Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems
If a given disagreement is deemed solvable, then a couple has to try something different than unresolved arguments, screaming, yelling or angry silences. The classical advice of improving communication or suggestions of “try to put yourself in the others’ shoes” does not work, because some people cannot. Nevertheless, those are not the essential components of happy and loving marriages. Instead, 5 principle of problem resolution were found to key to happy marriages:
- Soften Your Startup– Arguments tend to end up in the same tonality that they start! Also, couples tend to divorce more because of distancing to avoid the fights then the actual fights. Women tend to be the ones with more harsh start-ups as they tend to be the ones who try to bring up and resolve issues, while men tend to avoid the arguments as their body reacts stronger than women to stress. Therefore, it is important to phrase the way you start your disagreement in a soft way. i.e. instead of saying “what’s wrong with you? You never take the garbage out!”, you can say “I am sometimes so tired when I get home from work, can you please help me with the garbage?”. There is a questionnaire on page 162 in Gottman’s book which tries to assess whether harsh startups is an issue for a couple. This questionnaire based on how the partner hears the requests of the other partner. Exercise 1: softenstartup: gives a harsh startup and the person is supposed to give a softer alternative. Suggestions on how to have soft-startups:
- Complain – but don’t blame
- Make statements which start with “I” instead of “you” – i.e. speak of what the situation does to you, not what the other does. i.e. “you are reckless with money” sounds worse and more blaming than “I would like to save more”. “I think you are a bitch” does not count, as the sentence starts with an “I” but defeats the purpose of getting to the underlying point in a palpable way.
- Describe what is happening, do not judge or evaluate
- Be clear – your partner is not a mind-reader – i.e. “please change the baby’s bottle and diaper” instead of “would you care for the baby for once”.
- Be appreciative- i.e. ground request in previously successful/correct action of the partner.
- Don’t store things [negative emotions] up! – it will escalate in your mind.
- Learn To Make And Receive Repair Attempts:Good for when noticing that the discussion will end up the wrong way. The essence is that the repair attempts gets through to the other partner – not that the repair attempt is “elegant” repair attempts questionnaire: on page 170 – tries to assess the effectiveness of repair attempts in your own relationship. Repair attempts could be missed if not sugarcoated. One should focus on “brake” attempts at the negativity-escalating situation. Humor is helpful as well as “announcing an upcoming repair attempt. Identifying potent repair statements is like megaphones to the repair attempts. Repair statements could be:
- I feel:
- I am getting scared
- Please say that more gently
- Did I do something wrong?
- That hurt my feelings
- I am feeling sad
- That felt like an insult
- I am feeling defensive– can you rephrase that?
- I feel criticized – can you rephrase that?
- I feel:
- I need to calm down
- Can you make things safer for me?
- I need things to be calmer right now
- Tell me you love me\can I take that back?
- I need your support
- Just try to listen to me and try to understand
- Please be gentler with me
- Please help me calm down
- This is important to me, please listen
- Can we take a break
- I am starting to feel flooded
- I need to finish what I was saying
- My reaction was too extreme. Sorry.
- I really blew that one
- Let me try again
- I want to be gentler to you right now but do not know how.
- Tell me what you hear me saying
- I can see my part in all of this
- How can I make things better
- Let me try this over again
- What you are saying is
- Let me try again in a softer way
- I am sorry. Please forgive me
- Get to
- You are starting to convince me
- I agree with part of what you are saying
- Let’s compromise here
- Let’s find our common ground
- The problem is not very serious in the big picture
- Lets agree to include both of our view in a solution
- I think your point of view makes sense
- I never thought of it this way
- I see what you are talking about
- One thing I admire you about is
- I am thankful for…
- Stop action
- I might be wrong here
- Please, let’s stop for a while
- Let’s take a break
- Give me a moment here. I’ll be back
- Please stop
- I feel flooded
- Let’s start over again
- Hang in there –don’t withdraw
- I appreciate
- I know it is not your fault
- My part of the problem is
- I see your point
- Thank you for
- I am thankful for
- That’s a good point
- We’re both saying
- I understand
- I love you
- One thing I admire about you is
- This is not your problem – it is our problem
- Soothe Yourself And Each Other–some couples can self-soothe as part of a discussion. Others cannot as they flood fast, and thus repair attempts are missed. A flooding questionnaire is offered on page 177. Self-soothing exercise is found on page 178. i.e. take some time to unwind after a workday or within a couple conflict –i.e. calming activities, such as lying down, slow breathing, yoga, etc… when a person is flooded, discussion has to stop, before he stonewalls! When a person’s heart-rate reaches 100bpm, he’ll be unable to hear anything the other says – give him a break then (i.e. 20 minutes)! Taking a break in a fight will help the people calm down enough to now withdraw completely. Exercise on soothing each other is found on p. 180: i.e. reverse the conditioning of seeing the partner as a source of flooding agency. To this end, the couple need to first discuss:
- What floods each person
- How issues or irritability are brought up
- Does anyone store up things
- Is there anything I can do to soothe you
- Is there anything that you can do to soothe me
- What signals can we use to let other know that we’re flooded? Can we take a break?
- Compromise:negotiation is nice. But it only workers if there is a softening startup, repairing your discussion and staying calm (the above three steps). Also, one cannot be closed to, or disagree with everything that the spouse says. Men tend to have a harder time accepting influence of their partners than vice-versa. Exercise (182) finding common grounds (i.e. making circle inside another one – putting non-negotiable things inside, and negotiable things outside, and then starting to negotiate using this info. Exercise (p.184) make a paper tower together –but work on agreeing to each other’s’ plans and ideas). In the first exercise, the the couple must ask:
- What do we agree about
- What are our common feelings or the most important feelings here
- What common goal scan we have here
- How do we think that these goals should be accomplished.
