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Your Start-Up

December 21, 2019

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 consistently get their tough conversations “off the ground” poorly face a 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, a disapproving look, a raised voice, plus put-downs, disdain or contempt for a spouse’s traits — all the ways we trigger hurt and fear, along with the defensiveness that inevitably follows.

Better is the soft start-up. It’s the kinder, gentler way to raise the curtain on a conversation that can, without care, turn quickly sour. Here are some ways to assure a soft start-up:

  1. 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?” If the time isn’t right, ask for a rain check.
  2. Use a calm, softer-than-usual tone of voice; approach like a friend, not an enemy. (see Voice Effects).
  3. Begin with something positive: words of appreciation, a sincere compliment about recent words or deeds, an acknowledgement about how much the relationship means to you.
  4. Complain (about the situation) but don’t blame (your partner). Better: “I’m frustrated to come home and find the kitchen countertops such a mess.” Poorer: “Why can’t you straighten up around here sometimes?”
  5. Be polite. Use words like “please” and “I’d appreciate it if you...”
  6. Name your feelings. “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.”
  7. 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 start-up, it will inevitably end on a negative note ... A harsh start-up 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.”i

References & Citations

An earlier version of this Tip appeared in September, 2010.

i Gottman, John M. The seven principles for making marriage work. Three Rivers Press: New York, 1999.