From Struggling to Solving


Healthy relationships are built on a foundation, or infrastructure, of clear thinking, problem solving, and mutual support. Any willing couple can learn to build a happy relationship, if they stop reacting and learn to respond thoughtfully. As an individual you have ideas and beliefs about how certain things in life should be handled, and so does your partner; and we all tend to assume everyone, especially a person who loves us, will see it our way.

I teach couples the techniques and information that allows them to communicate and solve problems, rather than fight endlessly about the same things. In my long marriage, I’ve also learned from my own experience that there’s a big difference between the skills and attitudes one needs to date and fall in love, and what is needed to make married life, home and family work smoothly. There’s a difference between being lovers and being partners, and on top of all that, keeping enough romance and fun alive to make it all feel worthwhile. Those of us who succeed are the blessed ones, the happy ones, and you can be, too.

In over thirty five years of couple counseling, I have frequently worked with couples who fight about who’s right, family, housekeeping issues and time, and who often resort to yelling and blaming, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can learn you what you need to know to build the healthy, loving partnership you want, and to eliminate struggle.

When you learn to view your relationship as a partnership, rather than a challenge or a competition, you’ll discover new ways to think about sharing and working together to make all your decisions mutual ones. With a little information and practice, you can become a successful, happy couple.

I want to help you to resolve your issues, and move on to having a workable, satisfying relationship, with minimal arguing or fighting, and create a partnership which will cause you to feel blessed and happy.

Stumbling Blocks

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to improving a marriage is the unwillingness to talk. Often, this is because a history of fighting has discouraged the partners, and made them unwilling to deal with problems. It’s always amazing to me that couples are so much more willing to fight than to work together, but I do realize that working together requires letting yourself be vulnerable, which is difficult when you’re scared.

Most of the couples who come to me have let small problems fester for a very long time before getting help. It’s almost never the small issues that are difficult—it’s the habits that develop over time of fighting, struggling, and not working together.

Money issues are a big one—and let’s face it, money is just math. It’s not very difficult if you take the feelings out of it. But couples can get divorced over it.

Sharing space, communication, dealing with family and friends, having different wants or needs can all become giant issues. Couples without teamwork skills fight about money, sex, affection, time, infidelity, in-laws, raising children, housekeeping, or other problems, often repeating the same old arguments, without any resolution, or locked in habitual ways of relating that they think they “should” do, but that create dissatisfaction and struggle between them.

Often, infidelity can be a result of the shutdown in communication (and therefore, sex) that happens when couples avoid fighting with the “silent treatment"”. I recommend couples who fight take “time outs” when things get too heated, and separate, but the person who called the time out has the responsibility to come back and re-start the conversation. I also recommend couples who are having trouble talking without fighting have their discussions via e-mail, because it takes a lot of the reaction out of the discussion.

Getting Help

When my husband and I got married, we agreed up front that we’d go for counseling with any problem we couldn’t solve within 3 days. We went a few times, then we got to the point where one of us saying “I think we need a counseling session” was enough to solve the problem, and we haven’t needed help for about 27 years. We’ve been married since 1982.

Getting help with difficult problems is really valuable. If you go for help early, it only takes a session or two. If you wait and let things fester, it can take months to solve the problems.

One couple told me how they were on the brink of divorce—due to an affair. Before going to divorce court, they sought counseling, and stuck with it for 18 months. She said “therapy saved my life...saved my marriage.” He said: “We sought psychotherapy from a professional to address the way we were thinking.” They speak with ease about their past issue, and seem very much over it.

They found a good therapist, and took it seriously. They did whatever work the therapist assigned, and were willing to make changes. Those things are always successful.

Insisting you’re right and making your partner wrong is the biggest disaster you can create. The healing action is to listen and understand.

Marriage is a learning process. You’re doing something brand new, and no other couple is exactly like you, so you have to figure it out as you go. But, there’s a lot of good relationship technology out there to help you. The rewards for building a good partnership are truly wonderful.

Relationships and Myths

There is a pervasive myth that somehow happy couples just agree on everything automatically all the time. Believing this myth, we enter relationships convinced that whatever problems or differences we have with our partners will be easy to solve. But, in reality, the individuals who make up a partnership will disagree frequently, and often struggle over even minor issues.
In the course of building and sustaining a lifetime relationship, every couple encounters many problems. Different backgrounds and experience, discordant perception of each other and events, unequal rates of education and growth, conflicting needs for self-expression and contact, and differing values and beliefs about relationships complicate and often block attempts at creating partnership together.

