Problem Solving for Couples: The Essay

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Problem Solving in Couples

© Al Turtle 2004

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This is how I’ve come to see the situation. 



Everyone has problems.  Problems are situations that cause a person distress – frustration.  A problem is avoided when you do not experience the situation any more.  .A problem is solved when the situation occurs, and you no longer get upset or frustrated.


Example:  Someone criticizes something you did, and you get upset. You avoid this by staying away from all critical people.  You solve this problem by learning how to effectively set boundaries, and affirm your presence and position in all decision processes that effect you.


The Problems You Have Left

Over time, everyone works on solving problems.  The ones you have now are the ones you have left over – yet to be solved.  I like to think of this by using the image of a single day’s work.  In the morning you build a list of chores.  You work on them all day.  You work on the easiest ones first.  By the end of the day you have left the chores you don’t know how to solve or the ones that are very hard.   Thus as I see it, by the time you are in your twenties, I think you have solved all the easy problems in your life.  The ones you have left are either difficult to solve, or you don’t know how to solve them, or both.  The tough ones are all you have left.


You Pick a Partner with Problems

When you go out dating, I think part of one’s brain (the problem counter part) examines the people you date, to see how many problems they have.   Let’s say you’re a guy.  You know you have some problems. 


You meet Sally.  After a few minutes or hours you realize she has many many more problems than you have.  “Holy cow!  I’ll be working forever on her problems.  Perhaps you label her as too needy or too high maintenance.”  So you don’t date Sally long.


Then you meet Carol.  Carol seems to have almost no problems at all.  She seems really put together.  “Holy cow! She’ll never put up with me.  I’m too messed up for her. ”   So you don’t date Carol for long. 


At last you meet Alice.  Now, Alice seems pretty normal to you.  She seems to have problems, but no more than you do.  You feel secure with her.  And two months later you move in with each other.


My general awareness is that people pick people with the same number of problems – somewhat equally needy and equally high maintenance.  Seems to happen all the time.


You Don’t Have the Same Problems

Now, while you were starting to date Alice, another part of your brain (the problem examiner) noted, happily that she had solved many of the problems you had and that you knew how to do many of the things that troubled Alice.  She could help you and you could rescue her.  Wow!


The way I model this is that each of you have 1200 problems, but you share in common about 10%. 



That is both good news and bad. 


The good news is that there are a finite number of problems, and collectively you have some idea of how to solve most of them. 


The bad news is that while you have 2280 problems to work on, and 120 of these neither of you has any idea how to solve,  all the problems you have left are tough problems.


The bottom line is that you are going to be working on problems for quite a while.


Making Progress

Couples work together, or against each other, trying to solve problems.  If both believe that progress is being made, then they will feel “hope”.  The amount of progress can be very small, and still there will be a sense of “hope”.  When progress stops or moves backward, people feel hopeless and couples often don’t stay together long after hopelessness arrives.  Progress is very important.


Solving Problems – The Great Mistake

Let’s look at the problem-solving situation.  Usually one person notices a problem, thinks about it and then raises the issue and proposes a solution.  The second most common situation is that one person notices a problem, mentions it to their partner, who then offers a solution.  In either case we can say that there is a problem that needs solving – at least one.  And in either case, the mistake in problem-solving occurs when a solution is suggested by someone and the other person rejects that solution.


I didn’t say that the mistake is the  partner rejecting the proposed solution.  I said the mistake occurs when the solution is proposed and rejected. I think the Great Mistake is what happens next.




In the most common situation, the proposer will start pushing and persuading, while the rejector will start defending and withdrawing.  This may end up in an argument, with two solutions put on the table, and both people pushing for their solution while their partner continues to reject.   Or it may end up in a separation, and, typically, the problem that needed solving will go underground and not be solved at this time – saved for later.  This pushing, persuading, arguing, withdrawing is the Great Mistake and will lead to increased frustration and to more distress building in the relationship.


To avoid this mistake, whenever a solution is proposed and you hear the “sound of rejection”, stop and take a breath.