- Be tolerant of each others’ faults– you cannot change your partner. If if you think so, then compromise cannot happen!
Coping with typical solvable problems
There are some “hot topics” of contention in each marriage, and one must remember to go beyond “lip service” to the notion that a marriage takes “work”. Once the issue at hand is indeed deemed to be a solvable issue, one must actually get to effective coping with it. Six common marital stressors and possible coping solutions are discussed in this chapter:
Stress and more stress:
Task: making the marriage a place of peace.
Issues include: i.e. bringing stress home from work. i.e. wife gets angry at husband for not doing groceries, so she is left without food after a long and crappy day at work, or comes home in a negative mood, it is likely not personal, and must not be taken as such. Solutions include: regular discussion sessions to speak of what has to be done, creating a break between work and home, and in that time, so some soothing/calming activities (i.e. as outlined in chapter 8), and regular whining sessions where each can complain about any catastrophes while the other is supportive.
Relations with the in-laws
Task: establishing a sense of “we-ness” or solidarity between husband and wife.
Issues include: a person may be placed in a loyalty conflict between a family-of-origin member (i.e. parent) and spouse. The spouse and the family of origin member may want to be more, or try to compete with each other. Each side may think that the person does not love them enough because of the other, and thus the competition and the loyalty conflict.
Solution: there is no solution to this except the partner who is being “fought” over establishing the fact that s/he is now an adult and had established his own family, which has nothing to do with more or less loving. Any intrusions into the marriage should thus not be accepted or colluded with, by this person. Family-of-origin may protest at first, but they’ll have to get used to it.
Money, money, money
Task: balancing the freedom and empowerment money represents with the security and trust it also symbolizes.
Issues include: balancing pleasure and security. If disagreements over how money is handled goes beyond the newlywed stages of the marriage, it may be a sign of bad negotiation, new life-cycle stage, or a perpetual (unsolvable) problem, as underlying are the deeply held values of each of the partners.
Solutions: need to budget together, and also be firm on the items which you consider non-negotiable. Steps include:
- Itemize your current expenditures;
- Manage everyday finances. I.e. Compare essentials to your income and assets, in order to manage everyday finances based on your means and essential needs.
- Come up with a plan of who pays what and how
- Separate lists and plans for each of the partner to be compared to try to meet both sides’ “essential” needs.
- Plan your financial future (+i.e. Look for common ground between the partners in order to proceed).
The task: Fundamental appreciation and acceptance of each other.
Issues include: Sex has a huge potential for embarrassment, hurt and rejection. Therefore, couples often try to speak and negotiate with each other about it, but in very vague, indirect, imprecise and inconclusive terms.
Solutions: Learn to speak about sex in a safe way. Lovemaking with a critical partner ends up usually being quite short (and sucky). One must remember that his partner’s sexual preferences in not a reflection of one’s own attractiveness. Learning about the other gender’s anatomy helps sex too. One can give room to the partner’s fantasies, if the relationship gets that strong, but one can also say no if requested actions are not wanted. More intimate partners had better sex, regardless of the partners’ individual personalities.
The task: Creating a sense of fairness and teamwork
Issues include: The more house-orderliness oriented person will feel disrespected and unsupported if the other is oblivious to that person’s home-orderliness. Resentment may kick in. sometimes, men do not appreciate [due to socializing] that women do so much of the home chores and may over-estimate their own house-work.
Solution: men are to do more of the house chores. Women tend to more into those kinds of men, and actually sex life improves too. In such cases, women’s heart-rates during arguments is lower, and thus less likely to begin an argument harshly. Also, if chores are unevenly balanced (i.e. the man do all the hard work + woman only do the mindless ones), one of the partners is bound to feel resentful. Similar issues can be spoken about when it comes to finances and childrearing. One can do a “who-does-what” list with two boxes beside each chore: now and ideal.
The task: Expanding your sense of “we-ness” to include your children
Issues include: The move from couplehood to parenthood is a difficult one. Marital satisfaction reduces (usually first by the wife, and then the in the husband as a response). Reasons for this reduction in marital satisfaction include lack of sleep, lack of feeling appreciated, added responsibility, juggling motherhood with a job, economic stresses and lack of time for other things. Mothers tend to feel intense affection to the newborn. Husband may develop resentfulness at the wife for not having time for him, her tiredness, and preoccupation with baby. The husband may live his baby, but he wants his wife back.
Solution: Husband must accept the new family constellation – this will allow him to accept his new role not only as a husband but also a father. Some people give bad advice: work on your marriage too [i.e. seesaw between marital and parenthood positions, such as spending time away from the newborn]. Instead, what is of essence is not to balance the marriage and parenthood, but rather to transition together and in an integrated way into the new situation. Some tips include:
- Work on the marital friendship – before babies comes along
- Don’t exclude dad from caring for the baby – mothers sometimes tend to take over or assume a supervisory role, and chastise the father if he does not do things her way. Some men tend to withdraw and let the mother do everything – at the expense of the father later truly feeling and being excluded. Some men may envy the mother-infant bond, and it would be good to have the father also take part in nursing of the child, if not physically, then at least with doing things around the breastfeeding.
- Let dad be the baby’s playmate – even before the baby is able to walk and talk (despite some fathers’ having a harder time doing so before the baby is able to walk/talk).
- Carve out time for both of you (the couple).
- Be sensitive to the father’s needs: i.e. because of the overwhelming parenting needs of young infants, when mothers do much of it, the fathers may intellectually know the reason why the mother is immersed in the child-caring, but will still feel left out. It is important for the wife to acknowledge this, and for him to not withdraw [i.e. into a further sense of exclusion].
- Give mom a break – husband can change his work schedule or something else that will allow the mother to take her well-deserved breaks, as she has been immersed in child-caring.