In Wednesday’s posting on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we introduced Dr. Gottman’s 1999 study, Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Today, we will apply the findings of this study and teach you skills to soften your start-up when bringing up a topic of conflict with your partner. But first, here is a recap of Dr. Gottman’s longitudinal study on divorce prediction:

Drs. Gottman and Carrère discovered that they could predict the likelihood of a couple’s divorce by observing just the first 3 minutes of a conflict discussion. The couples who divorced started their discussions with a great deal of negative emotion and displayed far fewer expressions of positivity than those who stayed together six years later. Not only were they negative, but they were also critical.

As Dr. Gottman’s research has revealed, discussions invariably end on the same note they begin. If you start an argument harshly by attacking your partner, you will end up with at least as much tension as you began with, if not more. Softening start-up of your conversations is crucial to resolving relationship conflicts. If your arguments start softly, your relationship is far more likely to be stable and happy. Here are proven skills Dr. Gottman suggests for softening your start-ups when bringing up an issue of disagreement with your partner:

Complain but don’t blame. No matter how “at fault” you feel that your partner is, approaching them with criticisms and accusations is obviously not productive. What isn’t obvious, however, are the little things we say in arguments with our mate that make them feel criticized or blamed. Eye-rolling is a perfect example of this sort of unintentional, destructive behavior. According to Dr. Gottman, it’s all about approach! Instead of blaming your partner with, “You said you would clean the backyard today and it’s still a mess,” try a simple complaint. “Hey, there are still some fallen leaves in the gutter and tennis balls everywhere. We agreed you’d rake and clean up after Buster. I’m really upset about this.”

Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You.” When you start sentences with “I” you are less likely to seem (or be!) critical, immediately putting your partner into a defensive position. Instead of saying “you are not listening to me,” you can say, “I don’t feel like you are listening right now. Instead of “you’re so careless with money,” say, “I think that we should try to save more.” Focus on how you’re feeling, not on accusing your partner! Both of you will stand to gain something from the conversation – both you and your partner will likely feel that you are hearing and understanding each other more.

Describe what is happening, but don’t evaluate or judge. Instead of accusing or blaming your partner, simply describe what you see in the situation. Instead of violently attacking with accusations, such as “you never watch the baby,” try saying, “I seem to be the only one chasing after Charlie today.” Instead of lashing out at you, your partner is more likely to consider your point of view and deliver the results you are hoping for with this approach. Be clear. No matter how long you have been with your partner or how well they know you, you cannot expect them to read your mind.

Be polite and appreciative. Just because you are in conflict with your partner, it does not mean that your respect and affection for them has to diminish. Adding phrases such as “please” and “I appreciate it when you…” can be helpful to maintaining warmth and emotional connection during a difficult conversation. Which is, of course, exactly when you need it most.

Don’t store things up! We’ve all been there: Exhausted and overwhelmed, feeling like we are drowning in a whirlpool of problems, one issue just keeps leading to another, we are out of control! Suddenly we find ourselves bringing up a laundry list of issues we never intended to broach. Which all somehow feel related. Generally, the issues we bring up in such conversations don’t feel so related to our partners. Flooded with emotion, both parties are entirely incapable of reaching a resolution. As we all know, not doing the laundry regularly leaves you with an enormous mess. Don’t wait forever to bring up an issue with your partner, and your conflict discussions will be far more productive. Don’t let the situation escalate!

So you’ve approached your partner with a softened start-up, but they respond with negativity. What do you do? Dr. Julie Gottman answers here.

This weekend, consider the ways in which you have experienced conflict discussions in the past. How did they start? How did they end? Can you think of examples of instances when  you could have changed your approach in the beginnings of these conversations? Try embarking upon your next conflict discussion with these softened start-up techniques and you will be amazed by the productivity of your dialogue! Look forward to next week on The Gottman Blog, as we continue The Research!

More in The Archives
Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.