There’s probably not a couple who’s been together for a while that hasn’t had an argument or a series of arguments. Honest disagreements are common in every marriage. But depending upon how they are initiated determines whether the relationship will suffer and begin a drifting apart or not. Studies show that in both troubled and happy marriages that it’s usually the wife who brings up touchy issues and pushes to resolve it. In fact, 80% of the time it’s the wife. This is the one thing that is common in both problematic and happy marriages. The difference, however, is in how the wife presents it.
When the wife brings up a touchy issue and injects it with criticism and contempt this is referred to as a “harsh startup.” She’s introducing the problem that needs to be discussed or solved in a harsh and inconsiderate manner. When this happens, studies show that the probability of finding a compromise or resolution to the problem at best is difficult and at worse is elusive. With each and every failure to amicably resolve a touchy issue a nail is put into the coffin of the coming demise of the relationship.
Here’s an example of a harsh startup so you can recognize it and avoid it. Lois works during the day and goes to nursing school at night. David has a full-time job.
Lois: Another Saturday and I'm spending my free time picking up
after you. The trouble with you, David, is that you’re too
in to yourself to care about anything around here.
David: Yep, here we go again. “The trouble with you, David, the
trouble with you David,” There’s nothing wrong with
Lois: Then why do I always have to tell you what to do? Never
mind, I’ve finished cleaning up your stuff anyway, or
were you too busy reading the newspaper to notice?
David: Look, I hate cleaning up. I know you do, too. I’ve been
thinking about what we should do. (Repair attempt)
Lois: This I’ve got to hear. (More contempt)
David: Well, actually I was thinking that we could use a
vacation. Wouldn’t it be nice for you to be waited
on hand and foot? (Second repair attempt)
Lois: Come on, we can’t afford a cleaning lady, much less a
vacation like that.
Basically, you can avoid or learn to avoid a Harsh Startup by treating your spouse as if they were a guest in your home. Or, more or less, mind your manners. Treat your spouse with the same respect you would offer to company. For example, if a guest spills wine we say, “No problem. Would you like another
glass?” not “You just ruined my best tablecloth. I can’t depend on you to do anything right, can I? I will never invite you to my home again.” We are sensitive to the guest’s feelings. Likewise, if a guest leaves an umbrella, we say, “Here, You forgot your umbrella.” We would never think of saying, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You’re constantly forgetting things. Be a little
more thoughtful, for God’s sake! What am I, your slave to go picking up after you?”
The importance of beginning touchy issues softly cannot be overstated because in almost all cases, the way in which an argument begins is usually the way it also ends. They end on the same note they begin. If you complain without criticizing, the discussion is likely to be productive.
While either spouse can be responsible for the Harsh Startup, the majority of the time the culprit is the wife. This is because in our culture the wife is far more likely than her husband 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 biologically-based tendency for men to be more reactive to emotional stress than women. So they are more
inclined to avoid confrontation.
Tomorrow I’ll post an assessment questionnaire devised by Dr. John Gottman that will help you determine if harsh startups are a problem in your marriage.