How to work through major problems
All couples encounter major problems from time-to-time. You are not going to get along 24/7.
Problems don’t disappear once you adjust. Expect occasional conflicts throughout married life. This is normal. Problems may be minor or major depending on the circumstances.
Most couples can manage to get through minor problems. All of us need help navigating our way through the major issues that flare up.
One of the biggest traps I see couples get into is stockpiling their problems instead of resolving them. You definitely want to avoid this trap!
#1 Focus on the problem, not the person
In conflict, a knee-jerk reaction is to focus on your spouse as the problem. A disagreement can flare quickly. Soon, the problem is not the problem. It is your partner’s view.
We can react to an opposing view by saying:
- “You’re absolutely wrong!”
- “You’re crazy!”
- “You don’t have a clue!”
- “I cannot believe you see it that way.”
Notice how the spouse is now the problem? Why? Because he or she doesn’t see things your way. Couples can quickly move into a power struggle over who is right and wrong. This back-n-forth interaction shifts attention from the problem to a person.
For example, take Jon and Kaylee.
Jon wants to get rid of his clunker and buy a new car. The couple did not factor a car payment into their budget. Kaylee thinks Jon’s idea won’t work financially and voices her opposition. Jon is upset with Kaylee’s response and the following argument ensues.
Jon – “I cannot believe you don’t agree with this idea. Do you expect me to drive this piece of junk forever? Whenever it comes to things I want, you’re not on board. It’s not fair Kaylee, I bend backwards to support what you want!”
Kaylee – “Jon you are so impulsive. How do you expect us to pay for a new car? Where do you think we are going to get the money? I can support an idea that makes sense. You keep coming up with these stupid ideas that don’t work. Sorry dude, I’m not on board.”
Notice how the conversation shifted from the problem (car purchase) to a person? Jon views Kaylee’s inflexibility as the problem and she sees Jon’s impulsivity as the issue at hand. They are quickly off topic.
To work through major problems you have to see your spouse as an ally, not an adversary. You may see differently on how to resolve a problem but to find a solution you cannot make it personal just because you disagree.
Let’s see how Jon and Kaylee would stay on topic by focusing on the issue of the car.
Jon: “I know we did not budget for a car and we may not afford it, but I think it is an important purchase.”
Kaylee: “True, it’s not in our budget so I cannot see how we can afford a new car. How do you propose we pay for it?”
#2: Keep your emotions in check
Jon wants to feel supported. Kaylee wants to feel secure. If your spouse’s reaction to the problem triggers an emotion, it may intensify spontaneously and manifest in your response. This is what caused this couple to come off the rails so quickly.
So, how do you keep your emotions in check? Here are some tips:
- Take a few deep breaths from your diaphragm.
- This will calm your physiological system (mind and body)
- Identify your emotion.
- You might think right away that it’s anger. More often, anger is a secondary emotion. What’s underneath is primary. Jon may have felt dismissed. Kaylee may have felt pressured.
- Express your emotion with controlled intensity
- “I’m feeling a little pressured by your approach” is a better delivery than “You’re making me angry!”
#3: Use “I” terminology to express your thoughts & feelings about the problem
“You” statements may be inflammatory and ignite a negative reaction from your spouse. When you begin your statements with “I think…” or “I feel…” your partner is less likely to be defensive and may be more open to what you’re saying.
This approach requires you slow down and get in touch with your thoughts and feelings. Slowing down also reduces tension and increases attention.
Jon: “I have been feeling so stressed driving the clunker to work. Last thing I need is to be late to my new job. I’ve been thinking that a new car would be good for this reason and for us too if we want to drive into the city. I anticipated you might be worried about whether we can afford it. I’d like for us to talk about it.”
Kaylee: “I hear what you’re saying Jon. I am nervous about buying a car. On the other hand, if we can come up with a solution that satisfies us both, I’m open to a discussion. Have you considered us buying a used car?”
Notice the difference when the couple uses “I” language. They are fully engaged and listening to each other. Defensiveness is down. They are in a better position to collaborate a decision.
#4: Give mutual consideration to each other’s input to the problem
Couples become mired in conflict when they become fixated on convincing each other on their position. Active listening is missing. They argue back-n-forth on the merits of their singular view and find ways to discredit the other.
A better approach is to take turns talking about the problem giving each other a few minutes to state their case. The listener summarizes the speaker’s point of view in order to communicate understanding. Then they switch positions to allow the other partner the opportunity to be fully hear.
Kaylee: “Okay Jon, what I hear you saying is that neither of us factored in a car in our budget which is a mishap on our part. You also think that a new car might be better than sinking money fixing a clunker that is on it’s last leg.”
Jon: “I understand your concern about the stress on our finances Kaylee. You’re worried that we might not be able to stay on top of our bills.”
This approach gives mutual consideration to points of view and provides important information to guide the couple in resolving the major problem.
#5: Collaborate to find a mutually satisfying resolution
If you follow steps 1-4 you are positioned to collaborate an outcome that you both can feel good about. Collaboration suspends both points of view equally and opens creative thinking portals.
Jon: “Here’s a thought. Instead of buying a new car, why don’t we shop around for a good used car?”
Kaylee: “I feel more comfortable with that idea Jon. Let’s make sure that the car we buy is in good condition and can last awhile.”
Jon & Kaylee decided to find a good used car that will stretch their budget a little without creating a huge layer of stress. The benefits of the newer car were more than they expected and they felt good that they were able to make this decision together.