Create Better Marital Communication By Considering The Start-Up Ep 45

The Difference Between Marital Criticism And Complaint | Relationship Coach

Last week I did an overview of seven predictors of divorce, and starting this week, I will spend time taking a deeper dive into each, which will give you a week to focus on each. With each of these episodes, I suggest that you focus on the predictor of the week, paying close attention to your habitual practice with your partner and then taking a pause with each instance to reconsider a different approach. This week’s focus is on creating better marital communication by considering the start-up.

How you start a conversation will be an indicator of how the discussion will end unless you can take a pause and start over. Research proves this to be true, but I don’t think we need research to prove this phenomenon. We’ve talked about mirror neurons and the influence our approach to a conversation has on the other person’s response. Secondly, we can do our own research by observing and collecting data – something I highly recommend you do this week. You can do your research on your marital discussions but also expand your scope out to all of the interactions you find yourself in, maybe at work or with the kids, as well as observing other people’s interactions. Notice how the interaction starts and how that start-up influences the outcome.

First, I will share what a harsh start-up is, and then we’ll switch to looking at what a soft start-up is. As we talk about what a soft start-up is and how to switch a harsh start-up to a soft one, I will share several different examples to help you brainstorm new ways to approach your specific situations. In the end, I’ll also address what to do when your new plan of “attack” or non-attack backfires because most likely it will until you continue the practice and change old patterns.

The WRONG way to start a discussion: harsh start-up

Starting a discussion this way is pointing the finger at the other with criticism and disrespect to prove your point, damaging the relationship. It includes exaggerations like “always” or “never”; it includes opinions about the character of the other, illuding to superiority. It is sarcasm, being cynical, name-calling, mocking, angry humor, eye rolls – it is the acid that corrodes a marriage because it suggests disgust in the other.

Harsh start-ups are directed right to the other person’s core, blaming them for how you are feeling instead of complaining, which starts with how you feel about something specific and what you need or would like from the other person. Pay attention to starting with the word “you,” which points the blame towards them, versus starting with I, which brings it to how you perceive the circumstance, allowing them to explain.

An example of a harsh start-up would be something like this; “You never think about anyone but yourself. I hate that you conveniently schedule work when we clean the house. Why are you so rude?” Whereas a complaint and a soft start-up would look more like, “I see that you scheduled yourself to work during the time we normally clean the house, sometimes that makes me feel angry because I think that you are trying to get out of your household responsibilities. When do you think you can get your cleaning chores done?”

Note that harsh start-ups can happen from either side of the relationship, but if you are the female in the relationship, you may be noticing that you seem to be the one creating more of the harsh start-ups. This doesn’t mean that you are the cause of all of the problems; research shows that women are more likely to bring up things that are bothering them in their relationship to find some resolution, whereas the males are more likely to completely avoid anything that they think might create emotional stress and confrontation – which of course brings in all of the problems that come through avoidance.

The right way to start a discussion: soft start-ups

The soft start-up has a softer tone and approach; it helps both feel safer without the need to defend. If you look at the two versions of the previous example and you speak them out loud, you will notice a difference in how each feels in your body, a difference in how you receive it. Let’s look at ways to change your start-up’s dynamic and result.

Complain instead of criticize

We will dig into this a bit more next week when we talk about the second predictor of divorce, which is what John Gottman refers to as the Four Horsemen. Still, there is a massive difference between complaining and criticizing. When we complain about something, we direct the complaint towards something they did or didn’t do or a circumstance. A complaint contains three parts:

  1. How you are feeling (looking within) about:
  2. A specific situation
  3. Sharing what you need, want or prefer

A criticism is non-specific and directs your negative feelings to the core of who the other person is. Listen to these two and decide for yourself which one is a harsh start-up and which is a soft start-up:

  • “You are so irresponsible. Why can’t you get the water bill paid on time, it’s no wonder we don’t have any money to go on vacations.”
  • “I’m super frutstrated that the water bill has a late fee on it, we agreed that you would take care of the bills, what happened and what can you do to prevent it from happening again?”

