In any marriage older than one week an argument over a contentious issue will at some point arise. In his extensive studies on marriages, Dr. John Gottman’s team has observed that in about 80% of marriages, be they problematic or happy, it is the wife who initiates or ‘puts on the table for discussion,’ these inevitable touchy issues. This is not a biased opinion of Dr. Gottman or his team but simply a recurring observation of married men and women in conversations, as well as feedback from married couples over a thirty year period. Dr. Gottman is a nationally recognized psychiatrist and foremost relationship expert who has also authored many books on marriage.
Honest disagreements are unavoidable in every marriage, but Dr. Gottman found that the majority of the time, the tone and manner in which the argument begins is the same tone and manner it ends. Observations bear out that if the wife injects criticism and contempt into the start-up of the discussion, that the discussion will end on this same note, and with each and every failure to amicably resolve the touchy issue a nail is put into the coffin of the coming demise of the relationship. Of course the husband can be the initiator and the one to inject criticism and contempt into the discourse. But this is less likely as men are biologically-wired to be more reactive to emotional stress than a woman. So they are more inclined to avoid confrontation.
When the wife starts an argument in a harsh and inconsiderate manner, with criticism and contempt, this is referred to as a “harsh startup.” The introduction of the subject matter is starting up harshly. 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.
Here’s an example of a harsh startup. 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.
The Harsh Startup can be avoided, regardless of which spouse begins the discussion, 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 sensitive issues softly cannot be overstated because in almost all cases, the way in which an argument begins is usually the way it also ends. However, 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 initiator is the wife, according to long-term studies. 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.
In the Resource Section of this website there is a link “Harsh Setup” that provides a printable questionnaire to determine if this is a problem in your marriage.