Skill #2: Solve your Solvable Problems

Newsflash! Less than one-third of relationship problems are solvable.

While most couples would say it sure feels this way at times, it can be rather discouraging to hear that actual statistic. Dr. John Gottman, psychologist at the University of Washington and one of the country’s most prolific researchers in the area of marriages and relationships, reported that 69% of the problems experienced by couples are perpetual problems—that is, they are problems that can’t be solved. Therefore, NOT dealing with problems that can be solved exacerbates the stress that people experience in their lives, personal and professional.

Many couples come in to our offices and start a session like this. “We had the worst fight—and it was over something really ridiculous.”

Many couples come in to our offices and start a session like this. “We had the worst fight—and it was over something really ridiculous.” They talk about not being able to agree on household duties and division of labor, how to spend or save their money, or whether or not little Johnny should play soccer or football. Over the years, many people have said to us, “We are two smart, educated people; how come we keep having the same stupid fight over and over?” Some of these disagreements may be about perpetual problems. However, it is also possible that the couple does not know how to “solve their solvable problems,” as urged by Gottman in his early publication, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

There is an old adage, “You can be right or you can be married.” While this statement is not limited to married couples, it reflects the notion that we can become polarized in our position rather than giving adequate thought and consideration to the opinion of the other. There are also times when a problem has become symbolic; it is no longer about what it is about. I knew a very bright, successful couple who could not agree upon a simple budget problem because managing money had become a power struggle. Who would win? Her desire to save or his desire to vacation? For them, the struggle was no longer about money. The essence of the struggle was “Who will be in charge?” Now we have what an example of what Gottman calls a “perpetual problem”—one with no clear path but about which we must keep the dialogue alive. This can happen at work as well. I was once in a professional setting in which one of my colleagues aptly noted that we were good at talking about controversial issues but we seemed incapable of actually picking a solution. Why? The problem probably wasn’t the problem. We never did get to the root of the issue.
So, how can you solve your solvable problems? Gottman makes several suggestions.

First, learn to “soften your start-up.”

This means that we ease into difficult topics in a way that does not attack the other person or create a challenge with a harsh attitude. These “harsh start-ups” reliably predict the outcome of the disagreement. To start softly is challenging! It requires a great deal of mindfulness.

Second is the simple but often not easy tactic: compromise.

Amy and her husband, Nick, have been guest speakers in my Psychology of Marriage class several times and Nick offered his version of this to my inquisitive students. He says basically that if he and Amy get stuck in a disagreement, “I just decide to try it her way first. I trust her. I know she has our best interests in mind. I know she had a lot of knowledge and experience.” In short, he makes a clear decision to compromise. My students are always shocked at the simplicity of this. The disagreement is no longer symbolic. I think of this as deciding that we are on the same team as opposed to competing with one another.

Virginia Satir, the “mother of family therapy” and a favorite therapist and theorist of mine, said, “There are at least 3 possible solutions to every problem: yours, mine and the ones we haven’t thought of yet.” In many spiritual traditions, this is also known as “the third way.” These are the solutions we must seek—the ones that take us out of our “me vs. you” rut– to the “we”—from competitive to collaborative. How can we entertain options that go beyond one way of looking at things to a more creative solution—one that includes more than just my own viewpoint? This requires empathy—the ability to examine a problem from another’s perspective. To step outside of ourselves and to be willing to take a risk—like Nick said, to trust the wisdom of the other and then try a third option, can go a long way to solving problems.

Solve your solvable problems because Life is Messy and Life is Marvelous.


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