Criticism also comes through the way you are showing up; it is possible you aren’t saying anything negative, but your body is showing otherwise. Eye-rolling or turning away is a perfect example of “unintentional” but destructive behavior.

Begin with “I” statements instead of “You” statements

This type of start-up has you focusing on what is going on for you instead of focusing on what you see your partner doing wrong. This can get a bit tricky if you are used to pointing the finger, saying, “I think that you never make any time for me.” even though it starts with “I,” it still points the finger at them. The “You” version would be something like “You never make time for me.” and the
“I” version might sound like “I feel really lonely lately, I miss spending time with you.”

Describe how you see the situation, your perspective

Your partner is not a mind reader though often we think they should know what is happening because it is SO obvious to us; this is where we need to practice expressing our needs in a clear way that doesn’t point to what we see as their deficiency. When you share how you see things from your point of view, it takes the blame off the other and will help you get a more helpful response.

You can still be kind and show appreciation even when you are in conflict

Differentiation has two people seeing the same thing in two completely different ways. The better we can get at allowing for this, the easier it will be to allow for the differences, come to some agreeable terms and still love each other. Oh, how far the words “please” and “I so appreciate your help here” can go in softening into what each of you needs.

Confront your conflicts

I know this sounds so cliche, but it is how we learn and get to know each other. When we confront our conflicts from the start and with a soft start-up, including love and appreciation, we learn more about what each other needs. We prevent blow-ups from happening when we are stretched thin and feeling overwhelmed – hello, Christmas week! When we store all of our negative emotions, which is resisting, see episode 43: A better way to deal with holiday emotions; what happens is we are more at risk of wearing thin and dumping it all out in one big blow-out session. This blow-out can create a flood of emotions for both of you, which leaves you completely useless when it comes to resolution, more on that predictor in the coming weeks!

What to do when your change in approach backfires

Your partner may still respond negatively, defensively, or counterattack once you begin to change your approach to conflict.

You: “I feel lonely lately, could you please share some times when we could have an hour together, just you and me?”

Them: “You don’t share your calendar with me, so how can I know when we could ever do anything?”

It would be easy to counterattack or blame or justify, but all you need to do is share that you aren’t accusing or blaming them but that you are simply asking for some options to put time aside on the calendar. You can share that you care and that you want to find time to get closer to them, to get to know them better. This can self-correct the course of the conversation and help your partner feel safe. Over time as you change your habitual way of dealing with conflict, your partners go to practices will self-correct as well.

As you absorb this information, ask yourself how you have approached conflict in the past, pay attention to conflict as it comes up this week, even if it’s a conflict you are witnessing versus being a part of. Use these experiences as examples to play with; consider how you might change the start-up to get a different result.

As you consider how you have and are handling conflict discussions, use this information to learn and grow. Keep a note in places where they will be a reminder to you of how you want to approach those things that are bothering you, write “SAFE” on a post-it and place it on your bathroom mirror or on your computer screen to remind you of how you want to approach these future discussions.

Also, consider the possibility that you may have stopped addressing conflict to avoid the harsh endings that come from your previous way of dealing with conflict. Remember that addressing what is bothering you is important. Now you have a new way to approach what is frustrating you, so even notice when you feel frustration or annoyance while sweeping it under the Christmas tree.

Addressing conflict creates conversation and connection and helps the two better understand each other versus withdrawing to avoid conflict, which will bring you to another predictor of divorce – independence or living parallel lives.

This week observe and practice because it is in the doing, the practicing that you learn, grow, and get to know.

I would love to hear what you noticed this week around your discussions and how you have done the work of starting to change the old cycle.


I am a life coach who works with individuals to break down relationship barriers by awakening their true selves. My process isn’t about changing your partner; it’s about discovering who you are so that you can AwakenYou in your marriage. If you’re ready to take your life and your love relationship to the next level, then schedule your program inquiry call today and let’s decide together if this is your next step to creating the life you’ve been dreaming of.