Summer always brings with it an influx of new couple clients, and I’ve noticed that there seems to be a trend in what these new couples are bringing to therapy. Perhaps because summer opens up some free time and creates a sense that we should get things done that we’ve been putting off, I see a lot of couples who have had “find a couples therapist” on their to-do list for a long time—which means they’re coming in to talk about patterns and problems that have kept them stuck for a while. Today I’d like to share with you some thoughts about one of the most prominent among these: the tendency for couples to get stuck debating (or having overt conflict) about how to solve a problem, without having first taken the time to understand each other’s experience and perception of said problem.
Here’s what I mean. Imagine that you’ve identified something that’s a source of stress or tension in your life — for example, you are taking on a new commitment at work that will make different demands on your time, requiring some restructuring of family schedules and reconsidering the division of responsibilities. You can do one of two things: you can think the problem through, figure out a solution, present it to your partner and ask them to agree; or, you can think about your experience, identify your emotional response, and bring your partner into the conversation early on to make them part of the process of fully understanding the problem and creating a solution. On the surface, the former seems appealing—you get to create a solution that will work for you, and there’s a feeling of empowerment that comes with taking on the challenge and initiating change. It might feel almost like you’re giving your partner a gift. “Look, there was this problem, but I’ve already figured out how to solve it! All I need is for you to get on board!”
But here’s the thing: your partner might have their own feelings and needs that should be included in a complete conceptualization of the problem and creation of a meaningful, mutually workable solution. When we come to our partners with a solution already identified and ask them to agree with it, to “just get on board,” we are leaving them out of the most critical part of the process. We are asking them to meet us on the rational level of communication, without giving them (or ourselves) the opportunity to share and be understood on the emotional level. We are shortcutting the front end of the process, and setting ourselves up to pay dearly for that shortcut later—when the solution falls flat, backfires, or just leaves one partner feeling totally left out and unheard.
Back to my example. In the “just get on board” scenario, you might say something like this:
OK, I met with my boss today and we decided that I’m going to stay late at work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and go in early every other Friday. I found an after-school activity for the kids and signed them up, and you’ll need to pick them up on your way home by 6pm. Then every other Friday, I need to leave the house by 6:30am, so you’ll be in charge of getting everyone on the bus before you leave for work. Sound good?
Now imagine you’re the partner hearing this. Lots of decisions have been made without you — notably, allocation of finances to pay for a new childcare solution, and a hard obligation on your calendar two to three days a week. Even if you are able and willing to make this plan work, the experience of it having been decided without you would likely be a pretty uncomfortable one. You’re in a position to say one of two things: either, “Sure, sounds good, that works for me,” or “Wait, no, that doesn’t work” — teeing up a situation ripe for conflict and hurt feelings. (Can you hear it? It goes something like this: “Here I am doing all this work to find a solution and you’re being totally inflexible!” “Inflexible?! You didn’t even ask me about any of this! Just because I don’t do everything you want exactly the way you want it doesn’t make me inflexible!” “Oh, here we go. Next you’ll say I’m a control freak.” “Well, you ARE a control freak!” “I have to take control or things around here will fall apart! You have no idea how hard I work to keep things running the way they do!” And on, and on, and on….)
Here’s the good news: there’s another way. If you’re partner A in this scenario, your job is to engage partner B all the way back at the point before you find out what your new work demands are going to be (assuming that the decision to take the job was itself made jointly). Something like this:
Partner A: I’m going to be talking to my new boss later this week and starting to figure out a schedule. Can we have a conversation about what feels possible for us, so that I know where our boundaries are when I talk to her?
This is a stunningly different approach. Now partner B has a chance to weigh in and feel included. The conversation might continue like this:
Partner B: I’m so excited for you and this new position, and so proud of you. I know you’re going to do a great job and hope that it’s really fulfilling for you. I am a little worried about the changes it might require for us at home and whether we’ll be able to make that shift smoothly. I definitely want to do whatever is possible to make it all work, and am willing to be flexible.
Partner A: Thank you. I’m feeling nervous, too — both about my new responsibilities and about balancing them with everything we have going on at home. It really helps to know that you’re in my corner. I do know that my new boss expects me to do at least two late nights a week, and an early shift every other week, which will mean we need to figure out the kids’ schedules for those days. What do you think might work?
Can you see the difference there? Even if the decision you come to ends up being the very same one partner A would have selected individually, it FEELS completely different because you’ve taken the time to understand each other’s feelings and provide support and connection, and because the solution is now being co-created by everyone on the team. Partner B feels like a valued stakeholder, rather than like an outsider who was cornered into having to either go along or create conflict.
The order of operations is the most important point here. Even though “Honey, I’ve solved a problem!” is really appealing, “Honey, we have a problem… can we talk it through together?” is the approach more likely to create meaningful conversation and lasting, mutually agreeable solutions. We can achieve this by slowing ourselves down when we recognize a problem that needs solving; rather than focusing on sorting it all out as quickly as possible and implementing what we see as the best solutions, we can push ourselves to sit in the discomfort of not knowing exactly how things are going to work out until we’ve given our partners a chance to weigh in. Initiate a conversation in which both of you are able to share openly about what you feel, and what factors are important to you. Then, work together to create solutions that take all of the above into consideration. The extra time you invest up front by choosing this process will pay you back in spades, creating better connection, a greater sense of collaboration, and truly lasting solutions in which both partners feel invested.
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to schedule a first appointment or complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.