In marital conflict, all’s well
that starts well.
What did Mac do to ensure that his talk with Millie about their marital conflict would turn out happily?
You may remember this couple from our last post. Mac had brought up feelings of being disrespected by Millie. Unfortunately, she responded by criticizing his grammar, which further disrespected him and made things worse.
Relationship advice really works!
You can imagine Mac must have felt frustrated.
But Mac is a champ, so what he did then was follow scientifically based relationship advice to use a repair, which means employing affection or humor to lighten the mood during a conflict. He cracked a joke that disrupted the negativity between them. (See our last post for the full story.) Instead of responding with anger to her grammatical correction, he offered this repair:
Mac: You grammar girls know how to turn a guy on. I’m gonna conjunction you, baby!
For a happy marriage, schedule conflict discussions.
And then, as you may recall, he followed another good piece of relationship advice. He asked Mille to set an appointment together to address the issue later, basically getting her to “buy in” to having a serious talk. They agreed they would sit down together Sunday after breakfast.
Well then… how did their Sunday discussion finally turn out?
It takes 2 to fight, but sometimes just 1 to make it right!
During a marital conflict, if just one partner uses good strategies, he or she can lead the relationship to a happy outcome. (That’s assuming both spouses love each other and want a happy marriage, of course.)
So what did Mac do? He deployed what relationship scientist John Gottman calls a soft startup. When they sat down in their living room with cups of coffee after Sunday breakfast to hash things out, Mac began on a warm, appreciative note.
Soft startups create happy endings.
Mac: I love you and I love being married to you. There’s something I want to bring up because it causes me pain and I’m pretty sure you’re unaware of it, since I know you would never do anything on purpose to hurt me.
Millie [responding to his soft startup with genuine curiosity]: Well what is it?
Mac: Sometimes I feel as though you disrespect me. I really admire you and value your opinion, so when you seem to put me down—even in a lighthearted or joking way—it makes me feel awful. Does that make sense?
Millie [open, but needing specifics]: Yes, but what are you talking about?
Mac: For example, at dinner with your family last week, you overruled my choice of cabernet and called me, “clueless about wine.” I don’t know as much about wine as you do, and understand you meant no harm, but it made me feel disrespected in front of your parents. I would like it if you would refrain from correcting me or putting me down like that, especially in front of other people. What do you think?
Millie [because of his warm tone, able to empathize]: Ohhh. Yes I’m sorry about that….
Soft startups virtually guarantee success.
Mac and Millie went on to end their talk that Sunday as he began it—on a positive note. She agreed to change her behavior, and he agreed to be patient and forgiving if she slipped up now and then, since old habits are hard to change.
Gottmans’ research with real-life couples has shown that a soft startup can produce a positive outcome almost every time. (And conversely, a harsh startup nearly always triggers defensiveness and creates more conflict!)
Think about the last heart-to-to-heart you and your partner had about some problem in your relationship. How did the talk start and finish? My bet is that it ended on the same tone that it began.
Using a sort startup is such a simple strategy that you may wonder if it can really be so powerful. It is, and Gottman’s research with real-life couples has proven it.
For a true soft startup, feel the love.
But although it’s simple, it isn’t always easy, for you must be sincerely conciliatory in your opening tone. It won’t work to offer false pleasantries, then launch into an antagonistic accusation.
Here’s what I suggest. Before your next big problem-solving talk together, take a moment to get in touch with how much you love and cherish your partner. Don’t just think it, really feel it. Then, as best you can, maintain that awareness within yourself throughout the discussion.
If even just one of you does this, it may work veritable magic. And if you both do it—Shazam! You will create one of those glowingly joyful relationships that light up the world.
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