Harsh Startup

According to Gottman’s Research, if a man considers his wife’s startup to be harsh, there is a higher risk of divorce.

Basically, harsh startup is when a person starts a discussion in a sudden, out-of-nowhere, “why are you so angry/upset?” way.  I call it “like a chainsaw.”  You know when you hear a chainsaw start-up (but don’t see it, and weren’t expecting it), how scary it is, as if “this is gonna be real bad.”  That’s how a harsh startup can feel to your partner.

What is sad to me about harsh startup sometimes is that the person doing the harsh startup has just waited too long to say something, and then it comes out harsh.  It’s like the person is already midstream when they start talking about something.  It’s as if the person seemed to go from 0 to 60 in 3 seconds (and sometimes they have), but really they’ve just been thinking about the disturbing material internally (without involving the partner) and getting more upset but not revealing anything useful about their emotional state or concerns.

Gottman’s research also found that women bring up difficult topics 80% of the time.  Gottman calls women the emotional custodians of the relationship.  They keep their finger on the pulse of the relationship and they “bring things up” when the emotional house needs some cleaning or upkeep. 

For this reason, HOW someone brings up difficult topics can make all the difference.

In fact (sorry to bombard you with Gottman research) Gottman has found that how the first 3 minutes of a discussion go is a very reliable indicator of how the discussion will go.

So again HOW we bring things up can literally make ALL the difference.

A softened startup is the goal.  A softened startup means gentle voice, gentle facial expression (a smile, a sincere gentle smile can work wonders), gentle body language, and softer word choice.

It’s said that 75% of communication is NOT VERBAL, so the face and body really, really need to be attended to. 

What really helps in the moment to get you to a softer startup place:

1. Breathe.  Take a deep breath, or a couple, to let your reactivity/nervous system go down a bit.  A breath can also (sometimes) soften the whole body, the expression, etc.  Plus breath is the most essential nutrient for the body and brain.

2. Smile.  Really smile.  Not a “I’m gonna clobber you now but I’m gonna smile so you don’t suspect it” smile or a “You’re such an idiot but I love you anyway” smile, but rather a  “I love you, you’re cute, I’m glad you put up with me, and I’m sorry but I need to say something about this” smile. 

3. Before you start, think about 3 things you love about your partner.  Maybe even think about a time when you loved him/her sooooo much (maybe a great vacation, or some shining moment when you felt lucky to be with that person). 

4. Pull your punches.  Take it easy.  This stuff gets recorded in a way.  These talks can make or break a relationship.  Sometimes I tell clients, “Talk to your partner very, very gently here, like she’s on life support, and any wrong word could really kill her.” 

5. Soften your word choice.  If you want to say “hate,” choose “dislike.”  If you want to say “never” say “most of the time” or, better yet, “a lot of the time.”  Bring the intensity and certainty down a notch.  This is a way you can love your partner while having a difficuelt discussion with him/her.  When you do this you are, in a very real sense, putting the relationship first, putting the relationship ahead of your grievance, your satisfaction, ahead of whatever justice you’re seeking, and that’s a good thing.  I remember I used to have a supervisor who would say: “Put the relationship first.”  Of course there are limits to the usefulness of this sentiment–if there’s abuse, if children are being negatively impacted, then safety may need to be put first.  Failing that, I think the real challenge is to love our partner as we try to express ourselves and our needs/hurts.

6. Take a time out.  If your partner checks out (i.e., the lights are on but nobody’s home) at any time during the argument, please stop talking.  Please give your partner a hug or hold his hand (this checking out thing is something men do quite often I’ve heard) and say, “I’m sorry, we’ve gone too far, we can talk about this later.”  And then do a sweet, lovely, time-limited leave-taking.  Don’t make it like you’re abandoning or neglecting your partner (that would be an ouch).  Just take a loving break from the discussion.

7. Take a time out part 2: If your partner starts crying (or you start crying), if your partner’s voice goes outside a range (of either volume or edge) you’re comfortable with, please stop the discussion.  And take a break from the discussion. 

8. Flooding: #6 and #7 are different ways people can exhibit something called flooding–also know as DPA (diffuse physiological arousal), where many systems of the body enter a fight or flight response.  When people are flooded, they want to run away, fight back, or become invisible.  When people are flooded, the higher centers of their brain are shut down.  Some people call this more survivalistic emotional place “reptile brain.”  And then it can be added: “reptiles have no partners and reptiles eat their young.”  So that gives you some idea of how ”every reptile for himself” this emotional state is, and how toxic and destructive it can be for relationships.  So, here’s the takeaway: if either of you is flooding, the discussion must be stopped, and the discussion must not be re-started until both people have stopped flooding (45 minutes is a pretty good standby length of time, but 2 hours is probably ideal).  If you are having a discussion while either of you is flooded, you’re basically playing Russian Roulette with your relationship.

That’s all I have time for today.  Please feel free to make comments, ask questions, give dfeedback, etc.  Thank you for reading this!!!  Good luck improving your relationship.  Susan

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