Emotionally charged issues like death, sex, money, family and identity are never easy to address, but the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. In this thoughtful book, Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money, provides guidance for having high-risk conversations with intention, kindness and consideration. While she doesn’t offer how-to lists, she does draw a road map for navigating fraught conversations. The destination is not always resolution, explains Sale. But the journey will fracture the isolation of silence and bring you to a better understanding of yourself and others.
- Having forthright conversations about death, sex, money, family and identity is notoriously difficult.
- Magic words that alleviate or erase the pain of losing a loved one don’t exist.
- When talking about sex, be clear about your needs despite the risk of embarrassment or rejection.
- Honest talks about money go beyond dollars and cents to explore values, status, opportunity and security.
- Hard talks with family members are fraught because family dynamics are resistant to change.
- Constructive identity conversations acknowledge differences while seeking commonalities and connection.
Having forthright conversations about death, sex, money, family and identity is notoriously difficult.
People are decreasingly reliant on preexisting structures, rituals, and civic and religious institutions that can help navigate life’s challenges and painful experiences. In the absence of religious or social support, individuals must devise their own strategies for dealing with loss and adversity. One tried-and-tested approach involves reaching out and sharing your thoughts and feelings with others.
Hard conversations often can take a wrong turn, despite the instigator’s best intentions. Nonetheless, bringing challenging subjects into the open has the potential to help people strengthen relationships, express love, lessen burdens, build trust and garner support.
“When tensions are high, a single conversation has the potential to solidify a relationship into a lifelong bond, or to send it spiraling toward doubt.”
Begin a difficult conversation by being clear about what you’d like to gain. Hint to your conversational partners that you want to talk about something sensitive so they won’t feel ambushed. Use an opener such as, “I’ve been thinking about something,” or, “Do you have time to talk?” Read the other person’s speech, mannerisms and body language to help you to decide whether to push on, back off or pause to tend to emotions.
Listen with an open mind, and absorb what the other person is saying without getting defensive. As the conversation gains traction, and as emotions swell and recede, notice the pacing. Pause when you feel overwhelmed or need to readjust. As the exchange draws to a close, reiterate your reasons for initiating the talk, as well as the benefits you hoped both parties would gain.
Difficult conversations are not an excuse to hurt another person in the name of honesty. Be careful with your words, kind in your approach and clear about your objectives. You’ll unlikely resolve every conflict, and that’s perfectly acceptable. However, without hard talks, intimacy wanes, relationships falter, and you miss opportunities to connect and grow.
Magic words that alleviate or erase the pain of losing a loved one don’t exist.
Nothing you say to someone who is grieving a death will heal his or her aching heart. Yet this fact of life is not an excuse to say nothing. The point of hard talks about death, illness and dying is to show that you care. Grieve with the bereaved, bear witness, express love and share remembrances. Avoid platitudes that minimize the loss or careless words that assume you know the struggles of the person in mourning. Simple, honest and loving expressions of sympathy – such as, “This is so sad,” “I wish this hadn’t happened,” or “I’m so sorry” – are best.
“The best way to talk about death is to make room for that unsolvable sadness to just be there, to offer comfort and dignity alongside it and to say what you need to say while there’s still time.”
While it’s hard to talk about death, it’s also uncomfortable to have conversations about dying. Having candid exchanges about medical decisions, dealing with illness and end-of-life care allows the dying and their loved ones to “pre-grieve.” Shelley Simonton lived for 18 months after her diagnosis of melanoma. During that time she chronicled her experiences with her illness and treatments online on CaringBridge, a social network that helps terminally ill patients communicate with loved ones. When that got to be too much, she and her brother Mike got her affairs in order and planned her memorial service. Shelley selflessly shared her last days with her sibling, which allowed him to prepare for her death.
Sharing memories and stories with someone who is dying, and memorializing those who have passed, honors your history and gives voice to how much you will miss each other. These conversations, while difficult, become lasting and precious memories. You may fumble for the right words, but sharing grief thwarts the isolation and loneliness of a great loss.
