Therapy Blog for Orem, Spanish Fork & South Jordan

Relationship Counseling: Avoid Harsh Start-Up

Relationship Counseling: Preventing Conflict at the Source With “Soft Start-Up”

In my last post, you learned about a counseling skill that can help you perform “preventative maintenance” on your relationship to prevent future fighting. (Click here to read more). Today, we will talk about another small thing you can try that will help you and your partner have better communication, especially when it comes to disagreements. 

Changing At The Startrelationship counseling

  At its core, you’ve probably noticed that communication skills boil down to how you talk about things, not what you talk about specifically. That’s why good communication is so important in your relationship. (Related Article: Marriage Counseling- Fixing How You Fight). If you and your spouse can talk to each other in a way that encourages understanding and compassion, there is no limit to the conflicts you can resolve quickly and effectively as a couple. That’s why a good approach to hard conversations with your partner is just as important as the subject you are discussing. 

John Gottman, a marriage and relationship researcher, talks about a concept he noticed in the couples he worked with who had great communication skills in their relationship called a “soft startup”. (Source). Simply put, these couples approached tough conversations, especially ones where they were expressing a frustration with their partner, with kindness and in a “soft”, or polite, manner. He found that this soft start up seemed to set the tone for the couples’ conversation and was oftentimes a large part of preventing unproductive arguing and conflict.

How To Soften the Start Up

But how can you soften the start up when it comes to difficult conversations? After all, you are probably experiencing a lot of frustration and hurt. Is there a way to communicate your needs and still achieve the kindness that is central to a good soft start up?

Thankfully, yes! All of these things are possible, it just might take some practice. Let’s look at an example of a harsh vs. soft start up. 

First, a harsh start up example: 

“You need to go take out the garbage. I have asked you a million times and you just don’t care! Go do it now, please.” 

Now, this is obviously an extreme example, but it’s not unrealistic. You might even recall a conversation you’ve had with your partner that resembles this one. You have asked your partner to take out the trash and they just keep forgetting! It’s frustrating and likely very hurtful. It makes sense that you might use this more emotionally charged approach. 

However, you’ll notice that, in this example, the speaker makes a statement about their partner’s character (“… you just don’t care!”) and is also very critical. This person also brings up old conflicts as a motivator to go and fix it “right now!”. While this may seem assertive and commanding on the surface, it’s not a productive approach for a loving relationship, and can lead to additional hurt. Additionally, this approach pits the partner vs. partner, instead of partners vs. the issue at hand. (Related article:

relationship counseling

Relationship Counseling- Reframing Conflict). 

Let’s see a more productive example of how to approach this frustrating situation with a soft start-up: 

“I am really frustrated about the garbage can overflowing again. We agreed that you would take it out before the trash got on the floor, and that I would replace the bag afterward. I feel sad when this happens, and it seems like I am not being heard, which hurts. Can you please help me take out the garbage?” 

You might already “feel” the difference between the soft and hard start up examples. The soft start up is no less assertive, but it is clearer, more direct, and avoids the accusation and criticism that is present in the first example. (Related article: Promoting Partnership in Your Marriage).  You lead with your own experience (“I feel really frustrated”) and express how their actions make you feel, instead of attacking your partner’s character “it seems like I am not being heard, which hurts”).

See the difference? You might even recall conversations that resembled a soft start-up in your own relationship. Did you find that those conversations were more calm and productive overall? It’s not surprising that a large part of the direction of your conversations with your spouse will begin at the very beginning. (Related Article: Marriage Counseling- How to Build Trust).

Relationship Counseling Can Help

Meeting with a therapist for relationship counseling can help you and your partner learn valuable skills, like the soft start up, that can change the way you address conflict- and each other! Ready to get started? Schedule relationship counseling with us today in Orem, South Jordan, or Spanish Fork.

Written by Lauren Adkins

Utah Therapy


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