When I got married, suddenly I faced a lot of different problems. And for some crazy reason, my husband and I disagreed at lot! So that led me to do a lot of research on this question: how do you solve a problem in your marriage?
This is what I have learned. One way to solve problems in a marriage is following a format like this:
- Pick one very specific problem to solve.
- Listen to the other person’s point of view until they feel heard.
- Carefully and humbly share your point of view.
- Brainstorm possible solutions together.
- Pick a temporary solution to try for a week.
- Set up a follow-up time to revisit this problem.
Here are the points again in a little more detail. These points come from the PREP researchers and therapists at the University of Denver (1).
1. Pick one aspect of the problem to solve
Decide on one aspect of the problem to solve (problems can be so multifaceted that it is easy to get overwhelmed and off-track during a discussion). For example, perhaps our problem is household chores – that could include dishes, bathrooms, trying to get the kids to do chores, deep spring cleaning, organizing the garage, and pet duty. Pick only one of these to solve at a time.
2. Listen to the other person’s point of view until they feel heard.
This means you listen, then you paraphrase back to them. You make sure that they know that you understand. You try to listen without judgement. You may think differently. That is okay. But they will be MUCH more open to compromise if they feel like you understand THEM and their point of view.
With solving a problem, it really helps if you can drop your judgement of them and their point of view. Instead of thinking that you are right and they are wrong, maybe you can just be curious. I wonder why they think the way they do? Maybe their way is right for them and makes sense to them? Maybe my way could actually be wrong?
If you go into a fight determined to convince the other person that you are right, things will seldom end well. So try to convince yourself that both people could be right and no one is wrong. Be open to listening to them.
3. Carefully and humbly share your point of view
Be precise in your speech (see Jordan Peterson’s book: 12 Rules for Life). Don’t use generalizations. Try to keep in mind that you could be wrong. Phrase your opinion as a suggestion – not as the only right way to do things.
If you are talking about a concern with the other person, try to focus on the other person’s behavior, not their character or identity. Focus on what they did that was hurtful, instead of focusing on who they are as a person.
4. Brainstorm all possible solutions.
Get creative. Get funny. Relieve the stress of the discussion with some ridiculous solutions. Your best idea is your worst if you have only one of them. Write all the suggestions down if needed!
5. Pick a temporary solution
This means that you pick something you think might work. Perhaps you are not sure it will work. So try it for a week! Sometimes I feel like I get too caught up in finding the one right decision that will solve it permanently and it paralyzes the progress. Try out many solutions over the next few weeks.
6. Set up a follow-up time to revisit this problem.
Follow up on your temporary solution next week. And then check in again and see if it worked. If not, pick another solution and try it again! I recommend you have weekly problem solving meetings so that you regularly work on problems and tackle them bit by bit. Start with your smallest, easiest problem so that you can practice these skills on something small before you try to tackle your worst, hairiest problem.
There is a way out of every box, a solution to every puzzle; it’s just a matter of finding it.JEAN-LUC PICARD
Why do we need planned problem solving meetings?
Because life is busy. If you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen often enough. And when you don’t solve problems regularly, they build up until one or both people explode. And that explosion usually happens at a bad time.
Why not just solve problems as they come up?
Well, because when problems come up, you might be rather mad about the issue. And when you are really mad, the logical, rational side of your brain doesn’t work as well (the frontal lobe). When you are flooded with negative emotions (either fear or anger), all the blood in your body goes to your hands and your feet, priming you to FIGHT or FLEE (a result of the sympathetic nervous system and hormones coming from the amygdala). If all the blood is going to your limbs, less of it is going to your brain. The longer you are in this intense state of flooding, the less rational your thought processes will be. And when trying to solve hard marital problems, we need as much of our brains as we can get! So calling a time out and cooling down can be super helpful if you get into a fight and things are getting out of control.
Problem Solving Meeting Format
For your problem solving meetings, here is a nice format that you could follow:
- Talk about what is going well in your relationship
- Talk about any individual goals you are working on
- Follow up on any decisions from a previous meeting – how is that solution working?
- Talk about any concern you have (and unless it is something urgent, limit these concerns to 1 per meeting.)
Now, all marriages have some areas of conflict. And some problems are bigger than others. Work on your small problems first. This will give you the practice and confidence to start attacking the bigger, more emotional problems. Don’t try to solve your biggest problem first!
Personalize these meetings by giving them their own name. You could call them whatever you want:
- Ugh nights
- Hurray for Solutions Meetings
- Love Battles
- Couple Success Meetings
- Goals Talk
Businesses and successful companies use this model all the time. Weekly checkup meetings are the way things get accomplished! Employers often follow up with personal and company goals. So it makes sense that if you want to build a relationship that will last forever and bring in the big bucks, we should do the same.
(1) Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., Blumberg, S. L., Jenkins, N. H., & Whitely, C. (2004). 12 hours to a great marriage: A step-by-step guide for making love last. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.