When talking about sex, be clear about your needs despite the risk of embarrassment or rejection.
Talking about sex covers a broad range of topics, including negotiating your physical desires and discussing romantic feelings. Sex conversations require you to put your needs into words, while also listening to what your partner craves. This is emotionally risky, as you expose yourself to the possibility of embarrassment, guilt and rejection. You might discover you and your partner are incompatible, or that the conversation leads to more questions. However, talking plainly brings problems into the open and provides a chance to work through conflict.
Exchanges about sex are multilayered, and your self-image, moral standards and personal history influence your opinions. Recent years have heralded a broader acceptance of a range of types of romantic relationships, sexual pairings and family dynamics. Concurrently, the pressure on long-term romantic relationships has increased as people need and expect more from their significant others.
“We are expecting each other to fulfill more than ever, at a time when we feel more free to define what love and sex can and should look like in our lives.”
As attitudes towards sex and romance evolve, individuals are at liberty to create their own definitions of sex and partnership. Putting these needs into words and understanding what your partner wants is the basis of consensual sex. Open dialogues about sex and intimacy are possible only when partners trust each other.
To talk candidly about sex, you must feel safe. Sex worker and performer Ty Mitchell recommends starting with a question borrowed from LGBT culture: “What are you into?” This question prompts a conversation about what you want and expect – whether it’s a casual hook-up or long-term relationship – and what your partner might need. It also gives you an opportunity to reveal any past hurts, and their lasting effects. For example, after a night of partying with friends, Karla’s roommate’s boyfriend backed her into a corner and repeatedly kissed her against her will. Her roommate and the boyfriend dismissed the incident as a harmless drunken encounter, yet Karla felt violated. Later, when she began dating Manny, she told him about the incident. His understanding and support enabled her to go into therapy and articulate what felt safe for her during sex.
Honest talks about money go beyond dollars and cents to explore values, status, opportunity and security.
The idea that talking about money is somehow gauche is pervasive in American society. Yet money represents more than the ability to pay your bills and buy products; it affects your feelings of self-worth, your social ranking, and your options for the future. When you’re in a relationship that requires making financial decisions together, having hard talks clarifies your values, sheds light on life choices, and reveals the habits and attitudes you’ve developed around money. Honest conversations about financial realities with friends and colleagues ensure that you don’t get underpaid. Talking about money frankly enables you to ask for help and advice, and it exposes the systemic forces that affect your monetary position – such as government policies, economic trends and industry practices.
Financial psychologist Brad Klontz categorizes people’s attitudes toward money into four personality types: “money vigilance, money worship, money avoidance and money status.” Your type affects your financial choices. When people in a relationship have mismatched approaches to money, problems arise. Discussing each other’s positions and exploring how your background, experiences and upbringing influence your view of money can bring deeper issues to light. Once you’ve addressed these issues, you can talk about them openly and shrug off the emotional baggage.
“Money is like oxygen. It surrounds us, flowing in and out of our lives – and when you’re short of it, nothing else matters.”
When writer Ashley C. Ford attended Ball State college, her family was unable to provide a financial safety net. She quickly realized that her combination of grants, scholarships, jobs and loans wasn’t enough to cover her expenses. Luckily, the family she babysat for offered her a place to live. Later, her roommates covered her rent when she hit a rough patch. Talking candidly about her financial situation allowed her to create a support network. Confiding in others was scary, but by accepting help, she discovered the generosity of people beyond her immediate family. When she was comfortable financially, Ashley made a point to pay it forward.
Alas, conversations about money can stir up resentment when the advantages enjoyed by others become known. When author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney moved to New York City after college, for the first time she encountered people with inherited wealth and trust funds. Initially, she thought she had been mismanaging her money when she couldn’t afford the clothes, apartments and vacations that some of her peers enjoyed. A little investigating showed that access to family wealth gave these friends a leg up that wasn’t available to her. Cynthia was admittedly envious, but having open conversations helped her understand that she wasn’t at fault or unlucky. Privilege, networks and opportunities aren’t equally shared.
