by Dr. Lorin Bradbury
Question: My wife and I seem to have a very difficult time communicating. I love her dearly, but I wish we could discuss some of the problems that arise in our relationship without attacking one another. I am not blaming her; I just don’t know what to do.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman, psychologists and founders of the Gottman Institute at the University of Washington have observed, and even video taped, hours of interactions between couples. They recommend that couples learn the art of softening how they bring up issues that they want and need to discuss. To illustrate, I will present a scenario from one of their books, And Baby Makes Three: The Six-step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives. Let’s imagine that both parents are sleep deprived due to two young children. The younger child is teething and cries off and on throughout the night. Both parents are exhausted. Let’s listen in as James begins the conversation:
James: Carrie, I need to talk.
James: We never have sex anymore and I’m tired of it. You’re not a woman anymore. You’re just a mom. Kids, kids, kids…You’re one of those mothers who spoils her kids rotten.
Carrie: What are you talking about? Just because you can’t connect with the kids doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. Joanie is three years old and the baby is just six months old. Who are they supposed to turn to? You? (She laughs mockingly.)
James: You jump and come running every time they cry and they’ll hang on to your apron strings forever. You’re ruining those kids.
Listening in, you feel the harshness on both sides. In fact, it hurts to hear them hurt one another this way. A soft startup would be a lot easier to listen to and would be more productive in maintaining their relationship. Below is an example of what a soft startup might sound like.
Both are exhausted, but James tentatively says, “Carrie?”
“What?” she snaps back.
“Never mind,” he grumbles. He rises and heads for the living room.
Turning to face him, Carrie Adds, “I’m sorry, I’m just pooped … What is it?”
James mutters, “I miss you … I wish we could have a date one of these nights.”
Carrie shakes her head. “How can we possibly go out on a date? I’ve got to stay with Anna, especially now. She’s miserable with those teeth coming in.”
James persists. “I know. But I really miss you. Maybe I just miss us. We haven’t had private time in so long, and every time when I think, ‘Tonight’s the night,’ the kids get up and that’s the end of it. I don’t want to go on like this forever.”
“Neither do I.” Carrie reassures him. “I miss you too. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“How about you still find me incredibly sexy and manly and you want to make mad love to me?”
“OK. I find you gorgeous, and sexy, and I still love you. But can you wait awhile for the follow-through? Let’s just get by this one tooth of Annie’s, OK? Then I’ll call my Mom to come over and we’ll have a date.”
Notice the difference? The real issue was the desire for some private time, but in the first instance, James began with a hard startup and focus was lost. In the second, he used a softer approach that resulted in them hearing one another and addressing the real issue—loneliness. Read this through several times, and the next time you need to bring up an issue that could be sensitive, try a soft startup.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]