When problem-solving everyday issues becomes a tug-of-war over who’s right and who’s wrong, then settling even the smallest of discussions becomes a battle. “A better alternative is what I call the win-win waltz,” says marriage expert Susan Heitler, Ph.D., author of The Power of Two. “We toss information back and forth, we have an ‘aha!’ moment, and we come up with solutions that work very well for both of us.”
You’ll also free yourself from the emotional and physical side effects of nasty fighting, such as feeling you’ve intimidated or dominated your mate — or that you’ve given in and given up on what you really want. You’ll have fewer tense times together, and actually improve your health. Couples who learn to solve problems constructively together cut their risk for stress-related health problems including depression, cardiovascular disease, and lowered immunity.
Step 1: Describe the Problem in a Few Words — and Let Your Partner Respond
The opening round in problem-solving involves getting your overview of the issue out on the table. Don’t let it smolder or expect your partner to guess!
You: “If we go to your parents’ house for the weekend, I won’t be able to get our tax return information together before the workweek starts.”
Your spouse: “My parents have been planning for this visit for months. I don’t think we can or should just cancel.”
Step 2: Look Together at Deeper Concerns
This is the exploration phase. Don’t try to “sell” your point of view to your spouse. And don’t try to solve the problem just yet. Do talk about underlying worries and issues that contribute to the problem you’re trying to solve. And do listen carefully to your partner’s concerns. Keep an open mind. Learn all you can about your own concerns and your partner’s. Your goal: See the big picture and form a mental list of both partners’ concerns. This is your common set of concerns that you’ll try to resolve in Step 3.
You: “I have a new deadline at work and meetings three nights this week, plus we promised to visit the neighbors on Tuesday night. The tax deadline is almost here. I’m afraid I’ll be up until 3 a.m. trying to do all this during the week. I’ll be grouchy and won’t do my best at work, and I won’t be very interested in socializing with our neighbors or contribute much to the meetings. I’m feeling squeezed.”
Your spouse: “I really want to see my parents before they leave for their vacation. I haven’t spent much time with them in several months. Plus, my mother invited my aunt and uncle over to see us, too. It’s important to me to be with my parents for more than a short visit, and to feel at home. I’d like you to see them, too, and be with me for the big family dinner.”
Step 3: Craft a Win-Win Strategy
Look for steps you can take to resolve the issue for both of you. This is crucial: Don’t tell your partner what he or she can do, but instead say what you can do. The best solutions usually aren’t your first ideas at all but may occur to you after looking at your concerns and figuring out what matters most to each of you.
You: “Maybe I could stay at home on Friday night and Saturday morning and get the tax stuff organized. Then I’d join you for the rest of the weekend without any worries hanging over me.”
Your spouse: “I would be willing to tell my parents you have to catch up with the taxes and can’t come for the whole weekend. I’m also willing to postpone our night out with the neighbors during the week and help you get the tax information together.”
10 More Tips to Help Avoid a Fight
Decide if you’ve got a problem or just a difference. If an issue isn’t threatening your health, safety, or financial security, doesn’t work against your shared vision for your marriage, and doesn’t put an unfair burden on you, then it may simply be a sign that the two of you are two different people. Perhaps you’re an extrovert and love parties, while your partner’s introvert personality makes him or her crave quiet nights at home. Perhaps you’re great at starting projects, while your partner’s terrific at sticking with it until every last detail is finished. Or maybe one of you is a morning person, the other a night owl. In that case, the solution is acceptance, not trying to change your partner. Look for the ways that your differences are marriage-strengthening assets.
1. Pick the right time. Problem solving is least likely to work when you’re tired, hungry, overloaded, stressed, distracted, or trying to do something else at the same time, such as making dinner, catching up on work from the office, or relaxing in front of the TV. Save big talks for a better time.
2. Practice loving acceptance. Learning the art of accepting and valuing your partner for who he or she is — instead of grousing about shortcomings — may actually help the two of you find better solutions to problems, experts say. This loving accommodation melts defenses and motivates us to want to please each other.
