5 Ways to Solve Any Relationship Problem

From The Relationship Problem Solver for Love, Marriage and Dating

Do you and your guy argue about where to go for dinner? Who left the cap off the toothpaste tube? Or is it something more serious like how to discipline your kids? No matter the problem, Dr. Kelly E. Johnson, author of The Relationship Problem Solver for Love, Marriage and Dating, can help you discover how to better communicate and come to a resolution. Read the following excerpt and discover five principles that will help you navigate your next argument -- and maybe even save your relationship.

Introduction: The Real Way to Solve a Relationship Problem

Here are several things that must happen for a relationship issue to be resolved:

Step 1 in solving a relationship conflict is always the commitment to stop yelling at and berating each other in the course of talking about the problem -- you must both agree to respect each other's opinions. Step 2 is actually identifying the issue and then telling your partner your specific complaint and how you feel. These two steps must be done first, or the process of negotiating some kind of compromise will be meaningless. When you're ready to move on to Step 3, there are several core principles that must be adhered to.

Principle #1: You and your partner should never keep a running tally of "wins" and "losses" in your negotiations.

Sadly this is one of the biggest mistakes that I see couples make. Believe me, most people won't admit this out loud, but they're keeping score internally, just waiting for the day they finally get to "win." When you hear your partner (or yourself) complain, "You always get your way. It's my turn now!" it's time to realize that score is being kept.

Why shouldn't you keep track of victories and losses so that over time things are evened up? It would only make sense to win an argument sometimes, and I'll grant you that your relationship should be an equal partnership. The problem with keeping score is that the win-loss record usually becomes the most important factor in resolving a dispute, rather than the need to figure out each issue on its own merit. A friend of mine once proudly told me that he'd gotten his way four times that week, compared to his wife getting her way only twice. He didn't care if he was right or wrong, just as long as he got in the last word and won the argument. Giving in for him meant that he was somehow "weak" and losing control. Although I thought he was completely insane (and I told him so), I tried to make him understand that this behavior would only serve to drive a wedge in his marriage and make his wife disgusted with his competitiveness.

Compromise is not a sign of personal weakness. It's really okay to let your partner come out on top sometimes. This can be an extremely hard thing to do, but challenge yourself to wipe the slate clean before you tackle a new relationship issue. If you're being hardheaded and are only interested in evening up the score, then you won't be able to see the problem clearly, and a very bad decision could be made that irreversibly harms your relationship.

Principle #2: The language you use toward your partner is critically important in determining the outcome of any problem.

Even though you may be right, you may not get your way if your method of communicating isn't effective. It will do you no good to put your partner on the defensive right away with accusatory language. When someone's being attacked, it's a natural defense mechanism for them to either fight back or retreat into a shell -- in either case, the problem won't be rationally solved.

Here are a few examples of language choices that will get you nowhere fast:

  • Using the words always and never. Saying something like, "You never help out around here!" will stop any reasonable discussion dead in its tracks. It sounds like you're exaggerating, and your partner will invariably be challenged to fight back in their defense. They'll probably respond with something like, "That's not true! Remember that time two weeks ago that I helped clean up the house and took the kids to school?" It turns into a "he said, she said" debate, and the real issue gets lost in the translation.

    So catch yourself when you use words that imply absolutes. Using the above examples, it would be better to start off by saying, "I'd like to talk to you about your share of the workload," and "I'd really like it if you put me first -- sometimes I feel second to your friends, relatives and co-workers."

  • Insults and name-calling. Some of us grew up believing that the more belligerent and loud we were, the more we'd command attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, this technique may intimidate and belittle your partner into compliance, but you'll also make them angry and resentful of your ways. They might not have the guts to tell you to your face, but they'll secretly feel that you're a jerk.

    Every time you or your partner call each other "stupid" or an "idiot" or an even nastier slur, a little bit of your relationship gets destroyed in the process. On top of that, your original problem will get lost in a barrage of obscenities, and nothing gets solved. So if you're being insulted, the right move is to say, as calmly as you can, "I can't continue to talk to you right now if you're going to use that language," and then offer to pick up the conversation later when your partner has calmed down. If they continue to aggressively come at you, then you need to question whether you'll be able to stay in a relationship with someone who's that emotionally and verbally abusive.

