Do you ignore problems in your relationship, hoping they will go away, or do you pack your bags? Problems needn’t herald the end. They can be an opportunity to change – for the better.
People can disguise many problems in a relationship, but when it wears off, or simply cools a little, the problem will become all the more obvious. It’s not having problems but how you deal with them that will make or break your partnership. Using a constructive response, you can use domestic, sexual or emotional crises to lay the foundation for a much stronger relationship.
A man and woman living together, no matter how much they love each other, automatically presents possible scenarios for friction. Domestic arrangements, money, sex, having or not having a family, Christmas, holidays – all these topics and many more are potential battlegrounds.
Problem solving is a method of tackling the issues which can divide couples before they reach flashpoint. Identifying these areas while a couple remain intent on saving their relationship is the only way of reaching any form of resolution. Attempting to resolve any sort of problem is never easy, especially when bad behaviour has become deeply entrenched and couples have become accustomed to shouting and arguing.
Also, not all problems are solvable. There will be habits or mannerisms that neither of you will ever be able to like in your partner. The solution is to remember that despite this annoyance, you love your partner, and you have to put up with whatever the annoyance is. It doesn’t mean that you have to put up with every single annoying aspect of your partner, especially if something is affecting your well-being or it is something they could easily stop doing.
Stop and listen!
Over and over again, most marriage guidance counsellors hear their clients moan: ‘If only he’d listened’ or ‘I wish I’d said something sooner’. In close personal relationships, the worst thing you can do is bottle up your frustrations and resentments – they will come out somehow in the end, often when it’s too late.
Some of the most successful couples are those who do have problems, but who set aside a time – perhaps once a week – to discuss everything that has come up recently. It’s not a board meeting, but a long chat in which both can air their views on everything from their sex life to whether or not to invite the in-laws over for the weekend. Of course merely talking about an issue can in itself lead to an argument, but rarely will this create a new problem.
Make a date – a place and time – for your regular chats and, in order to decrease your stress level in the meantime, put a ‘stop order’ on worrying about anything you are going to discuss. This means that every time you feel yourself beginning to worry about any of the topics that might come up later, you simply say out loud (if you can) ‘Stop!’. This is a surprisingly effective technique.
Sometimes there will be resistance to the idea of having this meeting, especially if there are topics that one of you is scared of airing. You can do nothing to force a rational discussion, but if it is a make-or-break matter, you can simply say calmly, ‘If we don’t talk about this I can’t see our relationship lasting.’
The great divide
Even in our modern, equality-minded society, men and women are brought up differently, often with diametrically opposed ways of looking at issues. This is reflected in the language used and the angle from which each approaches the problem. Despite these ingrained differences, couples in a close relationship owe it to themselves to listen hard and decode what the other person is saying.
For example, a woman might say to her lover, ‘Do you have to work every night until late?’ then get mad at him when he says innocently ‘You know I do. You’ve seen the stacks of work I’ve got to get through.’ Her real, unspoken message is ‘I’m feeling neglected and shut out. I need you to reassure me.’ If he gave her all the attention she craved, it would hardly matter if he worked until midnight!
A man, on the other hand, might say, ‘I’m going down the pub. Jim and Barbara will be there.’ He’s not going to plead with his partner to go with him – especially after the mouthful he received when he came back the worse for wear last time, but the very mention of Barbara is a giveaway. Other men’s partners go – why shouldn’t his? It might be a good strategy to go with him, just this once. In general, women tend to be brought up to feel more confident when airing their feelings, whereas many men are taught that even owning up to having feelings is unmanly. In your problem-solving heart-to-hearts it is a good idea, therefore, for the woman to ask her male partner, ‘Yes, but how do you feel about this issue?’ and for the man to ask the woman, ‘So, what do you want to do about it?’ That way both people have a chance to approach the same problems from opposite points of view.
To solve problems together it is essential to agree that you will take some form of action, even if it is unpleasant – just as you do when visiting the bank manager. There is no point in simply going round in circles. This will only delay matters. And it is a good idea to lay down some ground rules first, and stick to them:
1. Neither of you will lose your temper, argue or raise your voice. If this happens then you will postpone the discussion with immediate effect.
2. You should talk about the facts, plus your feelings and ideas, and not criticize your partner, his friends or family. You are trying to be constructive, not score points off each other.
3. Both of you should have an equal chance and time to speak. Be scrupulous about dividing up the time allotted to solve the problem.
4. If you are the listener, do not interrupt and give the talker your full attention. Try not to doodle, sigh or appear otherwise inattentive, and maintain eye contact.
5. When it is your turn to speak, make statements, not demands. Say why you find this (whatever) such a problem, how you feel about it and what you think you and your partner could reasonably do about it. If it is a practical problem, such as money, you could suggest a solution with a time limit – for example: ‘We could get a bank loan if we paid it off over X years at X amount per month.’
6. If it is essentially an emotional problem, keep calm and say why you are unhappy, what your reactions are, and what your partner could do to make you feel better. Do not blame him or her, but concentrate on what has gone wrong and how it could be changed for the better.
Few people are going to change completely, purely as a result of more openness, but what everyone can do is learn to negotiate. Negotiation is when both partners talk about an issue with a view to reaching an agreement. The agreement mightn’t be an ideal solution for either partner but will represent a workable compromise in which both points of view have been taken into consideration.
The solution may be quite simple. One woman whose husband drove her to distraction by not saying when he would be home from work applied practicality. Every morning when he would leave the house saying, ‘I’ll be back at seven’ and then got caught every time in traffic and arrived home at eight, she said to him, ‘Can I have a realistic estimated time of arrival, please’ – and got it! In turn, she agreed to check the date-stamp in her library books once a week. It irritated him that she clocked up so many fines. It is essential to sort out the small things – it is often those irritating habits that prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Even more serious problems can be negotiated. For example, an over-extravagant partner can be talked into keeping to a budget, as long as he or she knows, for example, that they will be going on a holiday in the summer, and that they will still go out for a modest meal once a month.
Whatever your problems, the first rule is to communicate. The second is to make a decision based on mutual agreement, and the third is to keep to what you have agreed. And that, like most other aspects of a relationship, is based on trust.
Trust involves believing that your partner has your best interests at heart as well as his or her own. If either partner finds this concept difficult to believe then the negotiations are going to be very difficult. Still, the very fact that a couple think their relationship is worth fighting for is a good sign.
Problem solving is never easy, involving, as it does, putting your honesty and integrity on the line. You have to believe in yourself and in your relationship – and you have to be prepared to pull together.