Battling? Make the Problem the Enemy, Not Each Other

When you're both deadlocked over a problem, it’s time to change your focus.

Posted Oct 17, 2020

charles lamb/Unsplash
Source: charles lamb/Unsplash

Andrew and Cam are having one of their all-too-familiar arguments. While the specific facts, triggers, and topics varywho said/did something about xthe underlying running theme is about who is not stepping up, who is doing too much, who is not being sensitive, who is not feeling supported.

They are both feeling the same way—both feeling miserable, unappreciated, overwhelmed, both feeling that the other guy isn’t stepping up or is always overreacting. And both will admit that they are both stressed to the max—about jobs, about kids, about everyday life.

Unfortunately, this is common. When both partners are feeling overwhelmed with life for whatever reason, they not only get tunnel vision—super-focused on all that is coming at them—but also each retreat into their own emotional bunkers. It’s every man/woman for themselves. There are too little support and positives to go around. And so they hunker down and get into those battles over who has it worse. Any sense of teamwork, covering each other’s back is out the window.

This can go downhill fast with each feeling more and more resentful, that the other guy doesn’t understand, more and more seeing him or her as the enemy. Once this happens communication breaks down, both are spending their time lobbing grenades at each other rather than solving the problem.

The enemy here is not each other but the common problem they are both facing. For Andrew and Cam, it's about the stress that they each are feeling, but for other couples, it may be about parenting or sex or money, or their struggle to successfully communicate about parenting, sex, or money. To move forward, they both need to shift their focus and perspective and see the problem as the enemy rather than each other.

Easier said than done. How to do it:

Step back

Get out of the tunnel vision of who said what, the my-way-or-the-highway mentality. Instead, emotionally step back and ask yourself simple questions like, Why are we struggling? What are the problems we both are facing? What do we each need? How can we get back to working together as a team?

Assume good intentions

Once you have that tunnel vision it’s easy to interpret whatever the other person does as negative, as more of the same. Instead try adopting a different lens, a different attitude that is positive—that the other guy, like you, is struggling; that it’s not personal, that you both are actually doing the best you can; that actually sometimes their intentions come from caring not criticism.

Focus on the problems you are both struggling with

Skip the accusations and grandstanding about who is worse off, but instead focus on what is it out there that we are both looking at. For Andrew and Cam, it’s about stress they both feel. This is their enemy that they both need to fight, rather than each other. 

Together create a plan to attack the enemy

Now you want to work together as a team and focus on creating a plan to fix the problem. This is the difficult part because you need to step out of your mental bunkers and have a sane, adult, problem-solving conversation. You have to stop focusing on the tit-for-tat, need to avoid getting in the weeds of the details of the past, and instead move forward. We are both stressed, say, Cam and Andrew. How can we help each other feel better?

Move towards common ground, win-win compromises that skip whose reality is right. Make it concrete—we each will do x for the next week. Adopt an attitude that I have your back, I want to help you feel better, rather than clinging to that every-man-for-himself mentality.

Get back on track. Do it.