What if I told you that after 15 minutes of listening, I could tell you exactly how you and your spouse fights and why you fight that way? Better yet, what if I said I could tell you exactly how to fix it?

Thanks to Dr. John Gottman, they have measured specific reasons why conflict discussions start and end negatively and create more tension, distance and pain in the relationship. There are several dynamics at play here, but let’s talk about the startup.

The Harsh Start-Up

The Gottman’s 40+ years of research revealed that if one person brings up an issue in a harsh way, 96% of the time the discussion ends in a harsh way. The conversation is destined to fail when we are harsh, but what makes it “harsh?”

  • Criticism / blame
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling

These components, called the 4 horsemen, almost ensure (96%) your fight or disagreement will fail causing a greater chasm between the couple.

If one person brings up an issue in a harsh way, 96% of the time the discussion will end in a harsh way.

The Gentle Solution(s)

So when you’re feeling so mad that you just want to scream or when you’ve been incredibly hurt by your spouse that you want them to feel just as terrible or miserable as you are, this is the key to having a productive (albeit difficult) conversation with your spouse:

The Gentle Start-Up

Before the conversation even begins, begin with an internal reflection:

1. Consideration – Appreciation

Before the conversation begins, consider what qualities and attributes of your marriage is present. Reflect on what is actually going well and lean on those truths. During times of disagreement, it is easy to stay stuck in negativity while forgetting or more easily disqualifying the positive (that is most likely present) qualities of life and marriage. Consider if this is a problem significant enough to discuss gently. Don’t self-sacrifice or disregard your negative feeling – if it needs to be discussed, (even if it seems silly) then begin gently.

2. Talk about your feelings

After considerations and discernment. We need to avoid beginning with criticism. This is a lot more difficult than it may seem. Why? We typically think we are stating facts and convincing the other to change their behavior because it’s a “flaw” and we are “right” or “justified” in our criticism. This is not the case. Describing your feelings and position offers your spouse a position to listen and understand (without getting defensive).

Avoiding criticism and contempt places you in the best position to have a constructive conflict discussion or dialogue.

3. State Your Positive Need

Think about this progression:

  1. You have reflected on the good in your marriage.
  2. You have considered and wisely chose this was an issue needed to be discussed.
  3. You gently began your conversation without the 4 horsemen describing your feelings and position.

Conclude your gentle start-up with the recipe that leads to success: your need!

Dr. Gottman states, “behind every complaint is a longing.” Letting your spouse know your need (no, they shouldn’t “just know” or have to guess) again places the both of you in the best position for success and there is always a positive need.

4. Take a Break

We can do and say all of the right things, but conversations can still break down. If this happens, it is crucial to take a break. By take a break, I mean take a break

  • Acknowledge that the conversation is not going where you need it to go (gently, of course).
  • Actively pursue some activity that helps you relax
  • Whoever asked for the break needs to re-engage with the other to discuss more productively.
  • Repeat at step 1

This takes time and practice to master. Take your time, be patience. Above all, reflect on your covenant with each other and focus on what is going well and what you are thankful for. When you’re struggling, it’s perfectly fine and sometimes necessary to reach out for help. This can be an objective 3rd party, a pastor, small group leader or a therapist or counselor.

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