they are “addicted” to that first euphoric state, and end up breaking up. Campbell’s advice: Before you decide to get hitched, wait for the touchy two-year mark to pass.
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When to bring it up: Before getting engaged
Topics like religion, politics, and having kids should definitely be discussed before you get engaged to make sure you and your partner are a “match,” says Campbell. You should be on the same page about whether or not to have kids, of course, but your discussion should go deeper than that: Talk about how you want to raise them, will you raise them religiously and in which faith, how will you discipline them, etc. How will you negotiate the holidays with each other’s families? How do they stand on issues like abortion or gun control? If you’re already engaged, Campbell suggests getting premarital counseling with a licensed professional, preferably a Ph.D., whose expertise is helping couples talk through issues like these.