For Couples: Two Steps to Successfully Problem Solve



So I had a relapse of my kidney problem again which means I have to go back on the prednisone which (surprise!) I hate. This knocked me for a loop because I felt fine. I’d gone off the prednisone completely for a month after being on it for over a year. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s actually about how couples solve problems together. My husband and I have been dealing with this medical nonsense for over 25 years. I’m happy to say we’ve actually gotten pretty good at this. I’m hoping you can take advantage of what we’ve learned.

1. When one of us has a problem we need to have the courage to admit we have a problem.

This is not always the case, but when the issue is serious we bat close to 1000. When we keep our problems to ourselves it’s often because ‘there isn’t time to talk’ (Which is A LIE. There’s always time. You just have to behave like you’re boarding the subway when you’re late to work and force yourself on that train!) or we’re just too busy (Same lie.) That’s when we get into trouble. So this step takes thoughtfulness, moxie and guts.

It means saying out loud to our partner: “I need your help.” or “I’m having a problem with this….” or “I just need you to hear this…”

It helps to add how it makes us feel: “…and it makes me feel so damn mad, confused, frustrated, numb.” Take your pick.

Next the partner on the receiving end, having gotten the heads up that ‘there’s a problem’ can exercise their listening skills. (OK. So this step is actually a two-parter.) Being open without agenda or defensiveness is key: “Wow, that just happened? That sucks. Of course you feel mad, confused and frustrated.” And leave it there.

With a period.

No ‘and’.

No ‘but’.

This is a HUGE important step to couple problem solving. And regardless of the ridiculously sexist notion that it’s only females who need this ACTIVE LISTENING step, we ALL NEED IT. Men, yes, you need it too. Maybe even you’re even active listening deprived.

We all need to be heard first. Be shown compassion first. Be validated first.

2. Once the initial problem and feeling is acknowledged we place the problem in a space where both of us can walk around it, observe it, study it together.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, said, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

Too often a couple will place a problem smack between them so that they have little choice but to go at it like battering rams, making the problem fixable only if someone gives in or breaks down in some way. Naturally that makes us defensive.

Do not do this:

“If you would just have the guts to tell your mother to stop dropping by without calling first maybe we’d have some peace around here!”

“It’s not about my mother. You are rude and selfish. She’s just a lonely old lady!”

What a mess. Instead I wish these couples would put the problem out there, in front of them, out from between them. By putting the problem ‘out there’ so that they can both look at it together they quadruple their chances of bonding over finding a workable solution.

The problem isn’t in each other. The problem is that third thing that needs us both to solve, diminish, pulverize it.

Do this:

“I’m having a really hard time with these unexpected visits from your mother. I feel frustrated. It’s hard to plan our day or have private time for our little family and I miss that. Do you ever feel that way?”

(Resisting the urge to get defensive. With a big sigh…) “Yes but it’s really hard to admit because she’s my mother and she’s lonely.”

“Can we recognize that we have a problem? If we do maybe we can come up with a plan that works better for everybody.”

My husband helped me process my anger and frustration, I helped him process some if his own, and then we could both be partners when it came to deciding on the best treatment plan going forward. Despite feeling pretty rotten at first in the end we felt pretty good.

Now just for the hell of it here is a video that is pretty funny (taken with a dollop of salt and a big dose of humor) mostly because it’s an extreme caricature of Mars/Venus – male/female – type communication.

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