When it comes to marital conflict, read my lips: Not all problems are resolvable! I wish more marriage experts would just tell us that from the beginning. Some problems we face are perpetual. These are problems that will always be in our lives in one form or another. You will have issues in your relationship where the best you can do is agree to disagree. When that is the case, move on. Find a workable solution so you can both live with it. You do this every day at work with co-worker relationships, so make it happen with your spouse.
Most of our marital problems are not troubles worth putting the relationship in jeopardy over. Life isn’t an emergency. The conflict doesn’t usually matter as much as we make it matter.
When the problem is solvable, and you want to give it your best shot with your spouse, you might want to consider following a simple five-point process of problem-solving that has been helpful to me.
1. Find the real problem. Sometimes when we are communicating or in conflict with our spouse we are trying to hit a moving target. It’s important to stick with one issue at a time, and make sure it is the very problem you want to solve. If you are talking just to talk, that’s fine, but it isn’t problem-solving. As an example, let’s pretend that the problem is “We have too much debt in our lives.”
2. List alternative solutions. Whenever possible as a couple, take a look at various solutions and try to come up with a solution that both of you can support. With a problem, if you can become a we, that is a great help. Let’s pretend that you came up with three possible solutions:
• Sell a car and pay off some debt.
• Either you or your spouse works more hours.
• Develop a budget with a plan to get out of debt.
3. Together, select a plan of action. Now that you have looked at the alternatives and discussed each of them, come up with a plan that works for both of you. If you need to write out the plan, do that. In this case, let’s assume that you both chose the third solution: “Develop a budget with a plan to get out of debt.” This means that together you create a plan that works best for you as a couple.
4. Establish and enforce accountability. You developed a plan. Now you need to hold each other accountable to follow the plan. With our illustration, a simple weekly report on how you spent money compared to your plan is very easy to follow. For most problem-solving, a weekly check-in time works well.
5. Set up an evaluation procedure. Keep it very simple, but put together some kind of an evaluation procedure to help you assess how you are doing with the problem. If you have created a budget with a plan to get out of debt, it would be as simple as creating a check and balance to make sure you are following the plan and eventually reaching your goal of being out of debt.
This is a very simple and straightforward process that takes some of the emotion out of problem-solving and helps us focus on common language to deal with problems. When spouses have major differences in communication style, working with each other is somewhat like learning another language. When they can find common words and phrases that make sense to both of them, all their shared activities (including problem-solving) will be more productive.