Fatal Flaw

In a couple, when there are just two of you, all solutions need to be Win-Win solutions.   Both people must like the solution or it isn’t any good.  What goes wrong?  Lets look at this.


When your partner rejects your solution it is because your solution has a Fatal Flaw.  To your partner your solution looks like a Win-Lose.  Now, you wouldn’t have proposed it, if you thought it had a Fatal Flaw or Win-Lose.  Thus the Fatal Flaw is currently invisible to you.  The only clue you have to the existence of that Fatal Flaw is your partner’s “rejection”.


On the other side when you reject your partner’s solution, it is because some part of you can sense a Fatal Flaw in their proposal.  Their solution seems a Win-Lose for you.  Your partner doesn’t know the Fatal Flaw is there, but you do.  Your sense of some mistake in their suggestion is quite valuable.  Don’t lose it.


Source of the Flaw

Where did this Fatal Flaw come from?  It arose, along with all other parts of the solution, from the proposing partner’s database.  This is all the information that person currently has about the world, themselves and their partner.  Somehow, in this database, some information is missing.  Where is it?  The critical information is in their partner’s database – their knowledge of the world, themselves and of their partner.


Both want a solution

My experience shows that both partners want solutions to all the problems they face.  Both are often quite eager to find solutions.  And so, the situation where the Fatal Flaw appears, when one partner rejects a proposed solution, is a wonderfully good one –  two hopeful and helpful partners.


Great Mistake

But when one starts to push or persuade the other, or when both start to argue, all is lost.  It only takes a split second for this to happen.  And so I say “breathe.”


Correcting the Mistake

Whenever you are in this situation and take a breath, the next step is to thank your partner for rejecting your solution.  Does that sound crazy!  But it is very wise. Your partner has shown the courage to let you know that you have proposed something with a Fatal Flaw.  Do you want your flawed solution to be adopted, or do you want a Win-Win solution?  It’s your call.  Learn to see the “rejection” as a favor.


The next step is to put your solution on the shelf.  You may need it. 


Finding the Solution

Then, connect your databases.  Use dialogue to carefully find out what was in your partner’s database that you didn’t have, and share with your partner what was in your database that they didn’t have.   When you have finished this, you can both brainstorm, thoughtfully develop new solutions that are a Win for both.




Simple Steps:

  1. Notice rejection
  2. Breathe
  3. Put solution on hold
  4. Connect databases
  5. Develop new solution(s)
  6. Look out for “rejection” and start again.
  7. If no “rejection”, move on with life.



Problem Solving for Couples: The Essay — 5 Comments

  1. Dear Micky,
    I actually had written a response about the “6-month timeout” and lost it. Well here is my general thinking.
    Sure, you got to work on your stuff about reliable connection, but six months ain't, in my opinion, much work. The work comes from repeately gifting your partner with space, helping them meet their needs for space, forming a partnership in which you routinely monitor and support your partner's needs for quiet. One “six-month-lesson” really doesn't seem to me very useful. 20 2-hour or over-night or one day or even one week timeout – now that seems like real practice.
    A six-month timeout seems to me like a waste. I am 66 years old. Looking back I really notice and grieve about how much time I wasted getting to where I am now. Personally if I were you I would throw out that six-month-timeout and start anew.
    Maximum timeouts I have encouraged people to use were three-week-no-contact, and those were for couples who had trouble doing shorter ones.
    If he wants to take six months off to explore, I would give him a much more productive choice. Mebbe, a warning that if he hasn't made appointments with a relationship therapist for the two of you, and hasn't seriously started in those sessions dealing with the undealt-with-stuff, by the end of two months from today, then you are going to take his inaction as his decision to drop the relationship and you will formally leave and start looking for someone else to live/work with on the rest of your life.
    Might wanna look at my paper on decision making when you have a passive partner.
    I hope I am not being too blunt. Just seems like a waste of a life.
    Best wishes, Al.

