How to Avoid Starting an Argument with your Spouse

Well, it’s the new year. That means new goals, reflecting on ourselves and time for a change. Something that I decided to focus on (maybe not just this year) is my communication skills, especially with my husband. It’s not that our communication is poor by any means; BUT, there is always room to improve. For example, in our living room, I like the pillows to stay ON the couch, rather than get tossed on the floor. However, I don’t actually want to argue about the pillows. It would be nice if we could just talk about pillows, rather than argue about pillows.

Soft Start-ups… What Are They, and Do They Work?

Since I’m a couples counseling nerd, I looked to the experts for help. Gottman, THE marriage therapy guru talks about approaching topics like these using a “Soft Start-Up.” Soft start-ups are ways to start a conversation with your partner about conflict. Through research, Gottman found that almost all arguments (actually 94%!!) will end the way that they started (Lisitsa, 2013). So if we start the conversation with an attack, it’s likely the conversation will end in an argument. Exhausting! Softening the way that you “start-up” a conversation with your partner has the potential to change the way you handle conflict.

I decided to do some experimenting with start-ups with my husband over the weekend (he still doesn’t know, so let’s just keep that a secret!). I wanted to see what worked, what didn’t work, and how I can use this information to improve my communication skills within my own relationship.

The Harsh Start-Up

So… how did it turn out when I did NOT use a soft start-up? Well because I knew this was an experiment, I wanted to be more intense with my start-up. I noticed that my husband was washing towels. MIND YOU, I had placed a pile of towels downstairs in front of the washing machine the night before. It seems like he should have just placed those towels in with his load too. So I thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to throw Gottman’s suggestions out of the window. I went upstairs when my husband was in the middle of doing other tasks and immediately switched on my stern voice. I said, “You couldn’t wash the towels I had downstairs? I can’t stand when you wash a load of towels without collecting towels from the rest of the house! You always do that!”

My husband’s reaction was to immediately to defend himself. He raised his voice a little with the need to justify his decision not to wash the load of towels I had placed in front of the washer (he was actually washing towels that he used during painting a few hours before… and I would have hated if he washed them with the bathroom towels). I continued to pick at him about the towels (you know, like ya do). He just stood there continuing to do what he was doing and not looking at me. This told me that he was shutting down, which is something I don’t want him to do when we are communicating. During this harsh start-up, I 1) blamed my husband, 2) attacked which made him defensive, 3) I judged, and 4) I wasn’t polite at all to my husband. He shut down and our communication stopped. It was not helpful and I still had to wash those towels.

The Soft Start-Up

When using a soft start-up, I thought about what I wanted to say, but especially how I wanted to say it. My husband drinks coffee in the house. I don’t. There are always spoons near the coffeemaker and he had been placing them on the counter, which resulted in a slightly sticky mess. So to solve this, I placed a utensil holder next to the coffeemaker, only to find that my husband was STILL placing spoons on the counter. Why didn’t he take the hint?

Later that day when we were both not busy, I was cleaning the kitchen and I said to him, “Hey babe, I placed this utensil holder next to the coffeemaker. Can you please put the spoons on here to help keep the counter clean?”

Some of the things that I did in this interaction that Gottman (Lisitsa, 2013) suggested was:

  • Complain, don’t blame: Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you,” describe what is happening
  • Be polite and appreciative: I used a very soft tone, did not say anything negative, and described what I was noticing. His response was “Sure I can do that,” and we went about our day. The next morning, I came downstairs to a spoon on the utensil holder instead of on the counter. BIG WIN!

According to my very clinical experiment, soft start-ups work! And they are pretty effective.

Need some help getting the conversation started? We can help! Our office offers marriage therapy and couples counseling, and our therapists can definitely help you get started with communicating effectively with your partner! We also host communication workshops for couples that focus on these skills as well! To get started with marriage or couples counseling, contact us today.

About Rosann Raftery

Rosanne Raftery, LPC, LLMFT, holds a BA in Psychology from Central Michigan University and a MA in Marriage and Family Therapy from Western Michigan University. She is passionate about pre-engagement or premarital counseling, divorce recovery, open relationships, women’s issues, anxiety, depression, and working with the LGBTQ+ community. She specializes in working with individuals, couples, and families in building their communication skills, healing, and strengthening their relationships at Lifeologie Counseling Grand Rapids Ada and Lifeologie Counseling Grand Rapids Cascade.

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