Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Problem Solving For Couples

“Does problem solving in a relationship mean that someone is always giving up or giving in?” We hope not!

A couple’s ability to address issues and problems that emerge between them or are thrust upon them by life is an important part of their resiliency and functioning as a couple.
Many couples rally in the face of acute trauma in a way that even surprises them. Some couples report doing fine in day to day decision making until crisis hits. Most couples can look back to some issue that they feel they problem solved in a way that works for both.

What works? What gets in the way? What are the ingredients in effective problem solving as a couple?

As a preface to problem solving as a couple it is worth considering:

Not Everything Should Be Problem Solved Together!
The attempt to problem-solve everything as a couple would be unbearable. Most couples have developed an often unspoken agreement about taking care of their own needs and/or deferring to each other in a way that works most of the time. She handles the food shopping, he cooks. She sets up the social calendar, he researches vacations. If there are kids, she may cover the homework, he does the car pooling, etc. If it works – don’t fix it. If, however, either partner is unhappily compliant or collecting resentments – it doesn’t work.

Respect and Utilize the Similarities and Differences
The best solutions to problems evolve from people who respect each other and capitalize on their similarities and differences. When we speak about individual resiliency, we often consider traits as: intelligence, creativity, social skills, athletic ability, empathy, artistic talents, analytic perspective, attention to details, resourcefulness, persistence, patience, organizational skills, spirituality etc. Couples often find that it is the mix of their similarities and differences that work to their great advantage.

Mini Exercise:
Thinking about you and your partner, take a look at the traits listed above. List those you share and those for which you differ. Now underline those traits (both similar and different) that are very beneficial when pulled together for problem solving.

Process vs. Perfect Solutions
It makes sense to problem solve as a couple when a decision is needed to deal with issues of daily life or an unexpected event that will impact both of you and for which you both want a say. Rarely do perfect solutions just emerge,but if a couple engages in a problem solving process,sometimes they can find a working solution that gets pretty close to perfect for them.

Does this mean we have to make a BIG PRODUCTION every time we face a problem together? No
As you will see by the steps below – engaging in a problem solving process is a way of thinking about an issue together. Often a couple finds that if they
“Consider the steps” on a few issues – the process can become quite seamless – it moves them into facing certain problems as a “We.”

Consider the following steps adapted from Healing Together:

Steps for Couple Problem Solving:

1.Assess the Problem
Do you both clearly understand the problem, the causes, and the impact on each? Sometimes stating it from each of your perspectives is very helpful. Some couples each write it down.
One of the greatest obstacles in corporate and couple problem solving is the failure to clarify the problem. There is a tendency to immediately find and give solutions.

There is a big difference between sharing problems and announcing solutions:

Problem “I got a job offer in Chicago – What do you think?”
Solution “I got a job offer in Chicago – the kids can make the adjustment.”

Problem “My parents can’t manage on their own, I’m not sure what to do.”
Solution “My parents can’t manage on their own, we will bring them here.”

2. Avoid Getting Tripped Up by Premature Solutions
Premature solutions are usually generated by anxiety. They often obscure a clear understanding of the problem because they generate more anxiety and ignite instant resistance. “The kids are not going to Chicago!” “Are you crazy – they can’t live here.” Often a couple ends up battling about solutions rather than clarifying the problem. Sometimes the very solution being argued about has some merit but because it was imposed as a solution without including the partner in the decision making – it is resisted!
One way to avoid getting tripped up by premature solutions is to slow down the process and return to a clarification of the problem. “Ok – let’s clarify what we are facing together.”

3.Brainstorm ALL possibilitiesTalk about and write down any and all ideas that come to mind. DO NOT EVALUATE THEM. The biggest complaint of partners is that their idea was immediately cut off, dismissed or criticized – “She won’t even hear me out.” “He won’t even consider possible options. In problem solving – the most effective solutions often come from the freedom to express any and every idea and the collaborative mix of ideas.

4.Evaluate The Pros And Cons Of All Ideas
Can an idea work for both of you? Do one or both of you need to gather more information or try out a partial solution before you make a final plan?
Do you both need to fly to Chicago to consider it a possibility?
Once you have possible options to consider – think about them individually for a while and then come back with feedback. If time is not pressing – take your time. Don’t be afraid to team together to try out temporary plans or solutions. You are adults – you are allowed to change your mind.

5.Time as a Factor
What if there is no time for trying out solutions and a decision must be made? Choose a solution that takes the least from each of you – one that doesn’t destroy your partner’s sense of self and need to grow. Mutual respect and trust make compromise and sacrifice part of a couple’s story. There are many partners who hang in until a partner returns from military service to make certain life decisions. There are partners who study and plan their careers in tandem so that children can be cared for and life dreams realized. There are partners who get more from being with their partner in a hospital room than any other option they might have taken!

6.Understand the Resistance ( yours and your partner’s)
Some partners resist the idea of problem solving together. Often, they feel that their style of problem solving works well for them. It may- in matters that affect only them. The question is whether it works for the relationship. If your partner is resisting because historically you “have to get your way,” think about the pros and cons of getting your way at the cost of your partner’s feelings, wishes and contribution.
“Do you want to win or do you want to work together as a couple?”

On the other hand, if you are the one resisting hearing about or talking about “a problem.” Ask yourself why? Is your refusal to “look” actually an attempt to reduce anxiety in face of change or feared unknowns? It is worth sharing your concerns and fears – your partner may be feeling some of the same. Sharing may be an important first step in your problem solving. No one makes any decision or moves forward in a new or different way without some anxiety.

7. Evaluate the Results
Forgetting that problem solving is a process – couples often forget to evauate the results of their decision as a step toward improving the outcome. Use curiosity rather than self-reproach and blame to evaluate and improve your solutions. When a Coast Guard Aircrew was asked what plan they used for a series of rescue missions their answer was “Our plan was to keep adjusting the plan.”

Life is never perfect. There will always be problems to solve .The more partners invest in the process together, the more connected they will feel and the more committed they will be to their solutions – even the ones they never expected to choose.