3. Banish the deal-breakers. University of Washington relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D., advises couples to do all they can to avoid these lethal habits: personal criticism, sneering contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
4. Give your mate the benefit of the doubt. The next time you’re feeling disappointed, hurt, or angry with your spouse, pause before jumping to conclusions. Maybe your spouse is tired, hungry, or preoccupied — or doesn’t see the impact of his or her actions. Search for a benevolent explanation that will allow you to treat your mate with love and respect.
5. Beware of ice. A University of Wisconsin study that followed 97 newlywed couples into their third year of marriage found that spouses who give their mates the cold shoulder cause as much marital distress as those who dish out scathing sarcasm and caustic criticism. Icy behavior included pouting, stomping out of the room, showing a lack of interest in a partner’s emotional revelations, and more subtle brush-offs such as changing the subject, joking, or even buttering up a spouse to avoid discussing a sticky subject.
6. Learn from successful wives and husbands. Dr. Gottman says wives can improve the odds for a fruitful problem-solving session by starting conversations without confrontation. Try a “soft start-up” by talking about how you feel and asking for your mate’s input, instead of criticizing, blaming, or turning anger up to top volume. In contrast, husbands contributed to better conflict resolution when they accepted their wife’s influence. That means taking her opinions, ideas, and plans into consideration and developing a joint solution instead of a unilateral plan.
7. Seize the small opportunities. Practice problem-solving skills when tiny issues arise. “Moments with little bits of tension are perfect opportunities to work on your skills and experience success,” Dr. Heitler says. “Talk about each of your concerns; look for solutions. The more you do this, the more the whole tone of your relationship changes. Problems become a chance to come closer together and show each other how much we care, instead of danger zones full of irritation and hurt feelings.”
8. Be patient with yourself — and your mate. Learning problem-solving skills takes time. It’s a big job. You’re attempting to rewrite lessons about conflict resolution that you learned in childhood, and to practice new ways of communicating in highly emotional situations. Give yourself and your spouse credit for even the smallest steps forward — each improvement will propel you toward the next.
9. Be an equal-time advocate. Making sure each of you has the same opportunity to discuss concerns and solution ideas creates a sense of equality and shared power. If you tend to dominate, speak a little less and listen longer. Encourage your partner to say more. If you feel you’re getting short shrift, gently hold your ground if your partner interrupts or tries to move the discussion along too swiftly.
10. Take time-outs early and often. As soon as one of you feels too upset or negative to follow healthy problem-solving steps, it’s time to take a break. Experts say agreeing ahead of time to take a time-out if one partner becomes overwhelmed is crucial for avoiding a downward spiral you’ll only regret later. Include in your agreement the understanding that you’ll get back to your discussion within 24 hours. Some couples use a sports signal, such as the “T” sign coaches use, to indicate they need a break. Stop the discussion right away (no negotiating!), go to separate rooms or outdoors and calm down. Take a walk, read a book, cook a meal. Don’t spend your time ruminating about the conversation or having bad thoughts about your spouse. Before you talk again, first share an everyday activity together to re-establish a close, calm connection, Heitler suggests.
Five Ways to Sidestep a Fight
These strategies can stop a fight before it starts.
- See things from your partner’s point of view.
- Count to 50 before you say anything incendiary. This pause will help you calm down just long enough to think better of it.
- Don’t throw verbal bombs. Avoid put-downs, personal attacks, judgments, criticism, and blaming — as well as sulking, interrupting, and stomping out of the room.
- Ask yourself if you can — and should — solve the problem on your own.
- Skip heavy conversations before breakfast and from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. — because nobody should argue on an empty stomach. And ban problem-solving talks after about 8 p.m. Fatigue starts many fights!
Three Ways to Defuse a Runaway Argument
These tension-tamers can short-circuit an argument that’s getting too hot to handle.
- Use anger as a red-alert sign to stop the discussion. Walk away and use meditation, exercise, or another pleasant activity to de-stress.
- Reconnect frequently during tough conversations. Use empathy and appreciation to stay close to your spouse. And be on the lookout for your spouse’s attempts to heal or avoid breaches.
- Soothe yourself and your spouse. Breathe deeply, slow down the conversation, and take a few minutes to review all the positive steps you’ve taken together to solve the problem already. Share your feelings. The more effectively you can soothe yourself and each other, the more productive your problem-solving session can be.
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