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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.

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.

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.

Evaluate
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.

Dare to change
When you started learning to drive, you probably felt overwhelmed and awkward, and you may have veered all over the road at first. Learning to steer your conversations will at first feel much the same, but don’t get discouraged: With practice, you will get better.

And if, in spite of your best efforts, your conversations get too explosive, or you need help figuring out exactly what is bothering you, consider seeking professional help. A couples or individual counselor can provide a safe environment for sorting out problems and discussing difficult topics. Your community’s mental health association, your physician, the Yellow Pages, and online searches can lead you to qualified professionals in your area.

Keep in mind that you really can’t make an irreparable mistake. If a conversation goes off course, circle back and try it again. Your goal is not to do it right but to do it differently: to speak as honestly as you can, and to be open to compromise. With patience, persistence, and pats on your own back, you’ll soon be able to smooth out the bumps in your relationship as they come up, rather than let them build over time into major roadblocks.

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