What should you do if despite all your best efforts you and your partner can't solve a problem?
First of all, know that you're not alone. A leading relationship expert and researcher, John Gottman, found that 69% of conflicts in relationships are never solved. Never! Yet these couples can remain happy. How can this be?
The secret lies in knowing which problems are best left alone to avoid gridlock. You know it’s time to stop problem-solving when:
1. The conflict is highly emotionally charged.
2. You and your partner are polarized in your positions – at two different extremes of the opinion.
3. There's no obvious middle ground in your situation – for example, if you want to have a baby, and he doesn't, you can't have half a baby.
4. You've tried to resolve the conflict several times before and your efforts have either gotten you nowhere, or actually made the problem worse.
5. Previous attempt to change have only been made halfheartedly, even begrudgingly.
The more of these that apply to your situation, the more likely it is that seeking a path of acceptance and tolerance is the way to go.*
Another prominent couples therapist and researcher, Neal Jacobson, PhD, says the goal is to "shift the couple from blaming each other for problems, toward a less emotionally charged experience of problems as something that happens to both of them. He calls this "turning the problem into an it."
Turn the Problem Into an It: An Exercise to Try
Pick a time when you aren't already in heated debate. The best time would be when you have some positive feelings toward your partner, perhaps after you've enjoyed some relaxing time together.
Agree on the problem you’d like to focus on. If there's more than one problem, you can complete the exercise several different times on different occasions.
Take a piece of paper and write down the problem on paper. Both of you then take turns writing down your thoughts and feelings about the problem. Write whatever comes to mind. For example, “The fact that we've moved five times in seven years really sucks.” Or, “I hate the fact that this problem has come between us.” Use this opportunity to practice your listening and expressing skills. As you're going through this process, notice in particular what feelings you have in common.
Then, when you both feel ready, take the piece of paper and put it in an empty box. If there any other objects that symbolize the problem, you can add those to the box, too. Put the box on a shelf, in a closet, or some other place. The problem is "out there" now – in the box – not gnawing away at the love you share. Make a vow to each other that you won't allow this problem to come between you.
There's another part of this exercise that you can carry out later: plan specific times to bring the box back out to talk about the problem again. Brainstorm for ideas about ways to deal with the problem – not necessarily to solve it, but to find creative ways to cope with it. Limit these discussions to a set period of time, and then put the box back on the shelf.
Even though this exercise might seem a bit artificial, it can help you and your partner gain sufficient distance from a problem to lead you both to a new sense of perspective. And if this exercise leads to a bit of chuckling between yourselves, that can only help your situation.
Reference: The Marriage Clinic, John Gottman, 1994
*Please know that when I talk about "acceptance", I do not mean you should tolerate any abuse or other damaging behavior.
You might also like these posts: A Simple Way to Put The Spark Back in Your Relationship and 80+ Self-Care Ideas.
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, andNurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. My husband, Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.