The Secret to Solving Your Relationship Problems

Focus on process not content

Posted May 28, 2019

If you want a healthier relationship place more attention on process rather than content. So many couples get bogged down by the “specific issue” they are arguing about (e.g., money, sex, in-laws, children) or content. In contrast, the process is the “way” a couple argues or the interactional dynamic that serves as the vehicle for their content. Some therapists refer to this dynamic as a couple’s style.

A couple may repeatedly argue about the same issues or add new ones as they see fit, but their process tends to remain the same. To the untrained eye it appears content is the main culprit and if successfully negotiated can alleviate relationship turmoil. This may be true in some instances, but for the most part a faulty process will prohibit the elimination of a couple’s problematic content.   

Most couples who seek treatment do so because they have a faulty process. For example, I have seen couples who can turn a relatively frivolous issue such as how high to keep the heat on in the winter or how low to pull the living room shades down on a sunny day (content), into a serious altercation. But there are exceptions: Couples experiencing chronic stress over something (content) may attempt to displace their stress by consistently “jabbing” each other. Other couples pick at each other because they want out of a relationship (content) and do so as a prelude to this end.     

Couples with more than one content issue may feel overwhelmed; they oftentimes present for therapy with a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. Even some therapists—especially the less experienced—may deem the couple too chaotic or dysfunctional to help. One colleague confessed: “I feel bombarded when a couple presents with a myriad of symptoms.” Ironically, on those rare occasions when a couple does present with a legitimate content issue, it tends to be threatening to their relationship. For example, if a couple disagree on how many children to have, or where to live, compromise may be insurmountable. These are issues that should have been negotiated prior to forming the relationship, broken promises notwithstanding. But most content issues can be negotiated if a couple have a strong, functional process.  

The origin of your process is usually deeply rooted in your family background or family of origin. We tend to replicate the process we grew up with even if it failed in our youth. Why? Because it is the way we learned how to problem solve. For example, if you were raised in a family that never seemed to solve problems—perhaps all they did was argue—you may have inherited this type of process and go to it in real time. If you witnessed a parent stuck in an abusive or unhappy relationship, you may replicate this dynamic. Or, if you experienced parents conflicted about their choices in life you may find it hard to commit to a path forward. Examples of damaged processes are endless. Content may also be transmitted from the past such as arguing about money, and this should be considered. The point is not to totally disregard content but to pay special attention to process. Couples recognize content; they are rarely cognizant of process. It should be noted that process oftentimes disguises an underlying problem, but this concept is beyond the scope of this article.

Identifying your process is not as hard as you may think, but it can be tricky. The first step is to pay close attention to the “way” you and your partner interact as opposed to focusing primarily on “what” it is you are fighting about. Does your partner always yell when making a point? This may be a previously learned bullying tactic. Does your partner often threaten to abandon you? Perhaps this was a modus operandi in his/her family of origin. Does your partner have a habit of hiding things from you? Maybe hiding was a way to survive a dangerous childhood environment. Does your partner demonstrate a need to be in control? Perhaps there was too little or too much control growing up.

Once you identify your process you and your partner must keep it in the forefront of your minds, especially during times of relational stress. It is the first thing to consider when an argument is ensuing. If each of you can agree on the process, then you can join with empathy to address the content rather than continue a fruitless blame game. You will both have to admit that to continue the struggle over content or to maintain the same dysfunctional process will lead to nowhere positive. It is truly a waste of energy.    

A final thought: we tend to unconsciously replicate the process by choosing someone with a similar process or at least one that fits our own. We may do the same with content but again that should be relatively recognizable. We unconsciously match up with a similar process to keep the dynamic alive. Perhaps we do so to one day defeat it; change it; allow it to continue to torture us; or to use it as a hammer against others we may see as responsible for exacerbating it. The latter is a particularly useless endeavor because we cannot collect on a debt owed to us by someone from our past by demanding that it be paid by someone in our present. As Nietzsche wrote: “Whoever lives for the sake of combating an enemy has an interest in the enemy’s staying alive.”