Relationship models based on the idea that one person must lead and the other follow, or one “win” and the other “lose” can easily become power struggles, where the partners fight bitterly. Each partner struggles to be in control, or they avoid disagreements altogether because it isn’t worth the struggle. Hence they spend a lot of their time either fighting for what they want or feeling deprived.

Who’s in Charge?

The belief that someone has to be in charge of the relationship causes couples to compete for power rather than cooperate. Otherwise loving partners can struggle because they believe it’s the way to get their needs met. Between partners in intimate relationships competition becomes stressful, counter-productive and toxic, poisoning the relationship by turning us into adversaries, and undermining the mutual support and encouragement vital to satisfactory relationships.
Differences can be frightening, and make resolving problems and conflicts with our intimate partners tense and difficult. In a relationship intimate enough that we feel a deep bonding or sense of commingled identity, it’s easy to experience disagreements as threatening. Disagreeing seems to indicate we are separate individuals who perceive everything differently, and have different needs and wants, and we fear that we’ll be rejected or disapproved of if we are different.
Sometimes relationship problems are only indirectly connected to your partnership: your car breaks down, your kids need to get to school, your boss is difficult to get along with. These issues become partnership problems because you bring their effects, big and small, home (into the relationship) with you. Anger at your unreasonable boss can quickly become a difficult evening with your partner if you bring your frustration home, are irritable, and the two of you wind up arguing unnecessarily.

Unskilled couples easily become tangled in a web of blaming, hurt and anger and, after years of similar unresolved conflicts, can build a backlog of bitterness that can’t be healed.

Some problems are directly related to your relationship: you fight about housework, time, money, child care or sex. One or both of you becomes hurt or angry. For couples who don’t know how to cooperate, such issues can escalate into a big problem or accumulate over time. When problems cause friction and never get resolved, they undermine an otherwise loving and viable partnership.
Only recently have psychologists and sociologists begun to discuss the elements of effective decision making. Among other discoveries, they found that decision-making (even in business) is more effective when everyone contributes their views of priorities, needs, wants, goals, and their thoughts about possible solutions. This cooperative approach means that both contribute their understanding to the problem (which often makes it clearer) and both feel involved in the process and committed to the success of the solution they agree upon.

In cooperative negotiation, both parties attempting to resolve a conflict or make a decision involving them can negotiate so that both get what they want. By working together, you can learn to solve the problems of the past (I’m afraid we’ll fight about money like my first wife and I did); the present (I don’t think I’m getting a fair share of the housework) and the future (what will we do if I lose my job?). Instead of being a struggle or something to avoid, solving such problems becomes an opportunity to re-affirm your mutual love and caring, and to strengthen your partnership and teamwork.

Dr. Romance on Getting What You Want:

If you have difficulty in knowing what you want and communicating it, try these steps:

1. Get clear about what you want: You can’t express what you want effectively if you’re not clear what it is, so before approaching your partner, your boss or your child with a request, think about it and make sure you can write it down in one clear sentence.

2. Create a good atmosphere: If asking for what you want is difficult for you, don’t do it without preparation. Make sure you and the person you’re asking both have time, and invite the other person to sit down and talk with you.

3. Simply state what you want: Don’t preface your statement with a lot of disclaimers—they make the other person feel accused of something. Just ask, politely, for what you want.

4. Be prepared to accept a “no.”: Remember, if you can’t accept a no answer, then you’re making a demand, not a request, so have a backup solution. Find a way to get what you want for yourself, even if the other person isn’t cooperating. For example, if you don’t get that raise you deserve, maybe it’s time to begin a job search.

5. Listen politely to the other person’s answer: Whether the other person says yes, no, or something in between—listen carefully to what he or she says. Don’t get all caught up in a lot of worry and noise inside your head—pay attention. You need to know what the answer is.

If you follow these steps, you’ll find you’re successful a good percentage of the time, and when you aren’t you have a backup plan—so you really can’t lose.

© 2013 Tina B. Tessina adapted from: Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Squabbling About the Three Things That Can Destroy Your Marriage (Adams Media) ISBN# 978-1-59869-325-6

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