One theme that has come up frequently in my Bethesda MD couples counseling sessions recently is how quickly tempers and emotions flare when discussing certain “hot button” issues. Every couple has them–things that you’ve talked (argued, fought) about so many times that every time they come up, you find yourselves diving right into the thick of the argument as though you never stopped. Sometimes the topics are quite mundane, and sometimes they’re bigger issues that come up in Washington DC couples counseling. But whichever of these is the case, there is one relatively easy way to change the dynamic when talking about these issues.

It’s called a soft start-up. This term was coined by John Gottman, a couple communication researcher based at the University of Washington. Gottman has spent his career working to understand what makes couple relationships succeed or fail, and–not surprisingly–much of what he has found boils down to the way couples communicate, especially in conflict. His advice on the soft start-up is centered around the idea that beginning a conversation with anger will almost certainly lead to a negative interaction and, most likely, an undesirable outcome (or no resolution at all). Think about it: if you’re upset with your partner for not unloading the dishwasher, you’re probably not going to get a very good reaction if you start the conversation with, “You’ve overdrawn the checking account again. You’re so irresponsible!” In the heat of the moment, your anger might tempt you to say something like that. But if you can push yourself to start the conversation in a healthier way, you’re far more likely to get the result you’re looking for. Here are my tips from experience as a Bethesda MD couples counseling therapist:

  1. Time the conversation carefully. These conversations will go much more smoothly if both partners are focused and willing. Don’t try to talk to your partner about a problem when either of you are rushed, distracted, or when other people are around. Say something like, “I’d really like to talk to you about some financial matters. When would be a good time for us to sit down together?”
  2. Touch. Which would you prefer: yelling at your partner from across the room, or sitting together on the sofa holding hands or snuggling while talking about something tough? This one is a no-brainer. We’ve learned in Washington DC couples counseling that physical touch helps keep us calm, connected, and collaborative.
  3. Acknowledge that this is a difficult issue. It is very disarming when someone states at the beginning of a conversation that they know the topic is a difficult one, but that they’d like the interaction to stay positive. You can say, “In the past when we’ve talked about this, it often hasn’t gone well. I’d really like it if we could talk about this subject calmly so that we can come up with a solution that makes us both happy. What do you think?”
  4. Start with something positive. Better yet, make it a “compliment sandwich,” saying something kind and loving at the beginning and end of your message, with a (nicely worded) complaint or request in between. For example, “I know that you’ve been trying really hard to be more mindful of how much money is in the checking account. But, I noticed today that it was overdrawn after you bought the groceries. Can we find a way to keep this from happening again?”
  5. Keep your emotions in check. If you feel yourself starting to get angry, take a few deep breaths–or even a short break from the conversation, if necessary. Think about what else you’re feeling underneath the anger, and give voice to this underlying emotion. Your partner will have an easier time connecting to this soft emotion than to your anger, and will therefore be more able to help you deal with it and be understanding. For example, “I’m starting to feel a little frustrated, and that’s coming through in the way I’m talking to you. I think that’s because I’m really worried about what will happen if we don’t get this issue under control, and that worry is tough for me to sit with.”

So that’s it — that’s a soft start-up. Give it a try next time you need to talk about something difficult with your partner, and see what a difference it makes.