Relationship Rule #2: Don't Confuse Ends & Means

Know the problem you're trying to fix before you try and fix it

Posted Sep 28, 2013

Sara has volunteered to help out with yet another church committee and her husband Tom is upset. “She just needs to learn how to say no,” says Tom, and he has brought this up to Sara numerous times to no avail. Why does this bother him so much? Because he worries about Sara tiring herself out, but the real the bottom line is that this yet another weeknight that Sara will be out and Tom resents that their not having more time as a couple.

Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that this part of the conversation will never clearly come out because Tom is ranting mostly about the church committee, or not clearly heard by Sara because she is just feeling criticized, scolded or micromanaged. For another couple, one partner may be pushing the other to have the kids do homework before dinner, say, or track their daily expenses during the week and such campaigns usually fail. Sara ignores Tom or snaps that she wants him to leave her alone. It all easily falls into a power struggle where it is less about the topic and who is running the show. Everyone gets defensive or frustrated, old childhood buttons can get pushed, and conversations can rapidly deteriorate. 

Tom’s got a problem and he’s trying to dictate to Sara how she should solve it for him. He’s confusing means and ends. Instead of focusing on what he thinks she should be doing, he needs to focus 1) on what is bothering him – taking responsibility and clarifying his problem and 2) helping Sara understand what he ultimately needs – more opportunities to be together. Rather than pressing Sara to say to no to church – the means – Tom needs to talk instead about the end – “Sara, I miss not having more time to be together with you and would like us to find a way to do that.” Similarly the homework myopic parent may say, “I’m worried that the kids are having a hard going to sleep because they are working on homework right up till bedtime. I think it would be good to have the kids to have time to relax in before bedtime. What do you think?” or the number cruncher may say, “I’m really worried that we are overspending because we really don’t have a way of tracking our monthly cash flow.”

These types of statement let the other person know what our big concern is – the It we want help fixing – and keeps the conversation from getting lost in the weeds of means, cuts away the tension of power. It’s up to Sara now to sort out how she feels about Tom’s request and find a way to accommodate it, which may or may not drop the church committee, may or may not decide that she overall needs to be more assertive.

Similarly, if downtime before bed makes sense, the kids may ultimately wind up doing homework before and after dinner or some other weird combination, as long as there is a clear fix on the ultimate goal. If there’s a consensus that money indeed does seem like a moving target, the couple may decide to construct a new weekly budget or enter expenses on Quicken for a sample week in a month instead of tracking expenses daily. And if Sara isn’t interested in accommodating Tom, Tom should resist reviving his harangue about her being assertive. There’s a new problem in the room, namely, how they both think of couple time differently. 

Don't make means the new problem.