Couples Communication 101: How to solve problems by not problem-solving.

Couples often come to me seeking help to “resolve their issues.” There couldn’t be a more natural, well-intentioned request. It also happens to be an impossible one to achieve. Why? Because the research has shown that over two-thirds of the disagreements couples have are perpetual—69% of couples’ conflicts end in stalemate.*

That’s right, no matter how hard you try, you and your spouse/lover/soul-mate will fail to resolve approximately two-thirds of your arguments! Twice as often as not, you won’t see eye-to-eye on your “issues.” Sound dreadful? It doesn’t have to be.

Here’s what I tell couples who come to me seeking help, and hope: “Issues”—even unresolvable ones— aren’t the issue. Conflicts, disagreements, and arguments aren’t the problem either.

The reality is, you don’t need to resolve your differences to have a satisfying, enduring relationship.

According to comprehensive research out of * The Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington, the presence of conflict in a relationship doesn’t predict divorce. On the contrary, it’s important to argue! If disagreements are avoided, a void opens up in the relationship—numbness descends. And numbness covers the relationship like a blanket, not only blocking out hurt and anger, but also muffling joy, passion & playfulness.

*Research conducted by the Gottman Institute in Seattle, Washington found that “only 31% of couples major areas of continuing disagreement were about resolvable issues.”

So, it’s not about whether you argue too much or not at all, it’s about the quality of the discussion. The kind of open communication leading to the capacity to appreciate —truly value— each other’s differences.

The focus is on making room for both perspectives, not duking it out until one conquers the other. Think of it like binocular vision: two perspectives on a single situation can actually be helpful in allowing us to see the world with the most depth and clarity. This is where couple therapy can help.

Too often couples get caught up in the facts and in problem solving: Who’s right vs. who’s wrong? Did this happen, or did that happen? And how do we fix it? How do we make it go away?

The problem with problem-solving is not the well-intentioned effort to solve the problem. The problem with problem-solving is that couples almost always try to solve the problem too soon. Couples try to “fix” the conversation before really understanding what broke it in the first place.

Therapy can help you slow the conversation down, getting to the feelings underneath the facts.

If your four-year-old daughter announced that what she wanted more than anything in the whole world was to own a flying unicorn and ride it to the moon, you probably wouldn’t respond with a negative, “Don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as unicorns and, anyway, you’re not allowed to fly to the moon.”

Instead, you’d try to understand what has her so captivated with flying horses and outer space. Because you can see her longing to go to the moon on a unicorn is adventurous and creative, and wonderful, and those traits should be encouraged—even if this particular endeavor is an obvious impossibility.

Well, we grown-ups are pretty much the same as four-year-olds, except we don’t tend to state our longings as directly! “I wish you’d listen to me more!” “Why are you so mean?” “Hey, wanna help with these dishes, or are you just gonna sit there??” Inside every one of these statements is a real need—to be heard, helped, recognised, or understood.

But in our hurried, harried adult world, we don’t have the space to delve into the underlying longing—the problem underneath the problem. Instead we problem solve… “I DO listen, it’s you who doesn’t listen to me!” “I’m not mean, why are you always accusing me of things I’m not??” “Fine, but you’d better do them on Saturday!”

No parent, no matter how well-intentioned, can buy their daughter a unicorn to fly her to the moon. But we all know that’s not the point of the conversation. The point is to acknowledge her magical desire to have one.

Your partner is probably not going to ask you for a unicorn anytime soon. But when an argument runs away with a couple, they might as well be asking each other for a whole stable full of flying horses. So what does it look like when a couple slows a conflict down, responding to the needs & longings underneath the surface of the conversation? Stay tuned for my next post. I’ll give you an example.

Or, if you’d rather not wait, give Attuned Psychology a call and set up your appointment today – 8361 7008 Spouses & partners are welcome. Unicorns too!

Dr Alexandra Gudhe

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