Problem Solving for Couples

In a previous article “From Struggling to Solving” I discussed how to get from arguing to solving problems. Getting into the right frame of mind is a great start, but many of my clients also need steps for how to solve problems. Here are three of my most effective tips.

How to Have a State of the Union Meeting:
Having a regular weekly meeting date will help you build mutual support. When you have a regular chance to talk about what’s going on in your relationship, problems, resentment and frustration don’t get a chance to build. Each of you has a right to have your opinions respected. Regular meetings, where you both express your feelings, negative and positive, and then work together to solve problems, can help a lot.

Begin couple meetings as early in your relationship as possible, whether you think you have any issues to discuss or not. If you set a pattern of doing this early in a relationship, it becomes easy and feels natural after a while. For relationships and families that are already established, it might feel a bit awkward to begin the meetings at first, but if you follow the steps below, everyone will soon experience the value of having an appropriate time and place to talk about issues and plans. Once you become familiar with the process, the formality of the meeting will relax, problems will be minor, and you can use the time for bonding, sharing stories and experiences, and creating quality time together.

Make it a habit to sit down on a weekly basis with your partner or family, and discuss everything about your relationship, positive and problematic, and how it’s going for each of you. Choose a time when to get together weekly.

At the meeting, each person present can follow these steps:

1. Gratitude: Begin by expressing gratitude to each other, preferably about something that has happened this week. For example, “I really appreciate how much you helped me this week when you knew I had a deadline at work.” Or, “I really look forward to these conversations; when I feel so close to you.” Or, “Thank you for your sense of humor. It really helps when you make me laugh when I’m getting too serious.” If you follow a religious tradition, you can open the meeting by giving thanks in the manner of your faith.

2. Improvements: Next, each of you can mention one thing you want to improve, and what you want to do to make it better. In order to bring up a complaint, you must have a suggestion for a solution, even if you don’t think it’s the best possible solution. The point is to move toward problems solving.

3. Problem Solving: If either of you has a problem to solve, you can describe it, and then ask for help to solve it. You can work together to come up with a solution. (See the Problem Solving Guidelines below.) Be careful not to allow your description of the problem to deteriorate into criticism and complaining. Use factual terms and I messages:

• “I get discouraged and frustrated when I don’t feel you hear me.”
• “We need to come up with some money to fix the car.”
• “I would like an easier way to talk to you when you’re at work.”

This simple meeting will do more for the state of your intimate relationship than you can imagine. Most problems can be solved before they become disasters if you deal with them early and approach them with a team spirit of solving them together.

Steps for Solving Problems
1. Make an appointment: Don’t ambush each other with a problem, especially when you’re getting ready for bed, rushing off to work or having an intimate evening. If you get into an argument that’s building, stop it by making an appointment to discuss the issue later. Then say “I have a problem I’d like to discuss. Will you have time tonight after dinner (or this weekend, or tomorrow afternoon)?” Make an appointment when you’ll both have time to think and respond thoughtfully.

2. Think through the problem and describe it carefully: This is not the time to just blurt out whatever comes to mind. Writing it down first is very valuable here. Also, try to state your problem as why it’s a problem for you, and not to blame your partner or anyone else.

• First, before your appointment time, think about what the problem is and how to state it so your partner will understand and not feel attacked. Ask for an agreement that your partner will hear and understand what you’re saying without interrupting.

• Then, ask your partner for his or her opinion of what you can do together to fix the problem. Do not get into who’s right or wrong, but focus on understanding each other and coming up with a solution.

3. Generate Options: Take turns challenging each other to come up with the best solution for the problem. Have fun with it, don’t be afraid to be silly, and you’ll free up your thinking so you’ll come up with more creative options.

