What to Do About Problems
By Debby Gullery
“When it rains, it pours. Maybe the art of life is to convert rough times to great experiences: We can choose to hate the rain or dance in it.” – Joan Marques
“Every problem Is a gift—without problems, we would not grow.” – Tony Robbins
Life is full of problems, big and small, which is why negotiation and solving problems is a huge part of any good marriage. So how can we have a more spiritual and effective approach to problem-solving?
Our attitude towards our problems determines what we choose to do about them. I recently experimented with trying to change my own attitude about something my husband was doing that I found annoying. My husband had developed a habit of going into the kitchen after dinner and having a banana. And even though he is neat and orderly in most aspects of his life, in this case, he would always leave his banana peel on the counter, even though the garbage can was less than a foot away!
Of course, this in itself seems pretty insignificant, but somehow, when this happened night after night, I began to get more and more annoyed about it. So much so, that every time I went into the kitchen and saw that banana peel on the counter, I began to assume that he had left it there on purpose!
But in a moment of clearer thinking, it occurred to me that my husband was probably unaware of what he was doing, or that it was driving me crazy, and that I could probably change the way I was looking at the situation.
So I began my experiment. On the first night, I went into the kitchen as usual and saw the banana peel, as usual. But this time I called out to him, “Honey! You left the banana peel on the counter! I love when you do that! It’s so cute!”
Now I don’t really know how he responded to this, as he was in the living room at the time. But I continued to do this for about a week, and guess what happened? I actually began to feel my attitude shifting, until my husband’s annoying behavior morphed into an endearing little quirk. The experiment was a success!
We all have moments when we work ourselves into frenzies and make small problems bigger than they need to be. What might happen if instead, we chose to put our energy into creating harmony, despite our differences?
Whatever we invest our energy into is what grows. Winning an argument at the expense of our unity doesn’t serve us, and being right is largely overrated, especially in marriage. No matter who is right or wrong, we can always ask ourselves, “What can I do to ease the situation or to make a positive difference here?” This is a more spiritual approach that can move us towards connection and foster openness.
Marriage research has shown that all couples have between five and eight irreconcilable differences. This means we will never see eye to eye on these subjects, despite our persistent efforts to get our partners to agree with us. For these unsolvable, perpetual problems, an attitude shift can really be helpful. Instead of asking, “How can I get you to agree with me?”, we can ask, “What can we do to protect the rest of our relationship from this unsolvable problem?” This puts us on the same team, instead of on opposite sides, and gives a positive spin to a problem area.
Sometimes we really do need to come to consensus about an important issue such as parenting or finances. What can we do then? A good rule of thumb is to always seek understanding first. In other words, never try to solve a problem until it has been thoroughly discussed, and each partner understands why the other one thinks and feels the way they do.
This is the stage most of us skip, partly because we are too often in a hurry, and partly because we don’t always know how to do it. So allow me to offer a few communication tips that can be helpful to practice. The first tip is to start important conversations in a positive way. One way to do this is to speak our own truths and resist guessing what our partner is thinking. Another is to avoid the blame game. Blaming our partner blocks any possibility of understanding.
It can also help to phrase our problems as questions, as they are more likely to invite solutions and cooperation. And if we’re having problems talking about the issue, which happens often when we’re talking about hot topics, writing notes to each other first can help to pave the way.
One last tip is to eliminate the following phrases from our vocabulary:
- ‘You never’ or ‘You always’
- ‘I’ll try’ (which usually means ‘I’ll make a half-hearted effort but won’t quite succeed’)
- ‘You should’ or ‘You shouldn’t’
It’s easy to see why using these phrases is unhelpful, because when our spouses have used them on us, it makes us crazy!
When it comes to dealing with problems as a couple, our attitudes really matter and largely determine our success. We can get upset about our problems, which never helps, we can try to get our partners to agree with us, which rarely works, or we can ask ourselves what we might do to foster communication, understanding and cooperation.
And remember, we are always in charge of our own behaviors and responses, and when we approach our problems as a team, we are stronger, saner, and more successful!
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I respect my partner’s right to his or her opinion or do I criticize when it differs from mine?
- Do I seek to understand my partner’s point of view when it differs from mine or do I make assumptions and judge?
As a couple, ask yourselves these questions:
- What are some of our irreconcilable differences?
- What can we do to protect the rest of our relationship from these unsolvable, perpetual problems?
I don’t agree with your opinion, but I care about you and our relationship,
so I will try to understand it, before we attempt any problem-solving.
This article is adapted from Debby’s book, Small Steps to Bigger Love, which is available through HSA Publications and on Amazon. It includes a study guide for small group use. Debby is also available for individual and couple coaching and to teach workshops and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at debbygullery.com.