During this time when you are living is such close quarters with your spouse, many mild irritations will seem larger than they really are. The key is to resolve the small hurts before they turn into big ones. But you probably don’t do that because you are afraid it will lead to a big fight and you want to avoid that. But there is a very simply way to address these hurts without getting into a bigger argument. It’s called “Gentle Start Up”. There are three steps to it, and you must follow it in the right order.
Here’s what you say:
- I feel… In this step you label the emotion you are feeling. It could be scared, unloved, unimportant, lonely, etc. etc. etc
- When you… In this step you describe what your spouse did that made you feel that way.
- And I’d like to ask you to please… In this step you describe what you would like your spouse to do differently.
Let’s see how this would work in real life.
Honey, I feel overwhelmed and scared.
When you talk about the coronavirus all day long.
And I’d like to ask you to talk to me about it only twice a day.
It is important that you have this conversation in that exact order.
And I’d like to ask you to…
This works because you both love each other and neither of you want to hurt the other. By starting with your feelings, your spouse is less likely to feel criticized and more likely to be motivated to make the change you are asking for. This is especially true since the majority of the times you hurt each other; it is unintentional. Certainly, you want to know if you are doing something that is hurting your spouse so you can stop doing it. And your spouse feels the same way (hopefully).
In the last blog I talked about the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This gentle approach to addressing your hurts, keeps you from climbing on any of those horses. But if you started off talking about your spouse’s behavior, that could come off as criticism or contempt and that could trigger your spouse to get defensive or stonewall (shut down). All of which makes the situation worse not better.
A personal example:
A couple of months ago I was working in my office and mid-morning my wife brought me a cup of hot tea (I love hot tea). Nice guy that I am, I said, “thank you”. She replied, “you are welcome” and left the room. About 10 minutes later she came back in and said “I’d like to have a gentle conversation with you. Now, whenever my wife starts a conversation like that, I know I’ve done something wrong. I cannot share with you exactly what my inner voice said, but it was something like “oh, darn, what could I possibly have done wrong, I’ve been in my office all morning”.
She then said: I felt unappreciated
When you did not look at me when you thanked me for the cup of tea.
Wow. She was absolutely right. I had not looked at her when I thanked her for the cup of tea. And I know better. John Gottman has discovered that the amount of time couples spend looking at each other when they interact is a powerful indicator of the health of the marriage. So, I stood up, looked at her, hugged her, and thanked her for the tea. She smiled. And… we both felt better.
I often suggest that couples write down these three steps and tape it to the refrigerator. Successful, happy couples make these words part of their normal marriage vocabulary. If you do the same, 90% of your conflicts will be solved in under 30 seconds and will not lead to anger or hurt feelings.
On Wednesday I will talk about the connections between behaviors and emotions.
Remember: You are perfected by your spouse’s imperfections.