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The Art of Solving Relationship Problems

A six-step process for putting problems to rest.

Kate was annoyed at the amount of money Tom spent on new fishing equipment. She offhandedly mentioned it to him once, decided to drop it, but then spent the weekend snapping at him about all sorts of little things. Tom knew what was upsetting Kate, but rather than saying anything, decided to keep quiet and ride it out.

Sara and Matt are always fighting about the kids. Sara thinks Matt is too easy on them, while Matt thinks Sara acts like a drill sergeant, unable to ever cut them any slack. The kids feel caught in the middle and play one parent against the other.

Problems are bound to arise in any relationship, and each couple finds its own way of handling them. Kate, for example, gets upset about what Tom is doing, but has trouble being direct and clear about what is bothering her. And Tom has learned over the years that if he lays low, he can wait for it to blow over. Because Sara and Matt are unable to get on the same page with parenting, they become polarized, with each overcompensating for the actions of the other, and using their children as a battleground for their own struggles.

Unfortunately, their children are ultimately the losers in their struggle. Other couples are even less open and say they never argue. Instead they silently agree to avoid confrontation and push their problems underground, creating anxiety and stifling intimacy.

Unsettled problems are a major source of stress, stress that can not only undermine your relationship, but your diabetes management as well. Research has shown that successful relationships are not those that necessarily have fewer problems, but those that have found effective means of solving the problems that come up.

Here is a six-step process for tackling and solving those problems in your relationships.

Step 1: Define your problem and solution. Sure, you know you're upset, but what exactly are you upset about? Kate might be mad about the new fishing gear, but is it about spending the money, the fact that Tom didn't talk to her about it ahead of time, or that perhaps it's another reminder that he spends almost every weekend with his friends fishing and that they don't do things together as a couple? Sara realizes that she is upset with Matt always undermining her, but is more worried about the fact that the kids are confused and playing them against each other.

Take time to clearly define what bothers you the most. Figure out how you feel and why. Anger is a common reaction, but try and go one further step and ask yourself what is it that worries you or hurts your feelings. Many psychologists consider anger a reaction to other emotions lying beneath.

Sure, Kate feels angry, but actually she feels hurt that Tom doesn't seem to want to spend more time with her. Sara gets annoyed, her annoyance is masking her worry that the kids are becoming manipulative. To be able to talk about these underlying emotions, rather than your anger, gets to the core of your true feelings, and is easier for the other person to hear and understand.

But problem-solving is more than just an airing of complaints. Next, you need to be clear about what you would like to be different in positive, concrete and specific terms. Suppose Kate realizes that what she really wants is for her and Tom to do more as a couple. Rather than complaining and saying to him that he is spending too much time fishing, or merely saying that she wants to do more with him, she could say instead that she would like him to have more time to do things with him as a couple and wonder whether he would be willing to leave two Saturdays a month for them to do things together. Sara might say that she is afraid that the kids seem confused about what is expected of them, and would like Matt to map out with her a chore list for the kids that they can both agree upon.

Step 2: Plan a time to talk. OK, you've done your prep and are clear on the problem and your solution. Now pick a good time to talk - not when your partner just walks in the door after work, not after you've both have had a couple of cocktails on a Friday night and are tired, not 10-minutes before you have to pick your daughter from soccer—but a time when you both are likely to be calm, relaxed and able to listen. If you are not sure, send your partner an email or write a note suggesting a time and giving a preview of your discussion. ("Matt, I'm worried about how we are handling the kids. Could we sit down on Saturday morning before the kids get up and talk about this?") This gives your partner a heads-up about your concerns and schedules a time that will work for both of you.

Step 3: Talking and listening. OK, take a deep breath. Start by talking about your view of the problem, your worry, your solution—"Tom, I know I seemed upset but the new fishing equipment but I realized that what was bothering me about it was...;" or, "Matt, I'm worried about the kids and think it's important that we both be on the same page." Talk about you, not your partner. Use "I" statements ("I feel like I'm always walking on eggshells when I'm around you," or, "I think that it would be wonderful if you could do more together,") rather than "you" statements ("You never say anything positive, you always seem angry.") Talking about yourself helps keep your partner from feeling attacked or blamed, and getting defensive and angry in return.

Managing a conversation is a bit like driving a car. You want to keep in mind where you are going and stay on the road. You steer the conversation, just as you do when driving, by making subtle adjustments as you go along. If Kate sees that Tom is getting upset she can stop and check it out—"Tom, you're looking upset. Did I just hurt your feelings?"—rather than ignoring his reactions, plowing ahead, and leading them both into an emotional ditch. Do your best to sound calm.

