As many of us so acutely know, conflict in our romantic relationships can be virtually unavoidable. Whether it’s about not having enough sex, spending too much time out with friends, or the dirty dishes, at the root, partners clash because of differences—in ideas, values, perceptions, and in the interpretation of situations. Although it may be true that conflict is inevitable, hostility is optional. The difference, according to Drs. Julie and John Gottman, lies in the approach.
In their four decades of researching relationship stability, the Gottmans reliably found that discussions between intimate partners often end on the same note they begin. More specifically, 96% of the time, the outcome of a conversation can be predicted based on the first three minutes of the interaction. Meaning, if you start an argument by levying an attack on your partner—especially if any of the Four Horsemen gallop into the discussion—you will end up with as much strain as you began with, if not more.
Harsh Start-up—where one initiates a conversation in a critical, blame-affixing, and exasperated way—has an alternative, and it’s called Gentle Start-Up. Softening your approach to conversations revolving around potentially contentious issues is crucial to resolving relationship conflicts. Researchers, therapists, and real-life couples agree: using a gentle start-up to your conflict discussions creates a greater likelihood of stability and happiness in your relationship.
Consider starting your next conflict discussion with these three gentle start-up techniques. You may be surprised by the productivity of your dialogue.
I’ve noticed… Here is your opportunity to describe the problematic situation without evaluation or judgment. A helpful way to do this is to imagine your eyes as a camera panning around the room; instead of accusing or blaming your partner, describe what a camera would capture. Remember that the problem is the problem, the problem is not your partner—make it clear that you are not on the attack. You are less likely to elicit defensiveness this way.
Instead of “You never spend time with me because you’re always putting me last,” try saying, “I’ve noticed that we haven’t spent much quality time together this month.”
I feel… Make self-focused “I” statements about the ways in which the situation has an emotional impact on you and add a positive need. Do your best to avoid the blame game; rather, focus on how you’re feeling, not on how your partner is deficient. No matter how “at fault” you feel that your partner is, slinging criticisms and accusations is not going to get you anywhere but stuck. So, stick with “I” rather than “you”—word choice matters.
Instead of saying, “You are singlehandedly destroying this relationship, you make me miserable every time you come home late from the office!” you might say, “Spending time together is really important to me. I get upset and feel disconnected from you when we don’t get that time together.”
I need us to… It is said that behind every criticism is a wish—the next time you’re complaining, check in with yourself. You are most likely complaining in order to be heard and influence behavior change in your partner. Here is a tip: they will be more receptive to your point of view and deliver the change you desire if you firmly describe what you want, particularly with respect and courtesy.
Instead of “You don’t care about me at all. This relationship will be over if you don’t fix this,” say, “I need us to find a solution where we spend more quality time together. I know work is demanding and it seems impossible to leave the office at times. At the same time, we need to invest in our relationship. I feel closest to you when we have a standing date night. What do you think about that idea?”
Conflict does not have to be the enemy of a successful relationship. Not all conflict is corrosive; rather, it can be a constructive and positive aspect of your relationship—if you have the functional structure to manage it. When partners complain without blame and express their concerns in a gentle, firm, and direct way, it presents a challenge as well as an opportunity to hear one another, evolve, and ultimately—connect more deeply and intimately.
If you want to learn more techniques to manage conflict and build a deeply meaningful relationship, schedule an appointment with one of our couples therapists or call us at 917.476.9381.