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How to Avoid Harsh Start-Ups In Your Relationships

Honest communication is everything when it comes to building and maintaining healthy relationships. But many people struggle to convey respect and dignity during stressful moments. Furthermore, most of us aren't taught the basic principles of conflict resolution.

John Gottman, a couples therapist master, coined the term 'harsh startup' to refer to negative communication skills couples use during tense moments. If you regularly use harsh start-ups when interacting with others, you may be coming across as abrasive or hostile. This will make it hard for others to really hear and attune to what you need.

What Is a Harsh Start-Up?

Harsh startups come in different forms, but Gottman's research led him to predict the likelihood of a couple divorcing by observing the first three minutes of an argument. What did these couples have in common?

His research shows that they often engaged in one or more of the following issues (known as the Four Horsemen):

Criticism: Starting any conversation with criticism like, "You're just sitting there!" or, "I noticed that you didn't wash the dishes," is a form of a harsh startup. It's no secret that most people respond to criticism with their own criticism, shutting down, or defensiveness.

Contempt: Contempt entails expressing superiority or disrespect toward your partner. This can look like being sarcastic or critical. For example, contemptuous harsh start-ups might sound like, "You look like you're really working hard," when you observe your partner relaxing on the couch when you know they have an important work deadline coming up.

Defensiveness: Defensiveness happens when one person reacts to criticism or constructive feedback by denying accountability, shifting blame, or making excuses. For example, let's say your partner comes home from work and says, "I'm feeling stressed and just need a minute to decompress." If you respond by saying, "I didn't do anything wrong, though!" this is a form of defensiveness, and it can shift even a neutral conversation into a negative one.

Stonewalling: Stonewalling happens when one person withdraws from the conversation and disengages entirely. For example, let's say you and your partner are dealing with your child having a tantrum. After the dust settles, your partner turns to you and says, "Whew, that was something, wasn't it!" But if you just look at them and don't say anything, that's a form of stonewalling.

How to Shift From Harsh Start-Ups to Gentle Start-Ups

A gentle start-up (also known as a soft start-up) conveys a sense of respect and kindness within a relationship. This is not about being passive or avoiding difficult conversations. Instead, it's about aiming to ensure that you give your partner the benefit of the doubt and create a safe environment to talk about something serious.

Use I-Statements

An I-statement assumes personal responsibility over your feelings and needs. An I-statement might sound like, "I don't feel connected to you right now," instead of saying, "You aren't even listening to me."

As you can see, you're avoiding blame and criticism. You're also making this about you rather than about your partner's flaws.

Open An Invitation for Positive Collaboration

It's so easy to focus on what you think your partner is doing wrong in a specific situation. But try to shift into a stance where you and your partner come together to tackle a problem. For example, instead of saying, "You never clean up after yourself," consider shifting your words to say, "There are a lot of dirty clothes on the floor. It's been an ongoing issue. Let's talk about how we can work on this together."

Mind Your Nonverbal Communication

A harsh start-up isn't just about the words you say. It's also about your body language, including your tone of voice, posture, and eye contact. When it comes to difficult conversations, what you say sometimes even has less relevance than how you say it.

With that, even if you do have complaints to air, be mindful of how you carry yourself. If you feel emotionally heightened, take a few moments to calm yourself down. Aim to be neutral when you begin your discussion.

Improving Your Communication and Relationship Needs With Resurface Group

Relationships take work, and conflict resolution isn't always a straightforward process. Healthy communication takes practice, vulnerability, and courage.

If you or your partner experiences mental health issues, making marriage work can feel even more challenging. Likewise, unresolved tension or resentment often makes it difficult to connect with your partner during times of need.

At Resurface Group, we help people improve the quality of their relationships and strengthen their overall mental health. We are here to support you and your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more about our unique programs, including Resurface Connect, our fully virtual IOP program for clients residing in California.

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