I’ve got some news for you: Not all problems in your marriage can be solved. Some can be worked through using compromise, and some just don’t have solutions. These may come from differences in personality traits, religion, political opinions, cleanliness preferences, and the like. No matter how much you talk about these things or fight about which way is right, neither of you is likely to change or to change your partner.
Experts say that as many as 69% of marital problems are unresolvable. Can you believe it? 69%! So what do you do then? Spend a lot of time fighting about problems that don’t have a solution? Just live in constant annoyance with each other? Never address any problems? None of those sounds like a road to long-term happiness.
I've got some ideas for you. First, identify the problem. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it’s more challenging. But you’ve got to acknowledge that a problem exists before you can address it. Next, identify which type of problem you are dealing with: is this a solvable problem or a perpetual problem? How do you know which is which? At its simplest, if you’ve made multiple attempts to solve this problem and none of them work, you’re probably dealing with a perpetual problem. In this post I’ll address solving problems in your marriage through compromise. In the next, I’ll address how you work around perpetual problems
Resolving problems in your marriage: a step-by-step guide to compromise
Give some thought to how you bring problems up.
For more guidance on that, see this post about changing criticism to complaint and this one on when saying less is more. You may also check out Dr Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger. She gives some great explanations about how to own the things that matter to you even when your partner doesn’t see them as a problem.
Listen to both points of view before you suggest solutions.
Share about why the problem is a problem for you. Stay away from blame and character attacks. Don’t suggest a fix just yet. Right now, talk about how you are affected and how you see the situation. Then take time to listen to your partner. Don’t move on from this step until you are both satisfied that your partner understands your point of view. (Notice here I did not say ‘agrees with’ your point of view; what’s important is that you can both see where the other is comping from.)
Move into discussion of possible solutions
Identify your core value or non-negotiable item and several things that you could negotiate on or be flexible with.
Share these with each other.
Share possible solutions. At this point, it’s all just possibility. Share everything you can think of, even if you’re pretty sure it would never work. Sometimes going to the extremes can unlock your creativity to find a more reasonable solution or seeing how far to the extreme you can go makes other solutions seem much more do-able.
Compromise like you’re working with someone you love and not like you’re in battle with an enemy.
Choose a solution you think might work for you both. Look for something that is a win-win, that doesn’t ask either of you to compromise on your one core value or non-negotiable item. (If your core value things are at odds with each other, you are likely dealing with a perpetual problem. We’ll get to that in the next post.) When possible, make sure your compromises are equal. If one partner is doing all the compromising the solution is unlikely to stick and resentment will build over time.
Don’t agree just to agree. Do not say what you think your partner wants to hear without having any intention of following through. Don’t agree to things you know you won’t be able to do.
If you can’t find a compromise, go back to looking for other possibilities. Get creative. Keep brainstorming until you come up with something you both think might work.
Test your solution and evaluate.
Put your solution into place in good faith. Do your very best to keep up your side of the bargain. Give you partner space to keep their side, even if you have doubts that they’ll do what they agreed to do. Don’t sabotage the solution early by expressing doubt or criticizing your partner for past failings. I’m not going to sugar coat things for you. Sometimes this is really really hard to do. You might be thinking that you’ve been here before and heard these promises before. When appropriate, try to push past that and give you partner a chance to change and the space to pleasantly surprise you.
Note: the suggestion above assumes that the problem you are dealing with is not relationship violence or substance abuse. Part of the cyclical nature of those problems is the repeated promises to do better. Continuing in this cycle might do more harm than good. Please seek individualize professional advice. If you’re not sure, call or email me. I can help you find appropriate resources.
If your solution works, you’re good! Keep doing what’s working.
If your solution isn’t working for one or both of you, head back to the drawing board.
It’s pretty common at this point for couples to throw blame at each other for not following through. While at times that complaint may be valid (and this situation is certainly frustrating), it’s not ultimately very helpful for problem solving. A better approach is to say to yourselves “that experiment isn’t giving us the results we wanted. It didn’t go like we thought. Let’s try something else.”
None of us is a fortune teller and human relationships aren’t a hard science. There’s no shame or blame in saying “I thought this was going to work for me, but it isn’t. I need us to find a different solution.” And if you hear that from your partner, be flexible. No one wants to be the person who says “It’s not working for you? Well, too bad! You agreed to it so now you’re stuck being miserable. Deal with it!” And no one wants to be married to that person either. Remember that you love this person and you want both of you to be happy in the relationship.
Ah! Now isn’t that better? A relationship expert gave us a step-by-step guide to solving problems in our marriage. We are good to go.
If only life were that easy! Relationships are complicated and messy. These are only guidelines to get you started or help you get back on track when you see your problem solving conversations have turned into fighting or chilly silence once again. You may read the steps above and find that they work really well for some problems and not for others. Or you may find that you just keep getting stuck. There’s no shame in asking for help.
An experienced marriage counselor can help you work through the rough spots and may have perspective on solutions you haven’t thought of yet. A few sessions with a marriage counselor are much cheaper than divorce and worth the investment to prevent you from spending years feeling miserable, resentful, and lonely with the person you love most.
Contact me if you want to discuss setting up marriage counseling sessions in my office in Riverside, California or online.