A reader recently asked me a question, and I expect she's not the only one asking.
I have been watching couples/friends get into arguments they didn't want to get into, simply because the discussion began on the wrong foot.
Instead of asking an open ended question, e.g., "It seems cleaning up after dinner is a task neither of us wants to do. I wonder how we can solve this?" they ask questions in a manner that immediately puts the two people into opposition: "Why didn't you?" "Why don't you?" "When will you?"
What can the recipient of this kind of attacking question do to redirect the conversation into a discussion rather than attack/defend? I am out of ideas.
Famed marriage researcher John Gottman calls these sorts of questions harsh startups. While observing couples and their discussions in his lab's research apartment, he and his team have found that these harsh startups are a very bad sign for the relationship.
That is, unless they are softened by the person receiving what sure sounds like criticism, bossiness, or nagging. When you are that person, try to remember to Assume Love, so you can calm your knee-jerk response long enough to see if you can figure out why someone decent who loves you might be upset enough to speak so harshly.
Remember, when you Assume Love, you don't pretend you know you are loved. You try on that idea to see if it helps you find another explanation for the nasty comment, so you can respond to the person behind it. (Some people really are unloving jerks. In the moment, though, a lot more of them can look like it, and you don't want to become one yourself with a knee-jerk response to a slip of the tongue.)
"When will you start doing your share around here?" probably has very little to do with tonight's dishes, when it comes from a loving person. It's a sign of overwhelm.
"Why don't you ever pick up after yourself?" might come from someone with a much stronger need for order than you have. And it's someone you care about. Do you really want to yell back, "Well, why don't you start looking for a job that pays enough to live on?"
A good starting point in calming down your spouse and strengthening your relationship is to acknowledge the pain you're hearing after you look beyond your own sudden alarm at being yelled at. "It sounds like you're feeling you get stuck with too much responsibility. That must feel horrible. Let's talk about it later this evening. And right now, let's just leave the mess and go for a walk together. I miss holding your hand."
If you've just been accused of not picking up after yourself, try something like this: "Sometimes I forget just how tolerant I am of messes. I know you're not. I can clean up the dishes. But before I do, would you help me see the rest of the mess? Let's just take a quick walk through the house, and you point out to me the things I'm overlooking. That way, instead of trying to guess at what's important, I can know as I take care of these things that I am taking care of you."
I'm betting you will like what happens next a whole lot more than an escalating battle over tonight's dishes that spills into everything else you two do together.
We all need to feel heard. And we all strike out when we feel frustrated that we're being taken for granted.