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Spring 2017 Edition

Better Problem Solving For Couples

Problems are a normal part of life. How couples handle their problems can lead to relationship growth or deterioration.

Research has shown that successful relationships are not those that necessarily have fewer problems, but those that have found effective means of solving the problems that arise. Here are suggestions that can help you and your partner approach problems in a more positive and constructive way and result in a stronger and more satisfying relationship for you and your partner.


According to researchers who study marriage and relationships, couples who view themselves as being on the same team are better able to resolve conflicts than those who don't. "We" couples aim to resolve problems for the good of their relationship, not to "win" the argument.

How do you and your partner approach conflict in your relationship? Does it typically become a competition where you fight to prove that you are right, beat your opponent and "win" the argument? The truth is when one partner "wins" the fight, the other person loses – and resentment builds and intimacy is lost. In effect, both partners have then lost because the relationship has been damaged.

If you and your partner are experiencing a conflict now – or before the next issue arises – make a commitment to each other to be on the same team to resolve the issue. Your goal shouldn't be to win the argument but to strengthen the relationship. Think about your partner's needs as well as your own. Work together to problem solve and brainstorm possible solutions. By working together – instead of against each other – you will have a real chance of finding a solution that is acceptable to both of you.


According to marital research from the Gottman Institute, over two-thirds of the disagreements that couples have are perpetual – 69% of couples' conflicts end in stalemates. However, according to the researchers, you don't have to resolve your differences to have a satisfying, lasting relationship. You do, however, have to gain a mutual understanding about the problem. Therefore, it is imperative that you and your partner learn how to approach your issues so that you can come to a place of mutual understanding.

Try this perspectiveto help put you on the path toward mutual understanding. Start with a two-person focus. The two-person focus means that you keep in mind your needs and your partner's needs, as opposed to focusing only on yourself and your needs. Having a two-person focus means you have to care about your partner's feelings, interests, needs, desires and preferences, as well as your own.


Relationship experts agree that most relationship problems are the by-product of poor communication within the relationship. Follow these suggestions to help you improve your communication and problem-solving abilities:

Begin the discussion in a positive way
Most discussions end in the same positive or negative way that they are started. Learn how to start conversations without confrontation. It is easier for your partner to hear what you have to say when you focus on your own feelings, rather than dwelling on his or her mistakes. For example, rather than saying "You never pay attention to me. All you do is watch TV and ignore me" – instead, communicate how this feels to you, such as "When you watch TV during dinner I feel left out and lonely. I feel ignored and I feel you don't enjoy my company anymore." Talking about how it feels for you helps to keep your partner from feeling attacked or blamed and more likely to engage in constructive conversation.

Banish negative communication styles
Relationship experts advise couples to do all that they can to avoid these destructive types of communication:

  • criticizing your partner's opinions, feelings or desires
  • putting down the thoughts, feelings, actions or worth of your partner
  • name calling
  • insensitivity
  • stonewalling
  • making accusations
  • avoiding disagreements or important discussions
  • disregarding
  • withdrawing from conflicts
  • bringing up past hurts

These negative ways of interacting sabotage effective communication, erode positive feelings and are devastating to a relationship.

Learn how to listen
Constructive communication begins with genuinely attempting to understand your partner's point of view, needs or feelings. First, listening to understand focuses attention on the issue at hand, not on individual personalities. Second, caring to listen to what your partner thinks and feels is a way of showing that you care about him/her. For more effective listening you should:

  • Listen for understanding – Give your partner an opportunity to communicate his/her thoughts, feelings, needs or desires regarding the issue at hand. Listen for understanding, rather than spending time preparing for what you're going to say next.
  • Ask questions – Guard against assuming that you know what your partner meant or felt by asking questions to assure your understanding. Ask questions such as, "Do I hear you correctly?" or "Is this what you are saying?"
  • Summarize - When your partner is finished speaking, repeat what he/she said - in your own words - to confirm with your partner that you understand.

Learn to speak without attacking
Another vital communication skill to develop is your ability to express your feelings and concerns without blaming, calling names or assassinating your partner's character. As mentioned in the previous section about beginning a discussion in a positive way, you do this by communicating what you see and what you feel, rather than blaming your partner. To improve your talking skills you should:

  • Make "I" statements – Avoid starting a sentence with "you." It sounds like an accusation or an invitation to fight (which it often is). Instead, put yourself on the line by sharing how it is for you. Say, "I think..." or "I want..." or "I feel..." No cheating by saying, "I think that you..."
  • Use "Feeling" words - It's not fair to expect your partner to guess or "figure out" what you are feeling, as in, "If he loved me, he'd know!" Refrain from playing the guessing game and say it straight. Be sure to use feeling words like "sad," "happy," "excited," "angry," "worried," etc. Remember to start the sentence with an "I" as in, "I was upset when you forgot about our date."
  • Focus on issues, not personalities - Deal with specific issues on which decisions and compromise action can be worked out. Be specific when you introduce a complaint. Confine yourself to one issue at a time.

Stay in control
If you feel that your anger or emotions are getting out of control, take a break. Agree with your partner ahead of time to take a time-out to cool off if one of you feels too upset or negative to engage in positive and healthy problem solving. Agree to resume the discussion within 24 hours.


By using a team approach and improving your communication skills, you and your partner can learn how to resolve your differences without negative consequences and, in fact, grow stronger and closer by solving them together.

Getting professional help

Sometimes our problems are too hard to solve on our own. If you are concerned about a particularly difficult marital or relationship issue, or if physical abuse, substance abuse or depression are involved, contact your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for confidential counseling, referrals or information. We're here to help you.


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Disclaimer: This newsletter is not intended to provide medical advice on personal wellness matters. Please consult your physician for medical advice.