  • Saying "or else!" A lot of people I know love to tack this little threat at the end of a command -- for example, "You better do things my way, or else!" Apparently they feel as if their need will get met more quickly if there's a hint of some consequence. But the real question should be: "Or else what?" What will you really do if your partner ignores your request? How will you retaliate? The problem with this choice of words is that very few people respond favorably to a threat and will actually do the opposite just to show that they won't be coerced into a specific action. Your bluff may be called, and then what will you be prepared to do? If you back down, then your threat is meaningless.

    Instead, think through your response very carefully and tell your partner, "Here's what I'm going to do if you don't respond to me." It's certainly okay to provide a consequence if your partner fails to correct a problem in the relationship, but that consequence needs to be well defined.

    So how can you ensure that you'll actually get heard? There are better ways to communicate your desires, as shown by the following few examples that can apply to any relationship problem:

  • "I'd like it if we could take some time today to talk about something that's really important to me."

  • "I feel that this is a problem we can work on together."

  • "This is really difficult for me to bring up, but I just want to tell you how I feel about..."

  • "I just need you to listen and try to reserve judgment until I'm finished."

  • "I'm just asking you to hear what I'm saying -- we don't have to fix the problem right this second."

Principle #3: You'll have more success by focusing on one issue at a time.

One of my biggest challenges during couples therapy is to keep the two people from veering off into too many directions at once. It's nearly impossible to analyze more than one major issue at a time, which is why problem solving often fails miserably. Recently my wife and I started to discuss some money-management issues, and before we knew it, we ended the conversation by debating the amount of time we spend together. We caught our mistake and got back to the topic of money, but it did take some effort.

Make a commitment to actively focus on one thing at a time. I know it sounds difficult, but the payoff will be well worth the extra effort. Be aware, though, that your partner may try to derail the discussion by veering onto another topic if things start to get heated -- it's a sneaky little tactic to shift the conversation when things aren't going so well. So every time you catch your partner avoiding the topic at hand, say, "Let's continue to deal with ___ now and get to ___ [the other issue] later."

Principle #4: Set the right stage for discussion and negotiation of the problem.

There's a correct time and place to work on your problems. Let's deal with place first.

I can't tell you the exact room of your house that will work best for you, but a good rule of thumb is that it should be a location that's both quiet and comfortable -- maybe it's your kitchen table or your den? It just shouldn't be in public or at a friend's home. Major discussions deserve to be held in a consistent, appropriate location. Forgetting to set the scene is a crucial blunder made by a lot of couples, so put some thought into this.

The right time for the negotiation is just as important as place. I believe that there are three important considerations in this area:

First, you must (and I can't stress the word must enough) point out a problem the very first time it arises. You'll have more leverage if you don't allow something to snowball into a pattern of behavior. Many people finally put their foot down when their partner has made a major mistake for about the 32nd time, but by then it's simply too late. The reality is this: The longer you allow your partner to get away with unacceptable behavior, the harder it will be to have any power to get them to stop. If you hold your tongue and just hope that your partner will change on their own, don't complain that you never get what you need.

Second, make sure that you have enough time available to thoroughly discuss the problem. Some of my patients will bring up an extremely important issue right before our time is up for the session and then get angry when I say that we have to stop. The same principle applies to your relationship: If you and your partner begin to argue just as you're leaving for work or getting ready to go out, then the discussion will be nonproductive. Alternately, if you put off the issue too long, you run the risk that the problem will never be solved. So set aside an appropriate length of time for a face-to-face meeting (notice that a phone conversation is generally not intimate enough).

Third, when you and your partner have been sitting there for hours still hammering away without a compromise, it may be time to call it quits for the time being and readdress the problem again later. When you both get tired and start to go 'round and 'round, it's acceptable to say, "How about if we agree to disagree for now and pick up our discussion later when we're both fresh?"

Principle #5: Say "I'm sorry" if you act in a disrespectful or hurtful way toward your partner.

This one is short and sweet. You're not perfect -- once in a while you may unintentionally (or intentionally) hurt your partner's feelings. You may say mean-spirited things in the heat of the moment that you immediately regret -- so swallow your pride, apologize and ask for forgiveness. By the same token, you should also expect an "I'm sorry" from your partner if your feelings were hurt by disrespectful behavior.

I know there's a chance that you had parents who abused each other and became overwhelmed by relationship problems, and I'll bet that they rarely said they were sorry for their actions. So be different -- become truly free in your relationship by admitting that you were wrong. Really value your partner, and don't let your relationship have an unhappy ending.

You're now armed with some very important negotiating and compromising skills to use in any disagreement; and by utilizing these techniques, you'll have much greater success in solving difficult relationship problems.

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