Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
When couples are discussing a problem in their relationship, a very common pitfall is to go for solutions too soon. It's common because it's natural to want to reduce the tension by trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. (This also happens for issues that are not couple issues. So many times I have heard one partner, usually the woman, complain that when they are venting about an issue at work or with a friend, the other keeps telling them what they should do about it, rather than just listening.) And men in particular are wired toward action and problem solving. So what's wrong with that? Why is it a pitfall?
Relationship problems are not like mechanical or technical problems; there are often complex emotions involved. If solutions are proposed too soon, they will likely fail, for two main reasons:
1. The partner bringing up the issue may not feel fully heard. He or she may feel patronized or that the other person just wants to get the conversation over with. As I emphasized in part 2, being heard is extremely important.
2. The issue has not been fully understood from both perspectives. If the husband brings up the issue of the wife working late, and the wife says, "Fine, I'll come home earlier," they have likely not solved the problem. They may be ignoring real pressures on the wife at her job, or her history of perfectionism, or the husband's feeling of being unappreciated. A solution that does not take these factors into account is not likely to succeed.
So, even though it can be anxiety-provoking to postpone the solution part of a discussion, it's important to do so until each side has been fully expressed and heard. The good news is that once you have done that part, it is much easier to resolve. In fact, sometimes just hearing and understanding each other's point of view is all that is needed. Once you understand the reasons for your partner's and your own behavior, it may cease to be a problem, because you may find that it was your interpretation of the behavior that was bothering you and not the behavior itself. For example, when I was staying home with our children I used to be offended when my husband would come home and immediately start straightening up the kitchen. I felt he was silently criticizing my failure to keep things neat, when clearly he had no idea what a challenge it was with two small children around. After we discussed it, I learned that he felt guilty about being away all day and was simply trying to contribute to the housework. From then on, I didn't mind his straightening one bit.
In the cases where change is still needed in addition to understanding, it is usually much easier once you have that understanding. Sometimes the solutions are obvious. You will be much likelier to come up with something that takes both partner's perpectives into account. And, when changes don't happen instantly or perfectly, you will likely be much more forgiving.
If solutions are not obvious at this point, here are some ways to move toward resolution:
Say what you want. Example: "When your mother is here, I'd really like you to back me up if she criticizes my parenting." The other partner should repeat back what they heard, and say whether they are willing to try to make the change.
Say what you're willing to do to help support the change. Example: "I will try extra hard to tell you how much I appreciate it when you do back me up. Also, I will let you know when it happens if you miss it."
Do not agree to a change that you will resent or are not motivated to make. If this is the case, further exploration may be needed.
Revisit the issue soon. Ask how your partner is feeling about the issue and anything they have been trying to do differently. Be sure to show appreciation for efforts to change or efforts to be more accepting.
Recognize that some changes will take time and some may not be possible. For example, one husband asked his wife to read the newspaper more often so that they could discuss current events. She tried to comply but he wasn't really satisfied. Eventually, it became clear that what he really wanted was for her to be more intellectually curious, which was not something she was able to change about herself. Sometimes you need to work on acceptance of the other's limitations while appreciating their strengths.
If you follow all or even some of these guidelines, you and your partner should become more successful at "fighting." That is, you will identify issues, hear each other out, and make progress toward a solution. It may not even look or sound like a fight at all!