Some people think that to have a good marriage you have to get really good at letting the little things go.
They think a good partner will look past the minor dysfunctions that show up in marriage. You just gotta ignore the little hurts that get inflicted over time.
I mean, what good is marriage if you’re constantly talking about stuff that isn’t working, right?
The science of researchers Gottman, Swanson and Murray shows that couples who have a low tolerance for negativity in their marriage are actually happier, and more likely to have lasting, satisfying love.
In a nutshell, happy couples don’t let things build up and fester before addressing them.
They call this having a “low negativity threshold.”
You might be thinking, “But Nate, didn’t you just write an article about not complaining? This seems a little contradictory.”
I hear you. Just bear with me for a minute. I promise I’ll provide a good explanation.
First, let me start out with a story...
One evening a few weeks ago my wife and I were in a hurry to get somewhere. She made dinner, we ate, then left the dishes in the sink.
The next morning we both ran to work early and left our breakfast dishes in the sink.
That evening we got home and began making dinner again… the mountain of dishes was growing. The pile was magnified by the smallness of our kitchen.
There was no space, no clean dishes, and a lot of frustration.
My wife - champion that she is - dug through the pile of dirty utensils and food-covered appliance attachments to find something she needed for the food processor.
Then I heard her scream.
There was blood everywhere. She cut her finger on a sharp blade buried in the mess of dishes.
She was in pain, she was frustrated, she was overwhelmed.
I was panicking, stressed, and upset.
All of this emotional tension, the stress, the literal mess, and the blood and pain could have been avoided if we had just taken a few minutes to manage the mess when it was small before it turned into a mountainous problem!
We could have cleaned while we cooked.
We could have scrubbed dishes and thrown them in the dishwasher before leaving the house.
We could have stayed up a little late, or woken up a little early to make a dent in the pile.
We could have hired someone to come help us clean.
The problem that too many couples face is that they let the dishes pile up, and pile up, and pile up until someone just can’t take it anymore!
They get so frustrated, or hurt that they snap, explode, and lash out.
Are you getting the analogy yet?
I'll spell it out for you, just in case.
Rather than maintain a clean kitchen (healthy, happy, resentment-free relationship) by taking care of the dirty dishes (small hurts, disappointments, and arguments) when they’re manageable, they instead build a tolerance for living in a filthy kitchen (miserable, lonely, anxiety-ridden marriage).
Sounds miserable, right?
I know you don't want this. You want epic love... not this miserable counterfeit we try to convince ourselves is an actual marriage.
Now let’s talk about how to keep your emotional kitchen clean so these meltdowns don’t happen.
How You Start Is Important
For me, the hardest part about cleaning the kitchen is starting. Once I make some progress and gain a little momentum, the cleaning gets easier… Sometimes it’s even fun.
The same is true with the “emotional kitchen” the most important part is simply starting the conversation… and starting it the right way.
In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, marriage researcher, John Gottman talks about the importance of a “Soft Startup.”
A soft startup is a kind way to begin a conversation about something that’s bugging you without picking a fight, or pushing your partner to shut down emotionally.
Here’s an awesome graphic created by my friends over at the #StayMarried Blog that shows the difference between a "soft startup" that the best couples use to begin a touch conversation and a "harsh startup" that everyone else uses:
The Soft Startup is all about being gracious and kind and setting your partner to respond with the same kindness.
You're ensuring you tackle conflicts as a partnership. Instead of conflict being you vs. your partner, it should be a tag team of you and your partner vs. the problem and your emotions.
Last week, after writing the article about not complaining, I got an email from a reader whose partner had an awkward issue to be addressed. It will make a perfect demonstration of how a soft startup should work.
It might seem silly, but this is a real situation that's really causing some tension in this person's marriage.:
A harsh startup might sound like this:
"Holy crap, I can't take it anymore! Your toothbrush is disgusting? How can you not smell that!? It makes me nauseous every morning when I walk in the bathroom. Don't you have any respect? Your breath is nasty."
Yeah, your partner won't react well to that, or anything like it...
Start a conversation with accusations, anger, frustration, an aggression and you won't get what you want. You'll just end up with a fight.
Now let's try a soft startup.
"Hey babe, can I talk to you about something that makes me uncomfortable? (Asking permission is a great place to start) I just noticed recently that your toothbrush has a really strong smell and it's kind of grossing me out. I don't want to embarrass you, but I wanted to bring it up because I'd want to know if the situation was reversed. (This is coming from a place of kindness, not criticism.) Would you mind picking up a new toothbrush on your way home from work? (Notice the request instead of a demand.) Thanks for being so understanding. (Gratitude is always a good touch!) This was a hard thing for me to bring up. I love you."
Boom! Suddenly a potential complaint or an attack is turned into an easy (albeit slightly awkward) conversation!
Thanks soft startup!
Maintain High Expectations
Ever hear unhappy people say something like, "The best way to avoid disappointment is to always have low expectations."?
Sounds to me like it's time to bust another marriage myth.
Low expectations do NOT equate to a happy marriage.
Research shows that couples who have high expectations for their marriage are actually happier.
Part of maintaining a low negativity threshold for your relationship is being committed to putting out the small emotional fires before they grow into raging infernos that can wreak havoc on your marriage.
Here's some statistical proof that will blow your mind:
Researchers Notarius and Buongiorno (1995) found that the average amount of time a married couple waits to get professional help from the time one of them detects serious problems in the marriage is 6 years.
These couples sit in the anxiety and tension and misery of conflict for the better part of a decade before saying, "Hey... this isn't what we signed up for. Maybe we need some help."
Holy crap, it's no wonder 50 percent of first-time divorces happen in the first 7 years of marriage! (Thus the name of this website.)
This bologna happens because people would rather adapt to more conflict, anxiety, stress, and unkindness than simply repair the emotional wounds inflicted in the relationship.
If you don't want a marriage full of grudges, resentment, festering emotional wounds, regrets, fighting, and sadness, you MUST raise the bar for yourselves.
You cannot settle.
You have to have the hard conversations with respect and kindness.
If you're having the same arguments over and over again, you should ask for help!
You can't lower your expectations for what's acceptable.
This is the work that makes epic love possible. This is the work the top 1% of marriages do. They don't settle!
Where are you settling? How can you level up? Do you need to implement a soft startup to address something in your relationship? Leave your thoughts in the comments.