"We never do anything together any more. It's like we're leading two separate lives."
"I want to tell you how I feel, but I can't say anything without you criticizing me."
"I never get any help around here!"
Do any of these sound familiar? If you're in a relationship, chances are they do. These are examples of what John Gottman calls "harsh start-ups. According to Gottman, these are unskilled bids for connection with our partner; instead of making a connection, these types of start-ups drive our partner away from us (DeClaire and Gottman, 2001). When we enter a conflict leading with criticism, the person on the receiving end feels the need to defend themselves. This often spirals into an unproductive conflict where individuals are trying to win rather than reaching connection and understanding.
The way a conflict begins is a good predictor of how it will end. Gottman's (2001) research with married couples found that what happens in the first three minutes of a fifteen minute conversation can predict the outcome of that conversation. He offers some tips for softening the start of a conversation so that you have a better chance of establishing connection. I've listed his tips from p.71 of The Relationship Cure in bold below and added some further explanation:
- Begin with something positive. Introduce an idea by sharing a positive example of what you would like. For example, if you would like to spend more time with your partner, share an article about a new activity you'd like the two of you to try together.
- Express gratitude or appreciation. Rather than saying you never get any help around the house, think of a time your partner did help and ask them to do that more often, even if it's something small. "Thank you for helping me fold the clothes. I'd love it if we could work on more household tasks together."
- Start with "I" instead of "You". You have probably heard that using "I" statements is the first step in improving communication with your spouse. This advice has spread so fast because it's true! When we talk about ourselves we invite curiosity, when we talk about the other person we invite defensiveness.
- Don't stockpile complaints. Not sharing with your partner when your needs aren't being met is a good way not to get your needs met. Naturally, if we haven't had our needs met for a while we become frustrated, hurt or angry. Learn to develop communication with your partner where you can ask for your needs to be met as they occur, rather than counting the times the aren't met to save for a bigger fight.
When we find ourselves frustrated with our partners we risk falling into the harsh start-up trap. Frustration most often stems from not having a need met. Underneath those needs, are emotions. To increase our skill at getting our needs met, we must learn to identify both the underlying need and the emotion. If we can share the emotion with our partner and then ask if they can meet our need, we are more likely to invoke curiosity and compassion in our partner.
Let's use this statement as an example: "We never do anything together anymore. It's like we're leading two separate lives." First, we recognize that our need for companionship isn't being met. Then, we access the underlying emotion. In this case, we might be feeling distant. Once we recognize those two things, we can reframe our statement into a softer bid for connection. "I have been feeling distant from you lately. I would really love to focus on spending more time together. Can we talk about how we can make that happen?"
It takes practice to use these communication techniques on a regular basis. The Center for Non-Violent Communication has useful lists of emotions and needs to help build your vocabulary and skill in this type of communication. The most helpful thing to remind yourself when you are starting a conversation with your partner is that you're trying to make a connection, not win the argument. With that in mind, you'll often find that the relationship comes out the winner.
By Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT