Emotionally Focused Therapy. It’s valuable. Think about the last conflict you had with your partner. I know, it’s not the most pleasant of topics, but like it or not it’s something we all have to face from time to time. If I asked “on a timeline, what is the most crucial part of your quarrel?” what would you say? If you’re anything like me, you may be tempted to quickly answer “The end of course” because you just really want this tempest to be over! But stop for a moment, and think about those fights that just don’t go well. You know the kind; not only does nothing get settled, you both feel hurt, frustrated and farther apart. One of the questions I ask couples early on in emotionally focused therapy is “When you get into an argument that goes sideways, how far into it are you before you know that this is not going to end well?” The answers vary from couple to couple, but not by much. I generally hear something like “Oh, I know right away” or “It hits us right out of the gate.”
Actually, there is a science to this question. Research conducted at the Gottman Institute over the past 35 years, found that the first 3 minutes of a conflict are the most important in setting the tone and predicting the outcome. If the disagreeing couple could keep civil, using a soft tone that included even subtle messages of affection and appreciation for the first 180 seconds, there was a better than 90% chance they would end their fight still feeling like friends. If, on the other hand, in that same time frame a harsh tone or critical mood crept in, the conversation was almost certain to go off the rails and was nearly impossible to get back on track.
The researchers observed couples who were struggling with their conflict, as well as those who were able to get through it without damaging their sense of friendship or emotional connection. This latter group was dubbed “The Masters of Marriage”. What the “Masters” taught us was surprising in both its simplicity and its significance. They used a skill I call The Softened Start. Using the softened start, they were not only able to reach agreements more quickly, they developed a deeper understanding and empathy toward each other, were able to laugh at themselves and with each other, and were at far decreased risk of divorce.
By now you may be asking, “So what is a Softened Start anyway?” Here’s a few simple things the “Masters” of marriage were observed doing when they initiated a conflict:
- They took a gentle tone. Hands off hips, maybe a warm smile, but most importantly, they talked to each other like friends. Without using put downs, they made their wishes known and avoided making judgments.
- They drew attention to the positives. Everyone enjoys being appreciated. The masters were able to softened their start by finding something their partner was doing right. Giving an appreciation is not only likely to help your partner hear your concerns, the often unforeseen benefit is that you find yourself feeling better about your partner and your relationship.
- They were vulnerable. Often a harsh start comes out of defensive feelings like resentment or anger. But tucked away, underneath are softer feelings like hurt, disappointment and insecurity. The Masters were able to talk from those vulnerable emotions. Instead of saying “You make me so mad when you don’t care about the budget” try “My life is a lot more fun because of your spontaneity. But I feel scared for our future when you spend money we haven’t planned.”
Changing your habits around how to start your conflict takes practice. Learn more in emotionally focused therapy. It likely won’t happen all at once, but the results will be worth the investment.