I’m reprinting a brief article I received from the Gottman Institute about how to approach your partner with a complaint without the complaint getting experienced as a criticism, or an attack on their character. This “softened startup” is an approach I’ve been advocating for years to couples, but I thought it was very succinctly captured in the Gottman’s article. Here it is:
In the last Marriage Minute, we talked about Criticism, the first of the Four Horsemen. To review, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character or personality, often starting with “you always” or “you never.” Or you can be more direct with criticism: “You are so lazy,” or, “That’s just like you, finding any excuse not to spend time with me.”
Fortunately, it’s reversible.
The antidote to Criticism is what we call The Softened Start-Up.
To soften your start-up means to approach a conversation with how you’re feeling about the situation, not your perception of your partner’s flaws or behavior. There’s a difference between complaints and criticism. A complaint addresses a specific instance or action and acknowledges how it made you feel.
A good formula to remember is:
“I feel [your feeling]”
- left out
“About [the specific behavior, not a pattern of behavior]”
- “when I’m not invited to virtual happy hours with your friends,”
- “when you don’t read the articles I send you,”
- “when we don’t have dinner together.”
“And I need [state the positive need].”
- “to know what your preferred evening schedule looks like and how I can be a part of it,”
- “to feel like you’re interested in the things I care about,”
- “to spend some quality time together this week.”
Practice softening your start-up.
The most prevalent problem I deal with in my work as a psychotherapist with individuals and couples is the issue of how people talk to each other when they’re trying to manage conflict. And “conflict” isn’t always about big ticket items, like how to handle a kid’s bad behavior, or who is spending how much money. Conflict can be about who forgot to feed the dog or who did a lousy job declining an invitation to a party. It can be about anything where there’s an experience of difference or disappointment or hurt or aggravation or frustration. (The list goes on and on).
So, if you notice a fair amount of escalation or reactivity or avoidance or defensiveness or criticism in your marriage you may need some help. You’ll want to first understand how the tactics you and your spouse use may be destructive and why. You’ll also want to know how these behaviors can become part of a toxic pattern which may put you at a higher risk for divorce. Most importantly, you’ll want some tools for how to deal with conflict in more mature, constructive and respectful ways so the two of you don’t become a nasty statistic.
You can even practice together with your partner, giving advice to an imaginary couple who struggles with criticism. For example, how would you soften “You always leave dirty dishes in the sink”?
You can also apply this formula to positive things—”I feel cared for when you check in to see how my day is going!”
For a quick primer on all of this I’d recommend that you listen to my latest podcast on BlogTalk Radio about this subject. In just 30 minutes I condense the subject sufficiently so you’ll be better equipped in this department. After that, it just takes practice, practice, practice, like anything else that matters in life.
Here’s the link to the podcast:
*If you need some help with this issue because you either get too distracted or overwhelmed or discouraged on your own, then contact me for an appointment at my Portsmouth office at 603-431-7131
In this 30 minute episode I explore the frequently experienced issue of standoffs or impasses in marriage – those times when couples get “locked in” to a negative sequence when nobody feels heard or acknowledged, and nothing gets resolved. These “lock-in’s” can be about critical issues of importance or minor things, but the feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness generally feel quite awful for each spouse.
Tune in to get some handy tools this couples therapist can teach you to interrupt the impasses, manage yourself more calmly, and move forward with your spouse in a more conciliatory manner.
Join me and have to option to be live on the air with questions or comments by calling toll-free 877-497-9046.
If you can’t make the live podcast you can stream it anytime at: www.BlogTalkRadio.com/SusanLager.
(Here’s the second very good question Parenting NH magazine asked me recently):
What are some practical tips and ways for parents to prioritize their relationship as spouses/partners?
Most people know about the importance of setting aside quality time together through things like “date night.”
Having a planned, ritualized time alone with your partner amplifies your “couple-ness” through shared experiences, reminding you about your reasons for choosing and staying with each other. I encourage couples to ramp it up a notch by taking turns with the planning, each putting energy into the “work” of connection.
Sometimes surprise experiences can expand a sense of fun, and even ramp up friendly competition. Anticipating and later reminiscing about these events can actually build happy neural pathways in your brains!
Novelty and a shared sense of discovery by doing new things together also generates excitement and joy, which are important antidotes to the doldrums which often plague long term relationships.
Equally as important, build mini “pockets of connection” into your everyday life as a couple. Don’t overload date nights with too much expectation, especially if you can’t manage to have them regularly and frequently. Instead, look for small, subtle moments of sharing by being intentional about them:
– If you’re getting dinner ready, create a shared experience with some conversation and a glass of wine while you prepare the meal.
– If the kids are in bed sit on the deck or the porch and watch the stars come out together. Talk about your dreams and passions, not just who aced it at your kid’s soccer game.
– If you’re watching a TV program sit next to each other and use the commercial breaks to have a snack and share your thoughts about the program.
– “Kill two birds with one stone” and have some lively conversation while you walk your dog.
However brief your time together may be, protect it from outside intrusion. Get more comfortable saying “No, thank you” to invitations that might cut in on the two of you too often. Set boundaries and prioritize your time together, even if it’s not a Hallmark moment.
Whatever you do together, be intentional about it, be present, and put down your cellphones! Texts, Facebook, and Instagram can wait, unless they’re shared activities you both enjoy. Here again, remember that one way or the other, your kids are watching, and you’re giving them a template for either a loving, respectful partnership, or
an empty one.
I was recently contacted by Parenting New Hampshire Magazine for my thoughts about three big questions they have about spouses with children. I thought they were really good questions parents should be reflecting about, so I sent the magazine some of my ideas about the subject. I don’t know if my “answers” will be used in the article, but I thought I’d share them with you, my readers.
Here’s the first question:
Why is it important for spouses/partners in their own relationship to “not always be about the kids”?
Most importantly, you as a couple came first, and unless you “fill your tanks” properly you won’t have
much of value to give to your children. Nourishing your partnership creates positive energy and “zest”
that then can radiate out into more constructive and loving interactions not only with each other, but also
with your children, especially when they are presenting aggravating or challenging attitudes and behaviors.
Also, by giving your marriage proper care and attention you will be providing not only a positive model
for self nurture and self valuing, but also an important frame for connective, collaborative partnership. Don’t be
fooled by what looks like self absorption in your kids – as busy as they may seem with their own lives,
they’re always watching you and unconsciously imitating your attitudes and behaviors!
One final thought about this question: In about 18 or so years your children will hopefully be “launched” and
out on their own. What of value as a couple will you have to share if you’ve created a totally “kid-centric”
life together? If you haven’t nourished your relationship sufficiently you will be less adept at communication,
managing conflict, taking turns, feeling close, and just plain having fun together!