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Your Start-Up | September 2010

When you fly, do you pay close attention to the aircraft's take-off? Maybe not. But don't neglect your take-off — when approaching your partner with a grievance or complaint.

Marriage researcher John Gottman calls it your start-up.

Studies reveals that couples who get their tough conversations and arguments "off the ground" poorly face a surprisingly high likelihood of divorce. What gets them into trouble? The harsh start-up. It's when the opening lines of a complaint feature a hostile tone and raised voice, put-downs, disdain or contempt for a spouse's traits — all the ways we trigger hurt and fear, along with the defensiveness that follows.

What's better? The soft start-up. It's the kinder, gentler way to raise the curtain on a conversation that can, without care, go quickly sour.

Here are some ways to assure a soft start-up:

  • Wait until the time is right — you're both cool, calm and collected — and begin with a non-threatening approach: "Something's on my mind that I'd like to talk about, and I'm hoping we can clear up what's bothering me. Are you up for a conversation right now?"
  • Use a calm, softer-than-usual tone of voice; approach like a friend, not an enemy.
  • Complain (about the situation) but don't blame (your spouse). Better "I'm frustrated to come home and find the kitchen countertops such a mess." Poorer: "You're such a slob, you never straighten up around here."
  • Be polite. Use words like "please" and "I'd appreciate it if you ..."
  • Name your feelings when you can. "I felt afraid when you were yelling at the kids yesterday." Or "I felt hurt when you left the table in the middle of our conversation to check email."
  • Avoid absolutes. Better: "I often feel lonely at night, when you're at the computer so long." Poorer: "You never pay attention to me in the evenings."

"The research shows," writes Gottman, "that if your discussion begins with a harsh startup, it will inevitably end on a negative note ... A harsh startup simply dooms you to failure. So if you begin a discussion that way, you might as well pull the plug, take a breather, and start over."*

*The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," by John M. Gottman. Three Rivers Press: New York, 1999.

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