Problem-Solving: The Work of Satisfying Relationships

Smiley_svgUnresolved problems and conflicts in your relationship contribute to stress and tension, which leads to relationship dissatisfaction. Ask yourself, “Is it okay in my partnership to identify, have, and talk about problems?” All people have problems to work through. To create healthy communication we must not deny problems as a way of dealing with them and we must be able to discuss them. When we deny our problems we can become depressed, overeat, drink, and otherwise act-out compulsively. In contrast, addressing problems as they occur contributes to feeling connected to our loved ones, which leads to lower levels of stress, spontaneous expressions of affection, and improved mood.  Keep in mind that the best time to resolve a conflict may not be immediately. It is not unusual for one or both partners to need some time to cool off.

Problems are part of life and the work of long-term relationships.  So are solutions. We may spend more time in the drama of a problem than solving it. We end up missing the point, the lesson, and the gift.  Successful partnerships involve a willingness to listen to and be influenced by the needs and opinions of one another.  It’s necessary to talk about and solve our problems if we want a decent manageable life together.  Starting a discussion with criticism or blame is a common way two people escalate to hurting each other.

During conflict a means of monitoring anger is to notice when your voice rises, this is a warning signal that you are getting closer to blaming or having an outburst. When you lash out you become the “problem” and the drama continues.  You step into the role of the persecutor, your partner becomes a victim to your ranting, and eventually someone will take the rescuer role to make things better.  The problem often does not get addressed.  Eventually intimacy and your sex life are ruined with this ongoing pattern of relating.  Problem-solving skills can be developed and used to cope with relationship disputes and can also be helpful in other areas of your life.

Problem-solving techniques are effective when applied to problems of conflict directly or to problems that might contribute to disagreements (e.g. work conditions, financial concerns, health problems, etc.). Good problem-solving is closely related to changing your thinking; it’s changing your belief that problems are overwhelming and impossible into a belief that they can be addressed successfully. You and your partner need to attack the problem and not each other.  Start discussions with a positive meaningful comment about your partner’s strengths before sharing the issue(s). End your communication with a positive statement about how you will do your part to making the connection stronger.  Be willing to discover and correct blind spots about your behavior.  Resolving problems requires clearly defining the issue to overcome obstacles and find solutions.

Example: Poorly defined problem:

“I’m unhappy and depressed in my relationship.”

Example: Well-defined problem:

“I feel unhappy with my relationship for most of the day, every day because my partner is not affectionate. When I’m unhappy, it’s hard for me to interact with my partner and I end up sitting by myself watching TV for hours or I call a friend to discuss the state of my unhappiness. This makes me feel unloved, lonely and frustrated. My friends are irritated with me for my constant complaining, and my partner is angry at me for my emotional distancing and isolation.”

Resolve your frustration by clearly stating what you need from the other person.  Describe your request in clear terms. For example, you might say, “I would like you to hold my hand more often” rather than, “I wish you were more caring.”  Wait for a response. Be a good listener and don’t interrupt, focus on what is being expressed and check out what you heard your partner say.  Edit unnecessary negative comments.

Next, how do you want to change? Set realistic, specific, concrete goals.

Example: 1) I would like critical thoughts about my partner to be less often and 2) less frequent 3) I would like to be able to spend time with my partner and share affection 4) I would like to communicate to my partner about what is making me angry.

Now for the fun part of solving problems, this is a time to loosen up thinking and to generate as many solutions as possible, even if they seem dumb or impractical.

Example:

1) Stop talking about my anger to friends and start talking to my partner.

2) Talk to my doctor about my depression and/or couples counseling.

3) Ask my friends to talk to me and urge me to think positively.

4) Practice taking deep breaths when I start to have critical thoughts.

5) Exercise when depressive and critical thoughts start.

6) Go on a weekend getaway to relax and connect with my partner.

7) Give to my partner what I need from him or her (e.g., affection, patience, acceptance, etc.).

Now go for the solution. Try out the top 2 or 3 solutions. Give 110% effort – it will only work if you really want to change.  Expect to be challenged, as it often takes some persistence before a problem is fully solved, but give yourself kudos for the effort.

Example: I will plan to talk about my feelings regularly, I will practice deep breathing when I start thinking critically, and I will show appreciation to my partner.

Solving problems involves accountability for one’s actions and giving up the role of a victim.  The feeling of anger is normal and healthy in long-term relationships.  When anger is appropriately expressed it draws people closer to each other, increasing satisfaction.  Anger is always a secondary emotion to the feelings of hurt and/or fear.  Expressing anger aggressively is temporary relief from shame and feelings of powerlessness.  Everyone feels trapped from aggressive communication.  Aggression is fueled by rage not anger.  If aggression is a problem outside intervention will be necessary. Co-creating a satisfying relationship involves understanding each other’s perspective, not taking another’s communication as a personal attack, and sympathizing with feelings, especially when there is conflict.

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Thank you for reading this post. I’ve dedicated my personal and professional life to the importance of non-violence and self-compassion by teaching from my experience.  As a result, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create healthy relationships.  And, as I learn and grow, I teach self-compassion and give advice I use myself, in the hopes that it helps you to improve your own life.

 Roberta

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2 thoughts on “Problem-Solving: The Work of Satisfying Relationships

  1. Hi there! I have an amazing, healthy and loving relationship with a man who endured 20 years of psychological, emotional and physical abuse by his ex-wife and the mother of his three children. He finally shut her out of his life about three years prior to meeting me and has pretty much raised the kids on his own since that time. I can not tell you how much I honor and adore this man. In regard to his past, I find his perseverance in finding his way out to protect himself and to be a good father quite a testament to his character. He wasn’t damaged when I found him, he just has more bad memories of the past than most. He ensures me that I am his dream girl and he loves me like he’s just discovering it.

    But naturally, his past scares and intrigues me, as I have never been a victim of abuse. I find myself wanting to understand why he endured all of this pain and falsely concluding that whatever desperation he had to be loved by her must exceed the love he feels for me! I ran across this site in curiosity as sometimes I feel pain in what I don’t understand and wonder if an insider’s perspective might put my mind (and heart) at ease. I would greatly appreciate any (and only) positive feedback!

    • Gardener,
      Thank you for writing to me. If your partner is emotionally available and has worked and continues to work on the issues that kept him in an unfulfilling marriage for 20 years you can develop a decent relationship. Can you be yourself and openly discuss your relationship needs? I don’t know how long the two of you have been together. Watch his actions to see his character. Does he acknowledge how he was a problem in his marriage? If everything was his ex-wife’s fault chances are eventually everything will be your fault. Looking for problems if there aren’t any is self-defeating and destructive to a loving connection. When a person resolves a history of abuse without taking a victim mentality they are usually resilient and kind lovers. The secret to happy long-term relationships is one’s capacity to forgive. Do you both have a capacity to forgive? Were both of you happy before you met? Happiness is always an inside job. Fortunately we don’t have to be perfect to have a satisfying relationship. I am wishing you the best.
      Roberta

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