  2. Hi Al,
    Thanks so much for the answer. The only part I think you missed is where we've already agreed to take a 6-month “time out” and not see each other while he explores. There's no way for me to act clingy while we're not having any contact, of course, but I'm not sure how we manage to share the journey when we're not seeing or talking to each other.
    What you call reliable membership is probably my biggest issue — trusting that connections aren't going to just vanish. I'm having a really hard time staying balanced in the face of my fear that he simply won't come back on the day we've agreed the “time out” is over. And yes, I know: that's MY stuff to work on…

  3. Thanks so much for the answer. What do you mean grabbing the opportunity to move forward quicker? Do you think 6 months is too long for our “time-out”? I just don't see him healing any faster than that…

  4. Great question and not one I have addressed before. I do have some thoughts – as usual. I think what I have might even be called “good news.” Let’s see if I have it. Both of you have been married before. He is staggering through the Divorce part of the Map of Relationships. You went through that door some 4 years ago. At this point, you’ve been being together for about 6 months. Now what? Up front for you both is the ending of his divorce. But more than that you see him has wanting to do some exploring for a bit, with you fearing potentially being left behind. How’s that!?
    If you were to read my Map of Relationships you would seen an advantage to the place where you both are. While Romantic Love feels really good, and while it doesn’t last, it is a pretty good signal that you are with a person who is close enough to “mr/ms right.” You both have been through relationships before, have intimate knowledge of the wonderful material of your power struggles, and thus could do some planning ahead. A wonderful guarantee is that if he moves from Partner A to you, he definitely will come to face the same troubles with you that he faced before. And so, the “knowns” are mostly in your hands.
    What are these “knowns?” They are the behavioral challenges that you have to learn your way out of, not run away from. For most people who are, what I call, asleep, you two have these problems right up front. You can’t make Romantic Love really last long, but you can more quickly that most, start heading for Vintage Love. Hooray!
    A win for both is that each of you start the learning processes, how to stay an “adult partner” when your partner slips. In your writing I hear the challenge of Master/Slave (manipulation and controlling stuff, “tapping foot, and your impatience), the problem of Reliable Membership (his wanting to explore and your panicky scream and beg, clinging, etc.), and the problem of Safety (his caution and your insecure). I can guess that you need to learn a) patience, b) to stay balanced while he explores, c) boundaries, etc. Sounds as if he needs to learn to a) trust himself first, b) explore himself while keeping you safe and call timeouts when you slip into clinginess, and c) boundaries. What fun!
    Keep plugging. I suggest you grab the opportunity to move forward through Door #1 quicker. Win-win is in Vintage Love and sharing the journey on the way.
    My best wishes. Al

  5. I stumbled across your site while looking for information on how to handle a relationship “time out,” and a ton of it resonated with me — so I figured I would ask for some feedback based on this particular article.
    Here's the problem:
    I'm 40, 4 years out of a long-term relationship, and finally ready to couple up again. He's 37 and in the middle of divorcing someone he married when he was 23. We've been seeing each other for 6 months and we both tell each other that we're deeply in love with each other and really want to be together — but at the same time, he's not ready to be exclusive because he doesn't want to race out of one serious relationship and into another. I understand that because I was there not so very long ago myself, but it makes me incredibly insecure.
    We both think we have something really special, and we don't want to break up. But if we keep going along as we are, we know that I'm going to start getting clingy and resenting him not proving his love by committing to being exclusive, and he's going to start pulling away and resenting me for not giving him time to experience being single for the first time in his life. So after a lot of struggle, we decided that we're “putting things on hold” for 6 months so he can finish and mourn his divorce, make up for the wild oats he didn't sow when he was younger, and experience what it's like to live alone and not answer to anyone but himself without me feeling like I'm standing there tapping my foot, asking him if he's ready to get serious yet, and feeling rejected when he's not. We even circled a date on our calendars and agreed to meet at our favorite restaurant on that night.
    I really want to do this, because I want us to be together because we choose each other. We both have manipulating, controlling partners in our pasts, and we really don't want to do that to each other. But the thing is, it's only been a week and I'm already feeling so sad and impatient and scared that I just want to scream and beg. It's hard for me to just sit with those feelings and trust that we really do love each other and want to do the right thing for each other. Six months feels like a million years, especially since that's as long as we've known each other.
    Is this a Win Win solution, or have we just lost our minds?

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