Have you ever opened an exchange with your husband by using phrases like these?
- “You never take the trash out!”
- “Nice of you to join us finally!”
- “Can we talk about why you were being such a jerk to our friends?”
- “It’s your fault she was late to school this morning. Why are you so irresponsible?”
- “You need to tell me when you’re going to get your act together.”
The ensuing conversation didn’t go well, did it? Pioneering marriage researcher John Gottman calls statements like the ones above “harsh startups.” You can also think of them as “emotional bombs.” When you lob one, you’re going to provoke your spouse to either retreat or return fire. Either way, you’re not going to resolve your conflict.
You’ll reach a more constructive solution if you can avoid initiating a discussion with a surprise attack of criticism and sarcasm. But, as you know, sometimes those words slip out of your mouth before you know what has happened. And even though you might be speaking thoughtlessly, emotional bombs can still do lasting damage.
Stressed, Busy and Harsh
It was probably very obvious to you even before you read this article that harsh startups aren’t an effective way to initiate a conversation. So why do we keep engaging in them?
You’ll be more prone to throwing emotional bombs at your husband when you’re under a lot of stress. And with the busy schedules of today’s families, that seems like most of the time, right? Unfortunately, when stress goes up, self-awareness goes down. We become more easily provoked and worse at tuning into what’s going on with other people. When we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we get so wrapped up in our own stuff that we can dehumanize others and say harsh things.
Emotional Bombs Destroy Safety
Maybe you’re wondering what the big deal is about harsh startups. We all get crabby when we’re stressed, right? And he knows you don’t mean it, doesn’t he?
Well hopefully he didn’t take your comments personally, but it’s also possible you inflicted real emotional pain. And our brains process emotional and physical pain in very similar ways. So, in a very real sense, your husband feels attacked when you unleash emotional bombs. Whether he reacts by retaliating or withdrawing, the atmosphere of safety that your relationship needs begins to erode, and the two of you grow farther apart.
How to Hold Your Fire
Banishing harsh startups from your marriage is one of the best things you can do for the health of your relationship. That may all sound well and good right now, but the important thing is remembering this advice the next time you’re stressed and feel like lashing out as your husband.
To give yourself a better chance of holding your fire, see if there are ways to remove some pressure and stress from your life. Are there things you feel like you’re “supposed to” do or have that you could let go of so that you aren’t so overwhelmed? Easing up your expectations can also give you more time to care for yourself. When you rest more, practice healthier habits and nurture yourself, you’ll be less reactive to stress.
Finally, I know this isn’t easy, but remind yourself to pause when you’re in a situation that triggers you to drop emotional bombs and try to choose a different response. Not coincidentally, research shows that people in healthy relationships have brains that are good at controlling emotions.
Even if harsh startups are a longtime habit for you, you can start practicing a new approach today. My book Strong Women, Strong Love has more ideas for maintaining a happy marriage even amid our stressful lives.