4. Discuss the possibilities: When you have enough ideas of what to do, discuss them: which solutions would be best for both of you? Consider how your partner would feel about any decision, as well as how you feel. Try decisions on and imagine how they would work

5. Try it on: If you’re not sure which decision would work, consider trying one or two of them out for a short time, to learn from your experience. For example:

• If you’re struggling about your time schedule, and one of you feels like you don’t have enough time together, while the other feels pulled by work commitments, try a schedule change that you may not think will work, just to see what you can learn from it.

• If you want to change the way you approach each other for intimacy, try some silly solutions and some more serious ones: Ring a bell, do the chicken dance, put on romantic music, offer a glass of wine or juice in a special glass, invite your partner to cuddle on the couch.

• If there’s a household chore that’s bugging you, try setting a deadline to get it done, or a reward for doing it.

Once you’ve done the research or tried the change on, you’ll have a lot better idea of which solution will work for both of you.

6. Clarify your choice: It’s unfortunately easy to think you’ve agreed upon something when you actually are thinking two different things. To avoid this problem, when you think you’ve reached a decision, state it out loud. It can even help to write it down, in case your memory is different later. If find yourself disagreeing about what you decided, you can check with your written agreement.

You can go back and follow these steps any time you’re having trouble finding a solution or making a decision. They work great even when a previously made decision needs renegotiation.

Once we’ve solved a problem, and made a good decision, how do we act on it?
Of course, no decision, no matter how carefully made, is worth anything until you carry it out. By following the previous exercises and guidelines, you’ve created a good, solid decision that will help you be successful in your relationship.

Now, for the plan of “attack.” Here are the simple steps necessary to reach your goal:

Four Steps to Success:
You and your partner have used the problem solving steps to make a decision. Now you need to know how to carry it out successfully.

1. Commit to the decision. You may be surprised to learn that you can make a decision, but not really be committed to it. Somewhere, in the back of your mind, may be a little “escape clause.” That is, you’ve silently and mentally reserved the right not to really be invested in making your decision work. If you allow the escape clause to be there, you won’t be able to follow through on the decision. So, do yourself and your partner a favor, and make sure you’re both really committed to the decision you made, or, if you find out you’re not, ask for a renegotiation.

2. Break it down into small, non-intimidating steps. Those steps may seem simplistic, but that’s the idea. Make it as easy as possible to do each step. That way you won’t be discouraged by “I can’t” before you start.

3. Do something. Breaking your goal down into the smallest possible steps makes it easier to accomplish the next phase: Do something. Many of us know how to set goals, but not how to achieve them, so we’ve “proved” to ourselves over and over that we’re failures. That’s not true at all. The failure lies in not having completed the rest of the Four Steps to Success. You’ve just made the third step to your goal as simple as possible, so there are no reasons not to take it. Go ahead, and focus on the third step only: Do something. (If you can’t get yourself to do it, you haven’t made the steps small or easy enough. Go back to step 2.)

4. Celebrate what you’ve done (yes, every little step). After you’ve taken the third step, celebrate. Recognition of what you’ve accomplished is important. You can also celebrate each step you take toward your goal as you take it. This way you won’t run out of energy before you achieve success, and you’ll keep encouraging yourself as you proceed. Your celebration can be just looking into your mirror and saying, “Congratulations, you’ve just made the first (second, third) step toward achieving satisfaction in your relationship.” Or your celebration can be more elaborate, such as toasting your accomplishment with each other. It can even be a major party. The important thing is that you do something to make sure you notice you’ve had some success, however small. It is this celebration that will give you the courage and confidence to go on all the way in achieving your goal. There is no such thing as too much praise or celebration. Is there too much motivation? Of course not—the more the merrier. Fresh flowers on the table just to say how much you appreciate each other can do a lot toward making you happier any day. A new DVD to watch together can be a great reward/celebration for changing a bad habit.

Author Bio:
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page); Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes “Happiness Tips from Tina”, an e-mail newsletter, and the “Dr. Romance Blog.” Online, she is “Dr. Romance” with columns at DivineCaroline, and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC News. She tweets @tinatessina and is on Facebook at and

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