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The Secret to Solving Relationship Problems

by Robert Taibbi, LCSW

The goal is hear each other out. Don’t worry about over-talking if the talking is sincere and productive. Resist the temptation to respond to your partner’s words with “Yes, but…” Instead, focus on taking in what he is saying and accepting it as an expression of his true feelings. Then find a way to build on each other’s ideas. See each other as on the same team, working together for the relationship. Make sure you understand exactly what the other is saying, and if not, ask: “Tom, what exactly would you rather do together?” or “Teresa, how can I let you know when you are nagging in a way that isn’t going to get you upset?” or “Matt, would you be willing to talk to the kids together about the chore list so that it doesn’t sound like it is just coming from me?” Keep it clear, keep it concrete, and keep it calm.

Decide on a plan
If you are both in agreement about the problem, it’s time to agree on a plan of action. Again, make it as specific as possible, and agree on an initial time period that you’ll both try it. Try to address each of your worries and preferences. Tom agrees to not go fishing next Saturday; Kate agrees to try out Tom’s idea of going hiking. Carlos and Teresa will sit down together and talk twice during the week as a general check-in, and when Carlos feels Teresa is nagging, he will simply raise his hand as a signal to alert her. Sara and Matt agree to map out a short list of chores for each of the kids. They will talk together with the kids next Saturday morning, then try it for a week.

Write down the plan so it is clear to both of you.

Taking a “let’s try it” attitude is better than obsessing over the ultimate solution. Your willingness to work together is particularly important. If at any point in the planning, you feel that your partner is passively going along with the plan without really supporting it, check it out: “Are you really OK with this? I can’t tell how you’re feeling.” Don’t march ahead until you know the other person is onboard.

Try out your plan and evaluate. Did Tom and Kate both enjoy the hike on Saturday? Did talking together help Teresa worry less? Did Carlos feel less nagged? Were his hand signals an effective tool? Did Sara and Matt feel that they were on the same page, that they communicated to the kids well, and that they were able to back each other up during the week when the kids started to complain about the chores? The evaluation is about honesty and fine-tuning.

Kate and Tom did like the hike, but Tom really missed seeing his buddies on Saturday. In the future, he’d prefer to reserve Saturdays for fishing and set aside two Sundays a month to spend with Kate.

Carlos’s hand signals did work to stop Teresa’s nagging, but both of them realized in their discussions that there were parts of Carlos’s diabetes management plan that neither of them fully understood, and that was fueling their worries. They decided to draw up a list of questions for Carlos’s diabetes educator, then make and go to an appointment together so that both would be up to speed.

For Sara and Matt, the new chores seemed to work OK, and they decided to continue with their plan for another week to see how well the kids settle into the new routine, and then discuss it again.

When you revise your plan, remember to keep the changes clear and concrete and to write them down.

Keep it positive
Researchers have found that if you want to create a positive and supportive environment for your relationship, you need to give each other four times more positive comments than negative ones. What this means is that you can never give each other enough compliments and support. Here are some positive statements to try out: “Thanks for talking,” “I appreciate your giving this a try,” “I’m glad we are doing this together.” This support helps you from slipping back into old patterns and encourages you to keep up the new ones.

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