Imagine that you’re having a discussion with your partner. You’re trying to convince them to change a habit, or they’re trying to convince you to change.
- You are always late from work…
- If you only paid attention…
- My problem with you is…
- You only think about yourself…
- You are acting just like your mom/dad…
What do you think most of these conversation starters have in common? According to Dr. Gottman, author of “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” you or your partner could be using a Harsh Start-Up.
Dr. Gottman is like a real live marriage scientist. He analyzed over 130 married couples in his “love lab” at the University of Washington. He asked them to discuss a marriage problem and hooked up different kinds of sensors to their bodies. While it’s already pretty interesting that people would actually subject themselves to those kinds of experiments, I’m glad they did, so that we can learn from this. According to Dr. Gottman, his statistics revealed that you can predict the outcome of a discussion based on the first three minutes. How you start the discussion will tell you how it will end.
According to a research journal written by Carrere and Gottman (1999),
“Interestingly, husbands in stable marriages become somewhat more negative over the 15-minute interaction, but they do not become less positive, whereas husbands who will eventually wind up divorced become increasingly more negative and increasingly less positive over the 15-minute interaction. For wives, none of the initial group differences was amplified over time. Hence, while the nature of the startup is just as critical for wives as for husbands, these initial differences remain throughout the interaction, but they are not amplified over time.”
96% of the time if your discussion begins with harsh words, body language, expressions, etc. it is going to end in a negative way. Let’s imagine for a moment that you are in a relationship for 10 years. The conversations start off polite, but over time, you both start your conversations off in a harsh way. You have conversations like that at least once a week for 10 years. That is at least 52 times a year for 10 years, over 520 times, you talk in a way that has no resolution. At the end, either you or your partner feel frustrated, angry, or unable to get anywhere because your partner will never listen to you.
This is a recipe for a communication breakdown. All the tools in the world are never going to fix your marriage or your communication because the harsh startup is a habit. What you do repeatedly grows. The harsher you are in the first three to five seconds of your conversation, the worse the conversation is going to get. This fact is the reason why some partners in romantic relationships can never make progress, or if they do take some steps forward, they eventually find their way back to old habits. It is the harsh start-up habits that pushes you back to square one. It is one of the biggest causes of divorce or relationship breakups that I see in my clinical work with couples.
Overcoming The Harsh Start-Up
Fortunately there is a way to overcome the harsh start-up no matter how long you have been stuck in this manner of talking to one another. The way to improve communication and to get some outcome or result with your partner is to use a soft start-up. The soft start-up demonstrates that there is a softer, more gentle, and empathetic way to have a discussion with your partner. It also communicates that you may be having challenges or that you want them to pay attention. It also helps communicate that you are putting in the effort to change as well.
In my experience the best way to begin a conversation (especially during the first three minutes) is to name your feelings. The biggest trigger of a harsh start-up is when you lead the conversation with your feelings. I am not saying do not express your feelings. You know that it’s not possible to not express your feelings, especially if you want to talk about something important. It’s especially hard when you’re touching on a topic that frustrates or angers you.
In this situation, it is best to avoid using language in a way that blames your partner. You also need to pay attention to the language that your partner uses to potentially blame you. For example, “You are totally inconsiderate and would rather check your email than have dinner with us.” How would you feel when your partner uses this language with you? It’s natural to get defensive and, in turn, blame your partner for not understanding you. You can retort back, “Well, my work is important and pays for the bills.”
That language is harsh since it uses emotions that blocks a real conversation from happening. Instead, you could say, “I feel hurt and the children feel disappointed when you check your email in the middle of dinner. We feel that we don’t have your full attention when you do that.” It’s difficult to be defensive or escalate this conversation into a fight or argument because you expressed your feelings to your partner in a way that gets them to listen to you without feeling blamed. If you feel hurt by your partner’s behavior and words, you have every right to point out how they are communicating to you and suggest that both of you need to work on better ways to develop a soft start-up.
All couples have fights and arguments; it’s a natural part of any relationship. The difference is that a harsh start-up is the enemy of communication. It has the potential to kill a loving marriage. As a therapist, I know that it is easy for me to write this. I have not walked in your shoes and experienced the hurt and challenges you have been through. I respect that and in no way did I say this challenge would be easy. However, I strongly recommend that building up the skills to communicate in a new way especially when it comes to the first three minutes of a conversation. Taking the time to work on these skills is a beautiful and loving gift you can give to yourself, your partner, and your relationship.