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Section 8
Marital and Relationship Problem Solving

Question 8 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed five hidden issues that can drive frustrating or destructive arguments between spouses.  These are issues of control and power, issues of caring, issues of recognition, issues of commitment, and issues of integrity. We also discussed ways to recognize hidden issues.

In this section, we will discuss three key assumptions that can help couples approach learning steps to solve problems together. These three assumptions are all couples have problems, couples who approach problems as a team are more effective at problem solving, and rushing to find answers does not produce lasting solutions.

All Couples Have Problems
I have found that as couples approach learning how to problem solve as a couple, there are three key assumptions that, when made by the couple, ease the transition into the learning process. Helping clients understand these three key assumptions may also enhance the process of teaching the couple effective communication strategies. The first of these key assumptions is that all couples have problems.

My clients Mike and Tara, both 25, had met their junior year of college. Tara stated, "I was first attracted to Mike because he wasn’t a typical party guy. He was actually kinda shy, and that appealed to me. But now that we’ve been married for three years, it’s getting old. I always want to hit the bars with our friends on weekends; He’d always rather stay home and do crosswords together. We’ve had some awful fights about it. I don’t know how much longer this will work! Good couples never have problems like this!"

Clearly, Tara’s belief that good couples do not have problems impeded her ability to approach healthy problem solving with Mike. Do you have a client, like Tara, who thinks that problems are rare in relationships? I explained to Tara that all couples have problems, no matter how strong they are together. I stated, "Some problems are very specific and need real solutions, like compromising on which area of the city to live in based on where each partner works. Some, like the personality conflict between you and Mike, are likely to last over time, but effective communication and problem solving can help you both fulfill your needs."

Problem Solving
The second assumption I find useful for couples approaching learning to problem solve together is that couples who approach problems as a team are more effective at problem solving. Carla and Harris had been married for 15 years, and had two children in junior high. While Harris worked long hours out of the home as a realtor, Carla owned a small florist’s shop and had more flexible hours.

In a recent session, Harris stated, "I work long hours. I’m not home much. And the other day, Carla starts bitching at me about how bad the house looks, saying it’s depressing! She’s home more often, so we agreed it’s her job to keep up the housework. When she’s home, she spends a lot of time just blabbing on the phone with her friends. It’s not my fault she doesn’t budget time well. I deserve a break when I’m home, why should I give up my free time to compensate for her laziness?"

Carla stated, "That’s not fair at all! I work just as hard as Harris does out of the house! If I chat on the phone a lot, it’s because I need a break too! Besides, Harris never cleans up after himself! I can pick up extra housework, but why does he have to be a slob and make it even harder on me? He never appreciates that I work as hard as him!" Obviously, Harris refused to accept any role in the messiness of his home, and saw Carla as trying to take something away from him, while Carla saw Harris as the sole problem.

I explained, "A lot of the time, couples approach problems as if their spouse was an enemy to be conquered, they see solutions to these problems as having a winner and a loser. Sometimes, it can be hard to remember that you are both teammates working towards a better life together, which makes it very difficult to problem solve together." Are you treating a couple like Carla and Harris who see each other as a problem, rather than as a partner working to make life as good as it can be for both of them?

Finding Answers
In addition to the assumptions that all couples have problems, and working as a team leads to more effective problem solving, the third assumption I find useful for couples approaching learning more effective problem solving is that rushing to find answers does not produce lasting solutions. My clients Olaf and Kelly frequently fought about money matters. Their daughter, Anya, had recently graduated from college, and had been needing increased financial support from her parents to get her on track for finding a job, in addition to helping pay off her student loans.

Olaf stated, "We do talk about it, even though neither of us wants to. Of course we’re both concerned about having enough money for retirement, but Anya’s needs are really important right now, and it makes things tough. I mean, last week I noticed our Discover bill was high again, and I got upset. I guess I was a little mean, saying that Kelly only working two days a week was part of the problem. But we both calmed down, and Kelly suggested we just get rid of the credit card and start putting an extra 100 dollars a month in our retirement fund. We came up with a solution fast, and neither one of us had to talk about it much!"

As you know, rushed solutions like this often do not result in a satisfactory solution. When I met with Olaf and Kelly a couple of months later, they were still using the credit card, and had not been able to commit to putting extra funds into their retirement account. I explained to Olaf and Kelly, "Sometimes, couples make a quick agreement so that they can avoid conflict.  But because not all of the information and needs of each partner are put on the table, these quick solutions tend not to last very long."

Kelly stated, "I think I can see what you’re saying. I didn’t really want to think about working more hours, but I think we should talk about that, really both share our feelings instead of dancing around it. And instead of just saying, ‘we should cancel the credit card and save more,’ we should sit down and draw up a budget together." Do you have an Olaf or Kelly who would benefit from the assumption that rushing into solutions does not result in lasting problem solving? Would he or she benefit from listening to this section, or learning about the problem solving strategies discussed in the next section?

In this section, we have discussed three key assumptions that can help couples approach learning steps to solve problems together. These three assumptions are all couples have problems, couples who approach problems as a team are more effective at problem solving, and rushing to find answers does not produce lasting solutions.

In the next section, we will discuss the "Address with Respect" five-step structured problem solving technique I use with couples in counseling for marital infidelity. The five steps in this technique are discussion, agenda setting, brainstorming, agreement and compromise, and follow-up.

- Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L.(2001) Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Baker, L. R., Kane, M. J., & Russell, V. M. (2020). Romantic partners’ working memory capacity facilitates relationship problem resolution through recollection of problem-relevant information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(3), 580–584.

Barry, R. A., Barden, E. P., & Dubac, C. (Apr 2019). Pulling away: Links among disengaged couple communication, relationship distress, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(3), 280293.

Bruk, A., Scholl, S. G., & Bless, H. (Aug 2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self–other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192-205.

Meza-de-Luna, M. E., & Trames, R. H. (2013). Areas of Conflict in the Intimate Couple. A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, 17(1), 87-100.

Williamson, H. C., Hanna, M. A., Lavner, J. A., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R. (2013). Discussion topic and observed behavior in couples' problem-solving conversations: Do problem severity and topic choice matter? Journal of Family Psychology, 27(2), 330–335.

What are three key assumptions that can help couples approach learning steps to solve problems together? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 9
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