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In intimate relationships, the first few words of a conversation or conflict can set the tone for what follows. In these initial few sentences, partners can either build a bridge or erect a wall.

A Gottman softened start-up is vital to creating and maintaining good relationships. How we start conversations dramatically affects how effectively the interaction goes. This is especially true of those with disagreement or conflict.

A Soft Start-Up is a gentle, non-confrontational approach to addressing concerns, expressing needs, or engaging in conversation.

Here are some aspects:

  • Use “I” statements to express feelings and desires
  • Focus on the specific issue rather than making broad, accusatory statements about the partner
  • Avoid the four behaviors (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) that Gottman identified as highly destructive to relationships

The power of “I” statements

Central to the idea of a Soft Start-Up are “I” statements. These words shift the focus from assigning blame to expressing feelings and wishes. Instead of saying, “You never listen,” a partner can say, “I feel unheard when I don’t sense your full attention.”

This approach conveys vulnerability and a willingness to share one’s inner world. It promotes a climate of empathy and understanding.

Avoiding the four horsemen

Gottman found four harmful behaviors that can damage a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman refers to them as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

By avoiding these behaviors, partners can replace negativity with openness, respect, and a genuine desire to connect. Soft Start-Up is a powerful antidote to these destructive tendencies. Lead with kindness and respect. This significantly reduces the likelihood of these toxic behaviors.

The ripple effect of Soft Start-Up

The impact of a Soft Start-Up reverberates far beyond the immediate moment. It paves the way for constructive, healthy communication, fostering an environment where both partners feel safe expressing themselves. They also feel heard. This, in turn, leads to deeper intimacy, trust, and emotional connection.

Disagreements are inevitable in any relationship. When conflicts arise, using a Soft Start-Up provides the beginning of a resolution. It allows partners to work together as a team rather than as adversaries.

Cultivating emotional safety

By practicing Soft Start-Up, the couple learns to see each other as allies rather than adversaries. They establish a safe space where people can freely share their thoughts and feelings without facing judgment or rejection. This emotional safety is the bedrock of a solid and enduring relationship.

The challenge of Soft Start-Up

Soft Start-Up is easy in theory but less so in practice, especially when under pressure. Emotions can run high, and old patterns of communication may resurface.

It requires practice, patience, and a willingness to be vulnerable. However, the rewards are immeasurable. As partners consistently employ Soft Start-Up, they cultivate a culture of mutual respect, empathy, and love.

Soften start-up with a twist: The six steps.

Here at Couples Therapy Inc., I’ve modified the softened start-up to include six simple steps. These steps offer additional guidance.

  1. Wave the white flag: Introduce your complaint by saying something nice. It is even better if it can be attached to the complaint somehow. You are letting your partner know you aren’t picking a fight, just asking for behavior change.
  2. “I feel” followed by a feeling. Talk about yourself, not your partner. It isn’t a softened start-up if you can point a finger while you say it. If you say, “I feel THAT…” it isn’t a feeling. “I feel upset” vs. “I feel that you are a jerk.”
  3. About what? Be specific. Precisely what is causing you this feeling? “I feel upset when you leave the mail on the table…” Not: “This kitchen is a mess!”
  4. What do you want to happen? What do you want your partner to do? Be precise. “I want you to pick up the mail and put it in the mail holder.”
  5. Why are you telling your partner that? Are you trying just to annoy them? No, of course not. Explain by saying: “That would make me happy because it will be easier to set the table for dinner.”
  6. End with the Four Magic Words, which, according to Dr. Peter Pearson, are: “What do you think?” These words change the complaint into a dialogue instead of a mandate.

Altogether, these softened start-up complaints take a few sentences to complete. Here’s an example:

Hey, Gerry, thanks so much for picking up my dry cleaning today. It makes my life so much easier when you run those errands for me. I appreciate it.

I feel frustrated when you drape the clothes on the couch. Can you hang them in my closet instead? That would keep the clothes wrinkle-free and make me so happy. What do you think?


In the intricate dance of intimate relationships, how we begin a conversation holds immense power. A gentle beginning can change how people interact. Openness, understanding, and respect form its basis. This method creates a strong bond and mutual understanding between partners.

By embracing this concept, couples embark on a journey of nurturing love. Through gentle beginnings, they sow the seeds for a relationship that thrives through all seasons of life. In the realm of love, the softness of the start is often the harbinger of enduring joy.