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The Secret to Solving Relationship Problems

by Robert Taibbi, LCSW

Plan a time to talk
Once you are clear on the problem and have identified a solution, pick a good time to talk. Chances are, it’s not when your partner has just walked in the door after work, not when you are tired, and not 10 minutes before you have to pick your daughter up from soccer. Instead, choose a time when you and your partner are both likely to be calm, relaxed, and able to listen. If you are not sure when that might be, send your partner an e-mail, or write a note suggesting a time and giving a preview of your discussion.

For example, Sara might write, “Matt, I’m worried about how we are handling the kids. Could we sit down on Saturday morning before they get up and talk about this?” This gives your partner a heads-up about your concerns, suggests a time to talk about it, and also gives your partner the opportunity to suggest a different time from the one you’ve proposed.

Talk and listen
Start the conversation by talking about your view of the problem, your worry, and your solution. For example, “Tom, I know I seemed upset about the new fishing equipment, but I realized that what was bothering me about it was…”; or “Teresa, I know you have been worried about my diabetes and the effects it could have on my health, but when you remind me a lot about what to eat I feel…”; “Matt, I’m worried about the kids and think it’s important that we both be on the same page.”

Talk about you and your feelings, not about your partner and how you imagine he feels. Use “I” statements, such as “I feel as if I’m always walking on eggshells when I’m around you,” or “I think it would be wonderful if we could do more together,” rather than “you” statements, such as “You never say anything positive,” or “You always seem angry.” Talking about yourself helps keep your partner from feeling attacked or blamed and from getting defensive and angry in return.

Managing a conversation is a bit like driving a car: You need to steer the conversation toward your goal, while also paying attention to what happens along the way. For example, if Kate sees that Tom is getting upset as they talk, she can stop and check it out — “Tom, you’re looking upset. Did I just hurt your feelings?” — rather than ignoring his reactions, plowing ahead, and leading them both into an emotional ditch.

Do your best to sound calm. Strong emotions tend to stir defensiveness in the other person and undermine the problem-solving process. If your partner does start to get angry or defensive, get quiet. While you’re probably tempted to defend yourself, doing so at this point is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Your goal is to put out the emotional fire in the room, and you do that by simply listening. If you don’t fuel the fire with more words, your partner will eventually calm down.

If, however, it seems that both of you are getting worked up, emotions are getting too high, and the conversation is beginning to feel like a power struggle, it’s important to stop before the situation gets out of hand. The best way to do this is by saying as calmly as you can that you want to take a break and cool off — and that you’d like to try again in half an hour, an hour, or after dinner.

Be clear that this is a time-out and that you want to talk again. Don’t just say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” and walk out of the room. This kind of cut-off will only make the other person more anxious and angry and escalate the process. When you are both calm, try again. If the conversation quickly heats up again, stop and take another break until both of you are absolutely calm. Control the temperature of the conversation.

If things have gone well, and your partner is able to listen to what you have to say, ask for his reaction. Tom may say that he understands how Kate feels and that he, too, wants to do more as a couple, but quite honestly, he wants to do something more active than the car trips or movie outings they’ve done in the past. Teresa may say that she is not even aware of when she sounds like she is nagging, and might suggest that Carlos let her know when she is so she can become more sensitive to it. Matt may think that a chore list a good idea, but is worried that Sara’s way of talking to the kids about their behavior is too harsh.

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