If arguments with your spouse routinely escalate and end with hurt feelings and disconnection, the most likely culprit is in the way you begin the conversation. You can begin with harsh starts, or gentle starts. Which one of those you choose will almost always determine what happens next. Research shows that harsh starts trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response 96% of the time. Since fight-or-flight in couple conflict is the best predictor of divorce, gentle starts are an essential skill to learn.
Gentle Starts Leave Out Criticism and Contempt
To understand gentle starts we first have to define their opposite. Harsh starts occur when you begin conflicts with either a criticism, or an expression of contempt. You may be doing this and not even realize it.
Criticism is when you point out a defect within your spouse in one of three areas:
- character (e.g.”you’re selfish”),
- motives (e.g. “you only did that because you want _____”)
- thoughts (e.g. “you said that because you think ______”)
Criticism, unfortunately, is the means by which most of us have learned to express our displeasure with others. It is modeled for us in our families, in movies and tv, and in politics. Good and decent people use criticism without ever understanding how destructive it is over time. Most people would agree that beginning a conversation with an insult is a bad idea. The problem is that we are so accustomed to using criticism that we don’t regard it as an insult. The recipient of criticism, however, will always feel insulted. It’s important to note that criticism is not always stated directly, as in “you’re selfish.” Most often it is implied, and implied criticism is just as damaging as direct criticism.
Contempt is even worse. Contempt is any expression of disgust that is conveyed with an air of superiority. Any time you are sarcastic toward you’re spouse while angry you are being contemptuous. Any time you roll your eyes or let out an exasperated sigh during conflict it’s contempt. If the upper-corner of your mouth curls up in disgust when you are upset with your spouse you are showing contempt.
Why Harsh Starts Fail
Criticism and Contempt are two of what John Gottman refers to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in couple conflict. Their presence induces the fight-or-flight response in the body. As stated earlier, fight-or-flight wrecks marriages.
In fight or flight your brain re-routes the processing of information away from your cerebral cortex and down through your brain-stem. Your brain-stem is not a thinking organ, it is an extremely primitive “keep-me-safe” organ. It has no sense of humor, empathy, critical thinking skills, or executive functioning. When you begin conflict with a harsh start, your spouse will end up in fight or flight and won’t be able to truly hear what you are trying to tell them regardless of how hard they try. They will also be rendered physiologically incapable of experiencing empathy for you at that moment. Your spouse will likely respond with defensiveness (another of the 4 Horsemen), which will in turn trigger your own fight or flight response. From there things will head downhill, fast.
To avoid fight or flight when you and your spouse argue, master the art of gentle starts.
How To Create Gentle Starts
The central difference between harsh starts and gentle starts is that harsh starts describe your spouse, while gentle starts describe yourself. If you think that’s a small difference, think again. It’s the difference between a happy life and a miserable one.
Gentle starts consist of three parts:
- Recipe For Success.
The formula for gentle starts goes like this:
- I Feel… State what you feel with an “I statement.” For instance “I feel sad.”
- About What… Describe the situation neutrally with facts. Describe “it” and not your spouse
- I Need… Tell your spouse what you need to make things better.
“I felt dismissed and mocked when you said that it wasn’t a big deal. What I needed was for you to try and understand why it bothered me.”
“I feel awkward and abandoned when we go to a party and you disappear for 2 hours. What I need is for you to circle back around to me every 15 or 20 minutes.”
“I feel taken for granted when you leave your dishes on the table for me to clean up. It would be great if you cleaned them up yourself.”
Tips For Better Gentle Starts
In the “I feel” part of gentle starts, make sure you are stating the emotion you experience. “I feel like you don’t care about me” is very different from “I feel unloved.” The first describes your spouse and is a criticism. The second identifies your emotion and describes you. In fact, anytime you find yourself using the words “like you” after “I feel” you are lobbing a backhanded criticism at the other person.
Avoid feeling words like “frustrated,” “angry,” “annoyed,” or “upset.” These are “tip-of-the-iceberg words.” They don’t reveal what is beneath the surface. For instance, when you are angry, it’s because you feel a more specific emotion like betrayed, disregarded, or dismissed. Tip-of-the-iceberg words don’t give your spouse the information they need to truly experience the empathy that you are seeking from them.
The third part of your gentle starts, the recipe for success, is your partner’s chance to shine. You are letting them know what they can do for the win. Tell them what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. State the recipe as a positive need or desire. This is a gracious thing to do and it creates good will. Men find it especially helpful to have a specific plan of action.
Finally, take the time to think through all three parts of your gentle starts before you launch into them. This will help you understand what’s bothering you and help you to be more calm in your delivery.
For a more in depth worksheet on how to construct gentle starts click here and commit to becoming a master of gentle starts. If you need coaching to get started, or if you want a safe place to practice this with your spouse, our counselors are here to help.
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