Solve or Manage a Problem?

Conflict Resolution: Do You Solve or Manage a Problem?

Mentors, when you meet with couples they will have conflict on specific issues. Who doesn’t?

How do we help couples with conflict resolution? Our job as mentors is not to solve their problems. Our job is to teach them tools and concepts that will help them to solve their own problems.

It helps to recognize that there are different types of problems. You can talk about them slightly differently. There are problems that you can solve and there are problems that you manage.

Solvable Problems

When Michelle and I were first married we used to fight about what happened when we got home from work.

Michelle would start to fix dinner and she’d go into the kitchen and start to work. I wanted a break. I didn’t want to immediately go to work.

Michelle would get angry at me for not helping out. My response was something like, “Look, I’ve been working all day and I just want a break.” That would make her more angry. We would fight.

After some time, we realized that we had two different perspectives. She wanted to get all of her chores done so that she could relax. I wanted a break and then I was happy to help.

So, we compromised. She fixed dinner and then she was done. I cleaned up the kitchen after dinner. That’s how we’ve operated for most of our marriage.

That was a solvable problem. Here are the characteristics:

  • Focused on a specific issue – For us, it was about who did what when we got home from work.
  • Can be solved by first understanding – We needed to understand both perspectives before we could come up with a solution.
  • Brainstorm actions – We were able to brainstorm how to address both perspectives to come to a solution.

These problems can be solved by understanding both perspectives and then brainstorming solutions.

Perpetual Problems

John Gottman, one of the top marriage researchers, estimates that 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual. That means that couples will have the same disagreement over and over again. You may never solve it.

Despite that problems may never be solved, healthy marriages can still learn to manage these issues and thrive.

I like to think that there are different types of perpetual problems.

First, there are pet peeves. It seems like every couple has these types of issues.

I like a clean countertop. I don’t know why, but it irritates me when the countertop isn’t cleaned off. Michelle doesn’t see it the same way. She just doesn’t notice. So, she comes into the house and places her purse in the middle of the countertop. It drives me nuts.

I used to ask her politely if she would put her purse somewhere else. She would usually do that, but the next day, it was same thing. I then tried to tell her not very politely to move her purse. Same result.

I would watch her put something on the countertop and I’d not say anything. I would see how long it took her to move it. Sometimes, things would sit there for days and every time I saw it, I would inwardly seethe.

I have come to understand that this is my problem, not hers. Am I going to divorce Michelle over a clean countertop?

Then, I began to understand this in a deeper way. I grew up with my own bathroom and my job to keep it clean. It wasn’t all that hard to put my toothbrush and toothpaste away. I took pride in cleaning it up. Michelle grew up with four siblings and her parents sharing a bathroom. There was always stuff out. In her mind, that was normal.

We have two different perspectives. I recognized that she may not change.

I now see my job in our marriage as the countertop cleaner. It’s what I do. I no longer get upset by this. I’ve come to manage this problem by acceptance. With some issues, there is a certain amount of acceptance.

There are also deeper perpetual problems. Many of these are caused by basic personality differences or by deeper triggers from our past. Often times, these triggers are may be deeply rooted in our own insecurities.

Characteristics of perpetual problems:

  • May be caused by basic personality differences
  • Often rooted in our childhood expectations
  • May reflect our deeper insecurities

If there are deeper issues involved, negotiating about who cleans up the kitchen isn’t going to help. You need to help the couple recognize the deeper issue.

When we talk with couples and they seem stuck, we talk to them about solvable versus perpetual problems. It helps couples to know that they won’t be able to solve all of their problems. Happy couples learn to manage them.

Sometimes it comes down to the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.”

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Solvable problems vs perpetual problems – Recognize the difference. If the problem is about a deeper insecurity, negotiating who does the dishes isn’t going to help.
  • Manage with understanding – It’s easier to have empathy and compassion for our partners when we understand their perspective. Help couples to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings, even if you disagree.
  • Decrease the poor communication behaviors – Many of our conflicts aren’t about the specific issue. They are about how we communicate. Is this a true difference of opinion or is it in reaction to how something was said?
  • Accept what you cannot change – There may be basic differences that won’t change. If it’s a basic personality difference, like introvert versus extrovert, it will be about how to handle a social situation. When you are out with friends, one person may want to stay out longer and one person may want to go home. The question is what will you do when they occur? Is there a healthy way to react?