How did your last heated argument start? Was it emotionally charged and tinged with blame? Or perhaps your disagreement was born out of resentment and frustration. Regardless of the source of your last argument, studies have shown that how a difficult conversation begins is a good indicator of how the conversation ends. Meaning if your tough conversation begins with tension or hostility, it will likely end with those same feelings. So, what’s the solution? A soft start-up. When you use a soft start-up, you and your partner can resolve conflict by focusing on the problem instead of who is to blame. 

Harsh start vs soft start

Dr. John Gottman’s research has found that starting a conflict discussion harshly prevents your partner from hearing your feelings or understanding your perspective. This hard start may sound like blaming or criticizing your partner. It puts the focus on your partner’s errors and your tone and non verbal communication share your frustration. This leaves your partner feeling defensive and attacked.

A harsh start-up may sound like: “You don’t act like you even love me any more. All you do is spend time with your friends.”

Conversely, a soft start-up is thoughtful, kind and focuses on your needs and feelings. In a soft start, your tone and words are directed positively and without aggression, your partner can more easily hear your needs and concerns and feels respectfully approached. This allows for more efficient conflict resolution and allows you and your partner to focus on the problem instead of who is to blame.

Your soft start-up may sound like: “I feel disconnected because we’ve been really busy and not spending much time together. I miss you. Can we make some plans to do something fun together next week?”

The impact of “I” statements

Difficult conversations are a part of intimate relationships and can increase growth and the bond within. “I” statements will help you avoid sounding accusatory or blaming. It allows your partner to focus on your feelings and perspective rather than having to defend themselves. Using “I” statements forces you to be thoughtful with your words and communicate the core emotions of your feelings. “I” statements are the bedrock of soft start-ups — they encourage effective and efficient communication during difficult times, which is good for both parties.

How to start a difficult conversation with your partner: Try a soft start-up

While it would be great if you could completely eliminate conflict with the person you love, conflict within a relationship is inevitable. However uncomfortable or challenging, difficult conversations allow you and your partner to grow and connect. Try one of these soft start-ups next time you and your partner end up in a frustrated state.

1. Communication…or a lack thereof

Poor communication or miscommunication can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and frustration. This includes not focusing on actively listening, interrupting, or failing to express thoughts and emotions clearly.

Try this soft start-up: “I feel distant because we haven’t been able to talk much recently. I would really like to share what has been bothering me. Could we carve out time in the next couple of days to have  this conversation uninterrupted?”

2. Finances, spending, and money matter

Money and finances can be a significant and oh-so-common source of conflict in relationships. Disagreements about budgeting, spending habits, debt, and financial priorities can create palpable tension.

Try this soft start-up: “I’m feeling anxious about our budget and spending habits. We’ve haven’t saved as much and I need your input. Can we find some time and take a look at last month’s budget together?”

3. Household responsibilities: Who’s doing their part? 

Unequal distribution of household chores or responsibilities can lead to deep-seated feelings of resentment. This inequality, or even the perception of unfairness, can result in nagging arguments about who does what in the home.

Try this soft start-up: “I feel disconnected because our work schedules have been crazy lately, and I feel like our responsibilities at home have shifted. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with the amount of things that need our attention. Can we talk about that?

4. Intimacy and sex

Differences in libido, sexual preferences, or unmet emotional needs can lead to frustration and hurt feelings. If you need additional resources, check out 6 Resources for Your Sex Life or How to Solve Cycles of Sexual Disconnection. Discovering your truest sexual self through a Sexuality Support Group or meeting with a Sexual Wellness Specialist can also help guide and foster healthy sexuality.

Try this soft start-up: “I feel worried that we have different sex drives and I want to be able to talk about our intimacy. I’d really like to discuss what intimacy means to us both. Are you open to that?”

5. Jealousy and trust issues

Feelings of jealousy, suspicion, or a lack of trust can cause conflict, especially if there have been prior breaches of trust or infidelity.

Try this soft start-up: “I’m feeling out of balance. I love spending time with you and am committed to our relationship. I also enjoy spending time with friends and family and would like to find a moment to talk about this together.”

6. Family and in-law conflicts

Disagreements or interference from extended family members, in-laws, or parenting styles can contribute to plenty of tension in a relationship.

Try this soft start-up: “I feel uncomfortable when we talk about having your parents come to visit because we have different opinions about how long they should stay. I want to better understand your point of view. Would you share how you feel about your parents’ visit?”

Supplement your soft start-up with therapy 

The best softened start-up starts with your feeling, the reason (in a non-critical way), and stating a need. However, softening your start-up may feel easier said than done. Professional guidance and support can be very beneficial to successful conflict resolution. A therapist specializing in couples counseling can help you and your partner facilitate soft start-ups and learn essential conflict resolution skills. When you and your partner seek therapy, you demonstrate your commitment to building and maintaining a strong connection for your future. 

Schedule an appointment today if you want to incorporate this guidance into your relationship. Our therapists offer in-person and virtual appointments and are available if you live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. 

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