Hard talks with family members are fraught because family dynamics are resistant to change.
Ideally, family surrounds you with love and support, and it provides a protective buffer from the outside world. Unfortunately, in many cases family relationships give rise to hurt, built-up resentment and contempt. Conflicts are almost inevitable over a lifetime, from small infractions to painful ruptures. Hard talks with family members are fraught because family dynamics are resistant to change, the pain of past offenses lingers, and blame, guilt and judgment can rear their ugly heads. The version of yourself your family knows may stifle and unbalance you as you grow, evolve and change. Thus, you want to understand the family experiences that shaped who you are, while also gaining acceptance for the different and fully realized adult you’ve become.
“Inside our families, our roles get cast early on. And with those roles come a set of unspoken rules about how you are viewed within the family, how you will treat one another, and who is allowed to say what.”
Finding the right time for a hard family conversation is essential. The years may take the edge off conflict or, conversely, give resentments time to fester. For example, when the sister of radio station personality Yesi Ortiz struggled with drug abuse, Ortiz took custody of her sibling’s six children. When the eldest boy turned 21, Ortiz had trouble relinquishing control or giving him the space to find his own way. In retrospect, she wishes that she had listened more to what he needed, withheld judgment and spoken to him as an adult rather than a charge – skills she developed as the other children grew older.
Relationships often evolve and establish new boundaries through incremental conversations, as filmmaker Desiree Akhavan learned when she came out as a lesbian to her conservative Iranian family. At first, her parents were devastated. But with time and through many conversations, they accepted her lifestyle and welcomed her girlfriend into the family. Familial relationships ripen and change when family members learn to see each other as mature individuals. Sharing stories of family experiences from each person’s vantage point helps members understand the different dynamics that reign within the family bubble.
Constructive identity conversations acknowledge differences while seeking commonalities and connection.
Attorney Liam Lowery, a trans man, approaches identity conversations cautiously but openly – particularly when it’s with someone unfamiliar with gender identity issues. First, he pinpoints the objective most important at the moment. Does the situation call for standing up to misconceptions or prejudice, or is the goal to educate and make a connection? In either case, the process can be wearisome because, unfortunately, it often falls to victims of prejudice and bias to explain the costs of judging and excluding people based on identity. Native American Anpo Kuwa Win invests considerable time speaking with people unfamiliar with her rich and nuanced history. When she feels the weight of representing all Native people, she requests one thing of her audience: to listen carefully and take in what she is saying.
Hard talks about identity dynamics are personal and intimate. They get to the heart of how you see yourself and others. You attempt to understand and empathize with someone else’s dissimilar experience of a shared reality. Oftentimes, that means facing entrenched injustice and systemic inequalities, while acknowledging generational legacies of privilege and advantage. Reframing identity talks away from categories of marginalization to a context of belonging enables participants to find common ground. Those marginalized in one population may hold an advantageous position in another.
“Identity conversations are about creating space for differences – differences that are layered with power and pain – in the hopes of creating a feeling of connection, or at least a sense of peace with the distance that remains.”
Hard talks that magnify power imbalances, unfairness and systemic discrimination can make people in normative categories feel guilty or culpable. Wellesley College researcher Peggy McIntosh explains, for example, that most white individuals are used to thinking of their identities as “the norm.” Identity-based power and privilege, or oppression and disadvantage, are not about an individual person’s niceness but are built into sociological systems over time. Finding out about other people’s family histories is an effective way to move beyond stereotypes and discard assumptions. Sharing personal histories allows people to see the nuance and detail of what makes each individual special and highlights the similarities of the human experience.
About the Author
Anna Sale is a political journalist and the creator and host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money.
Video & Podcast
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