Strong emotions stir defensiveness in the other, and undermine the problem-solving process. If your partner does start to get angry or defensive—"What about you ... Last week you did ..."—get quiet. While you're probably tempted to defend yourself, doing so at this point is like throwing gasoline on fire. Your goal is to put out the emotional fire in the room and you do that by simply listening. If you don't fuel the fire with more words, your partner will eventually calm down.

If, however, it seems that both of you are getting worked up, that emotions are getting too high, if the conversation is beginning to feel like a power struggle with one of you needing to win or get the last word, it's important to stop before the situation gets out of hand. The best way to do this is by saying as calmly as you can that you want to take a break and cool off and that you'd like to try again in a half-hour, an hour, or after dinner.

Be clear it is a time-out and that you want to talk again. Don't just say, I don't want to talk about this anymore, and walk out of the room. This kind of cut-off will only make the other more anxious and angry and escalate the process. When you are both calm, try again. If the conversation quickly heats up again, stop and take another break until both of you are absolutely calm. Control the temperature of the conversation.

If things have gone well and your partner is able to listen to what you have to say, ask for their reactions. Tom may say that he understands how Kate feels and wants to do more as a couple, but quite honestly, he says, he wants to do something more active than the car trips or the going to the movies that they've done in the past. Matt may think that a chore list a good idea, but he is particularly frustrated by the kid's inconsistent bedtimes.

The goal is to hear each other out. Don't worry about over-talking if the talking is sincere and productive. Resist the "Yes, but" response, and instead focus on "Yes, and"—accepting and building on each other's ideas. See each other as on the same team, working together for the relationship. Make sure you understand exactly what the other is saying—"Tom, what exactly would you rather do together?" or, "Matt, what time would you like the kids to go to bed?" Keep it clear, keep it concrete, keep it calm.

Step 4: Decide on a plan. If you are both in agreement about the problem, it's time to agree on a plan of action. Again make it as specific as possible and time-limited, and try to address each of your worries and preferences. Tom agrees to not go fishing next Saturday; Kate agrees to try out Tom's idea of going hiking on a new trail. Sara and Matt agree to map out a short list of chores and bedtimes for each of the kids. They will talk together with the kids next Saturday morning, then try it for a week. Write down the plan just so it is clear to both of you.

A "let's try it" attitude is better than obsessing over the ultimate solution. The willingness to work together is more important than the decisive plan. If at any point in the planning, you feel like your partner is going along with and passively agreeing, check it out—"Are you really OK with this? I can't tell how you're feeling." Don't march ahead until you know the other is on board.

Step 5: Evaluate. Try out your plan and evaluate. Did Tom and Kate both enjoy the hike on Saturday? Were Sara and Matt able to back each other during the week when the kids started to complain about the chores? The evaluation is about honesty and fine-tuning. Kate and Tom did like the hike, but Tom really missed seeing his buddies on Saturday and would rather do it again on a Sunday. The new chores and bedtimes seemed to work OK, but Sara and Matt decide to continue for another week to see how well the kids settle into the routines, and then discuss it again. Again, keep changes clear and concrete.

Finally, try and give each other feedback about the talking process itself: It helped me to have us write out the plan; what did you think? Did you feel like I was giving you a hard time when we first started talking? Again you are both learning a skill. Knowing what worked and what didn't will make your future efforts at problem-solving more effective and comfortable.

Step 6: Say what you like. Researchers have found that if you want to create a positive and supportive environment for your relationships you need to give each other four times more positive comments than negative ones. What this means is that you can never give each other enough compliments and support: Thanks for talking, I appreciate your trying this out, I'm glad we are doing this together. This support helps you from slipping back into old patterns and encourages you to keep up the new ones.

When you first started learning to drive, you probably felt overwhelmed and awkward and went all over the road at first. Learning to steer your conversations will at first feel much the same. Don't get discouraged. With practice, you will get better.

And if, in spite of your best efforts, your conversations get too explosive, if you need help figuring out exactly what it is that is bothering you, or if you feel overwhelmed by the number of problems you're worried about, consider seeking professional help. A couples or individual counselor can provide a safe environment for sorting out problems and discussing difficult topics, and can coach you on specific things to try at home. Your mental health association, your physician, the yellow pages, and online searches can lead you to qualified professionals in your area.

Keep in mind that you really can't make a mistake. If a conversation goes off course, circle back and try it again. Your goal is not to do it right but to do it differently—to plow new emotional ground, to speak as honestly as you can, to be open to compromise. With patience and persistence and pats on your own back, you'll be able to put your relationship problems to rest.

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