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A Step by Step Guide to Problem Solving

No matter how much you love each other, how effective your communication and how committed you are to each other, relationships are mercurial and still may experience problems. Sometimes the problem is a one off event that is quickly resolved to the satisfaction of all involved.

At other times the problem may be a long term niggling irritation that pops in and out of the relationship slowly building to an explosive level. Problems may become the resting place for resentments, accusations and petty nuances, and if left to sit in silence may suddenly voice themselves in anger and hostility. Problems that are ignored or inappropriately managed have the potential to cause irreparable damage and the termination of a once loving relationship.

It would logically follow that if couples had an effective tool to help them solve their problems amicably that more relationships could be saved.

This did seem to be the case for Helen and John.

Helen and John’s Story

While working with Helen and John on a number of issues that were stressing their partnership, it became evident that they could benefit from  some tools to help improve their relationship.

This was a young couple who had brought into their relationship a number of irritations that initially were non events, but eventually had become sore points as the glitz and glamour of the honeymoon period faded.

Helen is a cat lover and had brought her cat Miffy with her when she moved in with John. John hates cats and accepted Miffy on the proviso that she stay outside and out of his way- which of course did not always happen. Miffy was tolerated out of the love John felt for Helen.

It is not unusual for relationships to endure irritations such as a cat. Under different circumstances ‘cat’ can become dog, or it can become his friends coming over unannounced to watch the game on the big TV screen, or it can become a collection of tupperware that has taken over every space in the house or …

Whatever the issue it was not big when you got together and love was in full bloom, but it has grown out of proportion and is now placing stress on the relationship.

With time if the problem is not resolved arguments may become more frequent and louder, partners begin to personalise their attacks and the real issues become lost.

Most couples suffering these irritations still love each other and have no intention of ending the relationship, but they wish there was a way to make the irritation go away without hurting or offending their partner.

Helen loved John and appreciated his efforts to accept Miffy. She however could not always see what the big deal was if Miffy sat in the house with her when she watched TV or was reading a book. She became resentful of some of the comments he made and often responded to his outbursts in kind.

Besides “Miffy” Helen and John experienced other issues in their life that eventually reached problem status as no solutions were found.

What Helen and John needed was a tool to dig them out of the chaos caused by their problems. And so they were introduced to a problem solving strategy.

Some Simple Steps to Problem Solving

  1. One or both partners declare that there is a problem and place it on the ‘working table’ where it can eventually be looked at from all angles.
  2. Both partners use “I” language at all times when addressing each other.
  3. Each partner is given an opportunity to express their opinions concerning the problem.
  4. Depersonalise the process. It does not matter whose cat or dog or friends or tupperware have caused this predicament, the problem is separate from both of you. You are now facing this problem together. The individual ‘you’ is not the issue. The problem is.
  5. Ask yourselves what outcome you would like in regards to this problem. What are your individual goals? Your mutual goal?
  6. Consider what you have tried already to solve this problem and attain your goal(s). If there is anything that can be salvaged from these attempts put them aside and place them on a list of possible solutions.
  7. Creatively Brainstorm as many other possible solutions to the problem that you can think of and add them to your list. Do not exclude the excessively practical or the ridiculously zany. Avoid judging any of these suggestions until later. Just let your minds run free.
  8. Discuss all your options and streamline your list. Cross out any ideas that are totally unrealistic and unhelpful. Note the good ones and include those that have potential to be even better.
  9. If a suggestion sounds promising but is not totally acceptable to one partner still include it in your refined list.
  10. Discuss the pros and cons of each solution that has survived this elimination process.
  11. If one solution stands out as the best way to solve your problem then go with it. Make sure that both partners agree on the chosen solution.
  12. If there is still some doubt as to the best course of action repeat the process.
  13. Discuss how the chosen solution will be implemented. Decide what has to happen and who has to make it happen. Create an action plan.
  14. Implement the strategy. Depending on the issue you may decide that a trial run is the way to go.
  15. Review your solution and determine whether you are on track, or whether some changes are required.

Ideally it is best to implement the problem solving process when both partners are calm and focused and when they have an intention to work collaboratively and supportively. It is not a good idea to table a problem for discussion if partners are in midst of an argument about the problem and already using words of blame and frustration. As with any form of communication there are Rules of Engagement to adhere to.

Helen and John took on board the steps of the Problem Solving process and designated a quiet afternoon to work through some of their problems. When discussing their options on how to handle Miffy a number of suggestions were listed from giving Miffy away to establishing boundaries that would allow John space without Miffy’s presence. It was not an easy process as John at times tended to see the problem as Helen’s- she had to do something about it. But when he was able to see that this was a relationship problem his mood shifted and energy was redirected from complaining to resolving.

Eventually a plan was put into place which allowed Miffy some time within the common living space but also ensured that she was outside on the occasions John wanted cat-free time. Both Helen and John agreed to be more understanding of each other’s position. John was to try and develop an attitude more accepting of pets in general, and Helen was to pay more attention to John’s needs for a space that did not include animals.

Having had a minor win in dealing with the issue of “Miffy”, Helen and John felt quite comfortable in using the Problem Solving Steps in addressing some of their other concerns.

No matter the severity of the problem whether it appears to be merely a minor nuisance such as the lid being left off the tooth paste or something more serious such as excessive visits from the in-laws, if left unattended problems have the habit of growing out of control. Couples who are equipped with tools and strategies, such as a Problem Solving Guide can gain control of their problem situations and reduce the stress in their relationship.



#1 taya jonkergouw on 07.31.10 at 9:10 pm

Hi Zahava
I have not read many of your articles yet but the focus seems to be on communication – great. However, if one of the partners is passive aggressive, ADHD, bipolar, B6 deficient, oppositional personality disorder, post traumatic, projecting, unable to express emotions, …. no commuciation is going to do anything here. I’d like to see couples become much more aware of these “disorders” rather than try to communicate until they have blisters in their mouth, are green with frustration…. because however hard they try, it simply doesn’t work – just for a short while perhaps. Awareness of these subtle yet so destructive disorders will make them realise they desperately need counselling indeed. Not only the one with the disoder but also the partner who has – often unknowingly – been a vicitim of these people for years and years….. So many people have never heard of these disorders and have no idea what is really going on and yet they keep trying and trying whihc is like fighting a losing battle until these disorders are dealt with. Perhaps you have already written a lot about these disorders but unfortunately I haven’t seen any yet. Hope to see some soon. kind regards. Taya

#2 admin on 08.03.10 at 5:21 pm

Hi Taya,
Thank you for your comments. How are you? You are right that the focus of this article is on communication. The issues that you have discussed probably require some additional insights into mental health concerns. This can be quite a complex area and can bring additional complications to relationships.