Solve Your Relationship Problems Once and for All

Couples need to rethink how they view conflict.

Posted Sep 16, 2014

Does it seem like you have the same fights, over and over? You’re not alone.  Learning to rethink how you view conflict can help couples grow closer. Then, the next step is having the right strategies in place for dealing with your problems.

Here are three different ways of solving your relationship problems:

1. THE WAY OF COMPROMISE

You want spaghetti; I want steak. We agree that we’ll eat spaghetti tonight, steak tomorrow. In its simplest form, this is the way of compromise. When you and your partner have different needs, you must negotiate to find an acceptable solution. Sometimes the process can be simple and straightforward: you decide to take turns (spaghetti tonight, steak tomorrow); do both (eat steak and spaghetti tonight); or do neither (order Chinese takeout).

Often times, however, the situation is more complicated. Common areas in which couples must compromise involve negotiating household tasks, schedules, childcare, family activities, leisure activities, financial issues, and the list goes on. In these cases, you're better off applying a more sophisticated problem-solving strategy.

The steps of problem-solving include:

  • Define the problem.
  • Set your goals – what you want to have happen.
  • Brainstorm about possible solutions.
  • Agree on a solution to try.
  • Set a trial for implementing the solution.
  • Evaluate your results.

Here are some tips to make this type of problem solving work for your relationship:

Don't limit yourself with practicalities during the brainstorming phase. Worry about practical matters later. Simply let the ideas flow quickly and effortlessly. Don't judge any ideas your partner suggests.

Look for solutions that are mutually acceptable to both of you. Don't agree to a solution if you know deep down that you're not going to follow through. This sets you both up for failure.

Set a reasonable timeframe for trying out the solution you choose to implement. It shouldn't be too long, or it won't have the experimental flavor it's designed to have (does this work or doesn't it?). Likewise, the time shouldn't be too short – you need to try out a solution long enough to know if it'll work.

Don't forget to evaluate how things are going after the trial period. Fine-tuning is an inevitable an important part of the process.

2. THE HIGHER WAY

The second method of problem-solving is the "win-win" method that was made popular by best-selling author Stephen Covey. Covey writes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "Win/win is a belief in the third alternative. It's not your way or my way; it's a better way, a higher way."

How is this different from compromise? In seeking the higher way, you commit yourself to finding a solution that makes you and your partner happy, no matter how long it takes. This process requires a tremendous amount of cooperation and a high level of empathic listening. (To learn about this type of listening, read The Best Advice for Any Couple.)   

What does this look like? Meet Diane and Austin. They’d been in a band since they were married, seven years ago. When they began the band, it was mostly for fun. Now that they’d gained some popularity, it had turned into more of a business. Diane told Austin she wanted to drop out of the band. This took Austin completely off guard. He couldn't understand how she could do this to him, to their relationship. Music is what had brought them together. Diane found it hard to believe that Austin hadn't seen this coming. She said she’d been telling him she was upset about how things were going with the band for years.

After doing a lot of deep listening to each other, they realized they were both frustrated with the band for many reasons, but they had handled their frustrations in different ways. Austin had buddied up with the guys, which led Diane to feel left out. Diane had tried to be assertive about things that were bothering her, but when she felt she wasn't getting anywhere, she withdrew emotionally from the situation, eventually leading to her decision to quit the band.

During their talks, it became clear to both of them that they missed the pure pleasure their music had once brought them. Being in this band, trying to make extra money, had turned into a rat race. In the end, they decided to give the other band members notice that they were quitting, and they checked into becoming involved with their church choir and music program. They created a third alternative, a solution that met both their needs more fully than either of them could've imagined at the outset. 

3. THE ABIDING WAY

Sometimes, despite all the best efforts and intentions, there simply isn't a win-win solution, at least not one that can be discerned anytime in the near future. Covey allows for this, writing that if you can't generate a win-win solution, it's a "no-deal" situation." No deal basically means that if we can't find a solution that would benefit us both, we agree to disagree agreeably," he writes. Covey doesn't, however, go on to specify what people should do if they're in this type of situation.

One idea is what prominent couples therapist and researcher Neal Jacobson, Ph.D, calls "turning the problem into it". He notes that 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."

How do you know when to seek the abiding way?

 Here are some scenarios in which giving up on problem-solving per se is probably the best idea:

  • The conflict is highly emotionally charged.
  • You and your partner are polarized in your positions – at two different extremes of opinion.
  • 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.
  • You've tried to resolve the conflict several times before and your efforts have either gotten you no where, or actually made the problem worse.
  • Previous attempts 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 the path of acceptance and tolerance – the abiding way – is the best alternative.

The bottom line: Realize conflict is normal, and stay on the same team—don’t let problems come between you.

You might also enjoy these other posts about relationships:

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I am the co-author of Dying of EmbarrassmentPainfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy ChildDying 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 PeopleMy husband, Greg, and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.

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