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The Secret to Solving Relationship Problems

by Robert Taibbi, LCSW

Kate was annoyed at the amount of money Tom spent on new fishing equipment. She offhandedly mentioned it to him once, decided to drop it, but then spent the weekend snapping at him about all sorts of little things. Tom knew what was upsetting Kate, but rather than saying anything, he decided to keep quiet and ride it out.

Carlos was recently diagnosed with diabetes. Although he thinks he is doing a good job of watching what he eats, he feels that his wife, Teresa, is constantly nagging him about his food choices at mealtimes. He wishes she would just leave him alone.

Sara and Matt are always fighting about the kids. Sara thinks Matt is too easy on them, while Matt thinks Sara acts like a drill sergeant, unable to ever cut them some slack. The kids feel caught in the middle and play one parent against the other.

Problems are bound to arise in any intimate relationship, and each couple finds its own way of handling them. Kate, for example, gets upset about what Tom is doing but has trouble being direct and clear about what is bothering her. And Tom has learned over the years that if he lays low, he can wait for it to blow over. When Carlos feels annoyed, he holds his feelings in rather than letting Teresa know what is bothering him. However, rather than making the problems go away, his silence creates more anxiety and stifles intimacy. Because Sara and Matt are unable to get on the same page with parenting, they both are using their children as a battleground for their own struggles, making the children the ultimate losers.

Research has shown that successful relationships are not necessarily those that have fewer problems, but those that have found effective means of solving the problems that come up. Unsettled problems are a major source of stress that can not only affect the quality of the relationship, but also a person’s diabetes management. Stress is well- known for undermining good lifestyle habits, such as eating healthy meals, getting regular exercise, and being consistent about blood glucose monitoring. Stress hormones can also have a direct blood-glucose-raising effect.

If you’re willing to make the effort, however, and to try out some new approaches and behaviors, relationship issues can be dealt with. Here is a six-step process for tackling — and solving — the problems in your relationship.

Define the problem and the solution
You know you’re upset, but what exactly are you upset about? Kate might be angry about the new fishing gear, but is it about the money, the fact that Tom didn’t talk to her about it ahead of time, or that perhaps it’s another reminder that he spends almost every weekend with his friends fishing and that they don’t do things together as a couple? Carlos feels annoyed by Teresa’s comments about his food choices, but why? Are they just another example of ways that he feels nagged by her? Sara realizes that she is upset with Matt for always undermining her attempts to discipline the kids, but she is even more worried that the kids are confused and are playing their parents against each other.

Take time to clearly define what bothers you the most. Figure out how you feel and why. Anger is a common reaction, but try and go one step further and ask yourself what it is that worries you or hurts your feelings. Many psychologists consider anger a reaction to other emotions lying beneath. Sure, Kate feels angry, but actually she feels hurt that Tom doesn’t seem to want to spend more time with her, just as Carlos feels hurt that Teresa doesn’t see him as responsible. Sara gets annoyed, but her annoyance is masking her worry that the kids are undisciplined. Being able to talk about these underlying emotions, rather than your anger, gets to the core of your true feelings and is easier for the other person to hear and understand.

But problem-solving is more than just an airing of complaints. Next you need to be clear about what you would like to be different in positive, concrete, and specific terms. Suppose Kate realizes that what she really wants is for her and Tom to do more as a couple. Rather than complaining to him that he spends too much time fishing, or merely saying that she would like him to make more time to do things with her, she could say that she would like to do more as a couple and ask whether he would be willing to spend two Saturdays a month doing things together. Carlos can promise to do a better job of letting Teresa know when he is feeling nagged and ask that she let him know when she feels worried, instead of expressing her worries by nagging. Sara might tell Matt that she is afraid the kids seem confused about what is expected of them and ask him to help her map out a chore list for the kids that they can both agree on.

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