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Solving Your Relationship Problems

Love woes? Here are two simple first steps to improve your relationship.

January 18th, 2012

In every relationship, good or bad, couples run into problems that feel like impasses. Learning to push through those stuck points is key for any successful relationship, so in this and my next column, I’d like to help you navigate those rough waters. 

In a prior column I reported on a study demonstrating that 30 percent of married couples report experiencing clinically significant problems in their relationship.  By “clinically significant” I mean that the relationship problems interrupt their daily lives, haunt them when they try to go to sleep, and, in general, suck in every possible way.

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Solving Your Relationship Problems: A Flowchart Approach

Many of us also experience relationship problems that are not clinically significant but still cause quite a lot of pain. These situations can seem intractable and perhaps the worst part of it all is that we often don’t know how we can go about making things better.

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That’s where I come in.  

I am not suggesting you try to solve your problems forever. Even the most successful and happy couples must negotiate lasting difficulties and problems on an ongoing basis. Many even continue to struggle with the same core problems for the entire duration of their relationship.

Instead, I like to think about moving from “intolerable” to “tolerable” difficulties. From an “I just can’t live with this anymore” situation to a “good enough” relationship, one in which you feel happy and satisfied more often than you feel frustrated and down.

Remember: Tolerable does not mean problem free. In fact, good love relationships can have quite a number of problems.

Even the best couples will move into the intolerable range from time to time. However, high quality, lasting relationships should provide us with emotional sustenance; they should be energizing not draining; and, they should be filled with physical affection and satisfying emotional exchanges and support on a day-to-day basis.

To find out where you fall on that spectrum, I encourage you to ask yourself two questions, which I’ll discuss in this column. In my next column, I’ll move into the actual steps you can take for trying to solve your relationship problems.

The first question: Are you experiencing an intolerable problem?

This can be any number of problems—from one big problem (e.g., my husband cheated on me, now what?) to an ongoing pattern (e.g., my wife never makes time for us to do things together). What matters most here is that you can no longer tolerate the problem.

If your answer to the first question is “Yes,” you must first articulate the problem to yourself.

Identify: What is the problem? Why does it happen? When does it happen? Who’s around or not around when the problem occurs? Some of the answers will be very complex. For example, if your partner cheated on you, that’s not really the problem. The root problem that needs to be addressed is what caused him or her to cheat in the first place.

When you’re thinking about the problem and trying to articulate it to yourself, be as specific as possible.

Rather than a blanket statement like, “My husband is lazy,” identify a specific complaint like, “My husband doesn’t spend enough time engaged with our family. On Sundays, his main day off, he prefers to be on the couch watching football than doing something with us. When he does something with us, he’s always preoccupied with his Crackberry. He doesn’t seem very engaged or like he even enjoys spending time with us.” If you can be as clear as possible about the problem to yourself, it will be easier to express the problem to your partner when the time comes. 

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The next question: Is the problem solvable?

Problems that feel unsolvable—and some problems truly are unsolvable—can manifest in at least two ways.

First, you may have a gut feeling that this will never work out. You need to give that feeling some air time. Why do you feel that way? Can you articulate the problem in any detail (see above)? If your gut is telling you it will never work, you’re fighting an upstream battle.

Second, perhaps you’ve already tried to solve the problem; in fact, you’ve been trying for years and it never seems to get any better. You would benefit from seeking outside help (like a couple therapist) to make sure that the methods you’ve been trying are productive ways to solve the problem.

Of course, sometimes problems that feel unsolvable are in fact solvable.

First, it is important to recognize that relationship problems don’t exist in a vacuum.

When I have problems at work, it’s no secret that my wife finds me super annoying and we get into a lot more fights. These situations can be downright intolerable as far as my wife is concerned. However, these problems don’t snowball or escalate into something more because my wife views the problems as stemming from the difficulties I am facing at work. She allows time for them to pass and will explain to me—sometimes quite angrily—about the ways I am being annoying.

My point here is that when you ask yourself if you’re dealing with a solvable relationship problem, it’s also good to look at the context in which the problems occur. As the context changes, will the problems change too?

Clear communication and perspective about why the problem occurs are both essential to finding a solution.

Consider the cheating example. Perhaps you reason that you played a role in your partner’s cheating; you guys have grown apart emotionally and your partner was looking for an emotional connection with someone. This is not an excuse, of course, but when we look at a problem this way it sounds much more solvable. With that perspective, you can be collaborators in trying to solve the problem.

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That requires clear, respectful communication. Ask yourself: Can you talk with your husband or wife without the conversation ending in a fight? If not (maybe your husband is contemptuous and rolls his eyes when you talk, or maybe you feel so upset that you start criticizing who he is rather than what he’s done), then improving your communication skills is a necessary first step.

Without those skills—communication and perspective—otherwise solvable problems can spiral into unsolvable ones.

In my next column I’ll discuss how to talk with your partner about your concerns and how to determine if doing so makes a real difference in the quality of your relationships.

For now, you can start by thinking about whether you have an intolerable problem. If so, what is it? Be as specific as possible, then think about the root causes of the problem and the communication strategies you’ve each been using so far. If you do this much, you’ll be prepared to take action, and we’ll address how to do so next month.

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