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This Relationship Habit Is Linked With Divorce — & It’s Extremely Common


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Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

By Kelly Gonsalves

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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When you’re upset about something in your relationship, it’s a good idea to bring up the issue with your partner proactively and directly. However, research shows that the way you bring it up can have a huge impact on how well the conversation goes–and, in the long run, whether your relationship is likely to last.

How do you usually bring up issues in your relationship?

Oftentimes, when someone wants to bring up a complaint to their partner, they start the conversation on the attack. John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D., renowned relationship researchers and founders of The Gottman Institute, refer to this less-than-healthy method as a “harsh startup.”

“A harsh startup usually includes the word ‘you’ followed by an absolute term like ‘always’ or ‘never,'” licensed marriage therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, recently told mbg.

That might sound like:

“You are always on your phone while we’re having dinner. Can you pay attention to me for once?”

“You never listen to me!”

“You always make everything about you.”

“You never want to have sex anymore.”

“Another indicator that you are using a harsh startup is bringing topics up during a time that catches the other person off guard or using a threatening tone of voice,” Earnshaw adds.

While some people might think this harsh dialogue is to be expected when someone’s legitimately upset with their partner, there are actually long-term ramifications of this style of conflict: Gottman research found married couples who use these harsh startups are more likely to get divorced in the next six years than those who use gentler startups.

The problem with harsh startups.

Importantly, all of the example statements above do actually contain valid concerns, needs, or hurt feelings that deserve to be addressed. However, Earnshaw notes that bringing up concerns in this particular way turns a valid complaint into a criticism–a negative commentary on the character of your partner.

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Great relationships start with great sleep.*

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When you frame your complaint this way, it’s harder for your partner to identify the ask because it’s wrapped in an attack. That usually puts them on the defensive–“No, I don’t act that way,” or “I’m not always like that,” or even, “Well, how about when you do X?”

The conversation from there often gets heated and goes nowhere, fast.

“The first three minutes of a conversation are an indicator of how that conversation will end,” Earnshaw explains. “So, if a conversation starts gently, then it is more likely that the conversation will continue to move in a gentle and positive direction. Whereas if a conversation starts with harshness, it will likely end in the same way.”

So, if you actually want to see your issues get resolved and get your relationship back to a healthy place, harsh startups will only get in your way–no matter how upset you are with your partner or how much you really do feel like it’s their fault.

What to do instead.

You can and should be assertive about stating your needs, Earnshaw says. But instead of starting a conversation harshly, learn how to use a gentle startup.

That means avoiding blaming, judging, belittling, or attacking your partner when you’re bringing up an issue. Instead, focus on simply explaining two things: how you feel and what you need.

Instead of: “You are always on your phone while we’re having dinner. Can you pay attention to me for once?”

Try: “Hey, I’m feeling a little lonely right now. Can we spend some time together without our phones?”

Another example:

Instead of: “You always make everything about you.”

Try: “I’m feeling ignored right now. I feel unimportant when we don’t take my thoughts into consideration in these conversations.”

This can be a tough switch to make at first, especially when you’re in the heat of the moment. It’ll likely take some practice.

It’s helpful to remember that, no matter how much you feel your partner is at fault, your goal in bringing up the issue shouldn’t be to prove a point or to make your partner feel bad. The goal is to help them understand what’s bothering you and then to ask for something else. That means your partner needs to be your ally in this endeavor, not your enemy.

The bottom line.

“We are all bound to start a conversation abruptly, critically, or with an unsettling tone from time to time,” Earnshaw notes. “Humans are not robots.”

The key is just to try to be gentler with how you start a tough conversation, more often than not. If you slip up, you can always apologize and start again.

Learning to be kind with your partner, even when you’re upset with them, is no easy task–but it’s necessary for productive conversations and for a relationship to remain healthy in the long run.

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sleep support+

sleep support+

Great relationships start with great sleep.*

sleep support+

sleep support+

Great relationships start with great sleep.*

? ? ? ? ?

? ? ? ? ?

(260)

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