In my work with couples (and depending on the day) I'm a bit taken aback that these 2 intelligent people can’t work through whatever problem they are coming in with on their own. What we then talk about is where they get stuck. Sometimes it about skills—not knowing really what to do—but more often it is because something pulls a potentially sane conversation into an emotional ditch.
What throws me off is that most of these folks are able to work out problems all the time in other relationships in their lives—talk to their supervisor about the schedule without ranting, approach a fellow employee about that damn annoying squeaky chair or the off-handed comment that hurt their feelings without going ballistic. They can do it, be assertive, be rational. Yes I know that communication, particularly with partners and those close to you, can get complicated. All those at- home emotional triggers kick in, wounds from the past, the frustration of not feeling listened to and being discounted can push buttons. But….
I’d like to propose a common sense approach to dealing with relationship problems, a map for keeping it simple. Here goes:
1. Decide what is bothering you. Yes, you may have 30 things that bother you, but the goal here is not go for the make-over but tackling more manageable chunks (and hopefully changing how you solve problems overall)—keep it at no more than 3 concrete ones at one sitting.
2. Communicate what you want and need. Again be specific. I statements: This bothers me… Please do this…” The key here is keeping it concrete—not that “You are a slop” but “It bothers when I see your jacket laying on the floor when I come home. Could you hang it up in the closet?”
3. See what happens next. "I can do it." Done. Or no, the other person gets angry—his own issues—“But you never do…” Okay deep breath. Listen to the other’s complaint. Is there something they don't understand -- "Why is this such a big deal?" Explain why this is big deal to you. Is there something they want from you that would make this easier to do? “Ok but don’t snap at me as soon as I walk through the door;" or "I will but I want you to not leave your clothes on the floor too.” Acknowledge what they want, stay away from defensiveness, and agree to do it .
Again think work—"Yes I’ll consider your schedule request," says your supervisor, "but I need you to get your requests to me at the beginning of the week." Got it. Stick to solving the specific problem—not getting into a power struggle or stirring up the past. Move forward.
4. Make the deal. I'll do this, you do that. The tone and underlying emotion, hopefully, is that you both care about each other and want the other to be happy—I’m willing to change because I care about you. I’m willing to listen and compromise because this is about both of us, not just about me. (If that is not there, if you are both in your emotional bunkers, this is what you need to talk about, not jackets on the floor.) This shouldn't feel like US / Iran negotiations.
5. Be the best person you can be. Follow through with your end of the bargain. Focus on doing your part. Don’t get derailed by little emotional things that can easily derail you—your stories of unfair, or that it won’t work—focus instead on keeping your emotions out the picture as much as possible. Do it for a week.
At the end of the week together re-evaluate. Thank your partner for the change and effort.
Simple? Yes. Hard to do? Yes. This is ultimately not about the problem, but the way as individuals and as a couple you can solve relationship problems without the resentment, drama, emotions. The key here is to be rational, be adult.
You are halfway there, undoubtedly already doing this in other areas of your life.
It's just time to bring it home.