The Key to Relationship Success? Focus on How, Not What

Problems are often not about the topic, but how it is handled.

Posted Feb 13, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

 eric johnson/Unsplash
Source: eric johnson/Unsplash

Pete and Marky had a big argument over the weekend. But both would say that they always have arguments—about sex, about money, about house chores. And they invariably always go the same way—Pete brings up a topic, Marky feels criticized, she shuts down, he gets angrier, Marky eventually stomps out the room with Pete yelling at her while she holes up in the bedroom. The next day they mumble apologies and move on till next time.

If I were seeing Pete and Marky together in therapy, I could anticipate what would unfold: Each would talk about what they were upset about regarding sex or money. They would be interrupting each other about the facts—who really said what. They would be pulling up incidents from the past as evidence for each to make their case. I would listen carefully and not ask for more information about sex or money, but instead ask: Why does this turn into an argument at all? 

I realize that there could be a lot of reasons why these issues are hot topics for both of them. But the bigger issue is more about how they approach problems and conversations about problems and whether or not they get solved. This is what I'm curious about.

Therapists often talk about the difference between content and process. Content is the topic, the facts. The waterfall is a waterfall, what we talked about on Tuesday. Process is about what unfolds, the how—the actual flowing of the waterfall, the way we both emotionally escalate, how our arguments always turn out the same way. This is about the bigger picture, the repetitive patterns, the emotional dynamic.

Successfully running your life is about managing process, about doing, about how, not what—how you run races rather than this particular race; how to solve problems, rather than this problem; how you manage your emotions, rather than these emotions right now. This is what is important, because the content in our lives always changes—in five years, Pete and Marky might be replacing the current topics of their arguments with kids and bedtime, and in 50 years, it might be retirement homes. What they need to create is a foundation of a healthy process that the ever-changing facts will ride upon.

Easier said than done, of course. How to get started:

Rein in your own emotions.

Pete and Marky are both in charge of their emotions. They often feel that it is the other person who triggers their reactions—and they probably do. But that's too bad, I'd say: You are still in charge of yourself.

So when those arguments begin to flare up, focus on you and your emotions rather than diving into the what—the content. As soon as you can tell that you are getting upset, it’s time to lower the temperature in you and in the room. Take some calming breaths, signal that you need to take a break and will come back, do what you need to do to not ramp up.

Track and fix feelings with feelings.

Learning to avoid getting lost in content is something that even novice therapists struggle with, but it is a skill that you can learn to master. It is about training yourself to track the emotions and the emotional temperature as it runs alongside the content. Watch the interaction between the customer in line ahead of you and the counter person—rather than focusing on what they are saying, track the emotional dynamic between them and see what you notice. When you are talking with a friend and she suddenly gets defensive or seems to withdraw, can you notice the shift? 

Your next challenge is to repair the process as quickly as possible without getting into the weeds of content. If your friend gets defensive or withdraws, it is the defensiveness, the withdrawal that is the new focus, the real problem in the room. Stop and talk about what just unfolded: You seem upset; did I hurt your feelings? Hmm … you’re quiet—are you upset? Focus on feelings, not facts. You’re getting the emotional problem on the table, you’ve done your job, see what happens next.

With practice, your ability to toggle between process and content, this ability to focus on process, will get easier; your ability to stop and repair will become quicker. Now you can move on to applying this to your partner, kids, parents, those important people in your life who are more likely to trigger you. Different people, same approach.

Solve the process problem.

You can think of repairing the process as conversational first-aid to get the conversation back on track. But if the underlying process in a relationship is faulty, you want to see it as a stand-alone problem to tackle and resolve. 

So if your mother calls you up every week but only rambles on about her, never asks you about you, and leaves you feeling depressed, have a conversation with your mother not about what she talked about last week but about the fact that the conversations seem one-sided. Similarly, if Pete and Marky are having essentially the same problem over and over, they need to have a conversation not about sex or money but about how to better manage their conversations. Here they may come up with some ground rules—no serious conversations after 9 p.m. when we are both tired or when we’ve been drinking or when either one of us is already stressed

Problems are part and parcel of life, of relationships, but learning to manage them is about learning to work the process. Ready to tackle it?