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Section 9
Problem-Solving Behaviors and Relationship Satisfaction

Question 9 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we 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 this section, we will discuss the "Address with Respect" five-step structured problem solving technique I use with couples in conjoint therapy. The five steps in this technique are discussion, agenda setting, brainstorming, agreement and compromise, and follow-up. Like the Speaker-Listener technique that we discussed in Section 6, I have found the Address with Respect technique a helpful tool for couples seeking to change the communication patterns in their relationship.

Candice and Alexi, married for 8 years, had sought marital counseling after they began having intense fights. Alexi stated, "Everything piled up - Bills, budgets, problems with our in-laws... With so many problems Candice and I weren’t talking about, we just weren’t talking at all! Whenever we tried to talk, it turned into a screaming fit, with both of us hurling dishes at the walls! I was lonely… so I started seeing Jodi. I felt bad about it, I do love Candice, but I didn’t know how to talk to her anymore."

Problem Resolution
Since both Candice and Alexi demonstrated a commitment to improving their marriage, but indicated that they had difficulty discussing even small problems, I recommended the Address with Respect technique.

Step 1: Statements that are Heard
The first step in this communication strategy involves a discussion of the problem. I explained to Alexi and Candice, "Sometimes, when something is upsetting us, we express so much anger and frustration that our original message gets buried. Using something called an ABC statement can help you give your message a better chance of being heard by your partner. An ABC statement consists of three parts - a specific incident, the time of the incident, and how you felt." Alexi stated, "Oh, I think I see what you mean. Last week, we went to this party, and had a huge fight after, because I told Candice she was inconsiderate. I could tell she didn’t know why I was upset, but I was just so mad. What I should have said was, ‘When you said that my job wasn’t that hard to Bob Carson at the party, I felt embarrassed.'"

Step 2: Agenda Setting
The second step in the Address with Respect problem solving technique that I introduced to Alexi and Candice was agenda setting. I explained, "Many times, all of the problems that can pile up in a marriage can seem like a huge boulder sitting in the middle of your life together.  But even a huge boulder can be removed if you chip away at it over time and plan ahead. You mentioned that the thing you argue about most frequently is money."

Alexi stated, "That’s right. In fact, just about anything we argue about comes back to money! It’s just such a huge issue there seems to be no hope of ever making any progress!" As you know, agenda setting can be very useful for clients like Alexi and Candice. I suggested to Candice and Alexi that they set up a time to meet to discuss their money issues, and that they agree ahead of time exactly what small part they would discuss.

I stated, "Candice, you mentioned that you argue frequently about who is responsible for paying bills and balancing the checkbook. A good first step might be to sit down and decide who is responsible for which bills, and for the checkbook. That way, you know exactly what you will be discussing, and you can feel yourselves making progress."

Step 3: Brainstorming
In addition to discussion and agenda setting, the third step in the Address with Respect problem solving technique is brainstorming. I stated, "I know it sounds obvious to say that you should brainstorm together about your money issues. But brainstorming really does encourage creativity, and by agreeing to brainstorm, you can help each other resist the temptation to comment critically on each other’s ideas." I explained to Alexi and Candice that there are five rules that can make brainstorming easier, and less confrontational.

5 Rules to Make Brainstorming Easier
1. Any idea is ok to suggest,
2. One of you should write the ideas down as you brainstorm,
3. Don’t evaluate the ideas verbally or nonverbally during the brainstorming process, which includes making faces,
4. Be creative! Suggest whatever comes to mind, and
5. Have fun with it! Having a sense of humor about the brainstorming session can go a long way."

Step 4: Agreement and Compromise
The fourth step in the Address with Respect technique is agreement and compromise. I explained to Candice and Alexi, "This sounds like another obvious step, but it is important at this point to come up with either a specific solution, or a specific list of solutions that you both agree to try." Alexi stated, "Well, that makes sense, but I’ve never liked that word 'compromise.' Doesn’t that mean we both lose out on something?"

I explained to Alexi, "It’s true that in order to make a decision that you both find acceptable, sometimes neither of you will get everything you want. But really, by putting the needs of your relationship first, you are both winning." Are you treating a client, like Alexi, who equates compromise with losing?

Step 5: Follow-Up
In addition to discussion, agenda setting, brainstorming, and agreement and compromise, the fifth step in the Address with Respect technique I used with Alexi and Candice is follow-up. I stated, "By making sure that you sit down to talk about how the solutions you came up with are working, you both get a chance to make slight changes that might help the solution work better, and you build accountability with each other. Sometimes, you’ll need a lot of follow up, but other times, you’ll find you need very little. Even if everything is working out great, it is still important to schedule a time to sit down and talk about how the solution is going, even if it’s just a time to pat each other on the back for a job well done."

Would this problem solving technique be beneficial for a couple you are treating through conjoint therapy?

In this section, we have discussed the "Address with Respect" problem solving technique I use with couples in conjoint therapy. The five steps in this technique are discussion, agenda setting, brainstorming, agreement and compromise, and follow-up.

In the next section, we will discuss dealing with core impasses in couple's therapy by using the vulnerability cycle model. We will specifically discuss core impasses, the vulnerability cycle, survival positions, and diagramming the vulnerability cycle.

- Carter, B., MSW, & Peters, J. K. (1996) Love, Honor, and Negotiate: Making Your Marriage Work. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

- Rosenblatt, P. C., & Rieks, S. J. (June 2009) No Compromise: Couples Dealing with Issues for Which They Do Not See a Compromise. American Journal of Family Therapy, 37(3), 196.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Arnkil, T. E., & Seikkula, J. (Mar 2015). Reflecting on experiences from open dialogues. Journal of Family Therapy36(1), 142-154.

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.

Cook, J. M., Simiola, V., McCarthy, E., Ellis, A., & Stirman, S. W. (Sep 2018). Use of reflective journaling to understand decision making regarding two evidence-based psychotherapies for PTSD: Practice implications. Practice Innovations, 3(3), 153-167.

Feuerman, M. L. (2018). Therapeutic presence in emotionally focused couples therapy. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy21(3), 22-32.

McNulty, J. K., & Russell, V. M. (2010). When “negative” behaviors are positive: A contextual analysis of the long-term effects of problem-solving behaviors on changes in relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4), 587-604.

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 the five steps in the "Address with Respect" problem solving technique? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 10
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