Stan had just come home from a long day, plopped in his recliner and began reading the newspaper when his wife came barging from the bedroom hallway.
"What the hell is wrong with you!? What is it about being able to put your dirty clothes in the hamper and pick up after yourself?" Stan's jaw muscles tightened. She continued, "It's a controlling thing with you. Leaving all your stuff around for me to pick up. You don't give a crap about anything around here!"
Stan's heard this tirade before. He wants to withdraw but can't. He says, "Here we go again -- what's wrong with you, what's wrong with you! There's nothing wrong with me! I've had a long day and am tired."
"Well I'm tired too. I've been with the kids all day trying to keep this house cleaned and you really don't give a damn. How many times do I have to tell you?" She smirks. "Ah, the hell with it. I've finished picking up your stuff anyway. Or were you too busy to notice with your nose stuck in that paper? And if it ain't stuck in the paper or a book, then you're playing them idiotic video games."
"Whoa! You must be having a bad day," he says. As he closes the paper to get up she sneers and says, "Don't bother. I'll just be happy to be your slave."
You can imagine the rest of the conversation. This type of argument is called the "harsh startup". Married couples who find themselves on the road to divorce, as well as those who are already divorced, may be unaware of the lasting fallout arguments begun in this fashion have on the overall health and future of the relationship.
Experience has shown that arguments begun this way are predictive because they're soaked with criticism and contempt. (You don't give a crap about anything around here!; ... or were you too busy to notice with your nose stuck in that paper?)
Interestingly, extensive studies (40 years) on married couples by notable researcher Dr. John Gottman, show that, in most cases, it is the wife who initiates arguments. This is not a biased opinion but rather what's been observed in intimate studies, and through surveys where it is admitted by married men and women. Dr. Gottman believes this is biologically-based; that men and women are wired differently, so to speak. The wife is the one more likely to bring up difficult issues and push to get them resolved. Husbands are more likely to try to distance themselves from hard-to-face concerns. The reason for this is also biologically based in that men are more reactive to emotional stress than women. So they are more inclined to avoid confrontation.
Beginning an argument softly, rather than harshly, has been shown from the experience of couples married 30 years or more to be more effective, and in the long run, safer and permissive of an enduring relationship.
The softer approach might go something like this:
Stan is reading the paper and his wife appears from the bedroom hallway. In a normal voice she says, "Stan, dear, what am I going to do with you? Do you know you forgot something again today?"
Stan looks up from the paper wondering if it was something important. She says, "You forgot to pick up after yourself. Your dirty clothes. Do you recall taking them off? Maybe not." Adding in a teasing tone, "You got a lot on your mind these days." She walks behind him and gently places her hands around her husband's neck in a playful choke. "You don't want me to get serious about this picking-up problem, do you?"
She walks in front of him and says, "You know, if this continues, you might be losing a few benefits -- let's call them 'household privileges' -- if you know what I mean." She grins. "Can you remember to do this one little thing please?"
Yes, I can hear the ladies laughing right now. Understandably, this is only one version of many in which a wife can get her point across without succumbing to the harsh approach, which understandably can be reflexively difficult but not impossible, to avoid. And while it is true that avoiding the harsh startup will not help prevent all divorces, for it indeed takes two to tango, it is at least from observed experience an important and integral behavior that if adopted may be the one thing that makes a difference in your marriage.
And as Dr. Gottman points out clearly from his studies, keeping criticism and contempt for the other altogether out of the relationship is one of several golden keys held by many couples who've unlocked the secret to living together harmoniously, lovingly, and long.