When You and Your Partner Deal with Problems Differently

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When You and Your Partner Deal with Problems Differently

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

couple arguing
Photo:Craig Loftus/ flickr

You’re frustrated with the way your partner deals with relationship issues. Maybe they ignore problems (which just makes things worse). Or maybe they consistently bring up issues that you are sure would be better left ignored. Whatever their approach, it’s the opposite of yours, putting the two of you at odds and creating problems.

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, in heterosexual relationships, women are the ones to bring up problems 80 percent of the time. When their partners don’t engage positively with them to fix the problems, they can often become harsh in their demands for attention to issues and in their complaints and criticisms. In addition, when conflicts in heterosexual relationship intensify, men often not only try to ignore the problems, but they also withdraw, closing themselves off from their partner. Gottman calls this stonewalling. While some women use this tactic, he reports that 85 percent of stonewallers in heterosexual relationships are men. While this data focuses specifically on heterosexual couples, the same type of dynamic is seen within same-sex relationships as well.

In conducting couples therapy, I have seen that early in a relationship, each person usually focuses on wanting the relationship to be happy. But I have also repeatedly seen the dynamic of one partner addressing and trying to directly fix problems while the other brushes over problems, or may not even register them – instead focusing on positive aspects of their relationship. However, once in therapy, the resistant partner often acknowledges issues and are willing to work on improving their relationship. Certainly, both styles have their pluses and minuses.

By bringing up and addressing problems, a partner is much more likely to get to a resolution or find a positive way to live with unresolvable differences. By just talking about an issue (when done in a constructive way), partners come together as a team to work on it. They strengthen their connection, which feels good and usually makes them more optimistic. On the other hand, when a partner homes in on relationship problems, they sometimes get so caught up in their concerns that they lose an appreciation of the positive aspects of the relationship. This hyper-focus on problems leaves them to define their relationship by its problems and conflicts. Frequently, the more they try to fix the problem, the more strained their relationship becomes. But by consciously reminding themselves and each other of the positives, they can balance their attempts to fix problems; and they can feel good about their relationship as they set to work on their struggles.

By contrast, when a partner overlooks problems, they can focus on ‘the good stuff’ – such as having fun, enjoying romantic evenings together, or even taking the time to support their partner’s personal interests. This can help maintain the couple’s positive connection. However, when problems are big, or when small ones pile up, this style of managing problems backfires. Distance can creep into the relationship, resulting in the partners fighting a lot or distancing themselves from each other and leading parallel lives. It can also sometimes lead to one or both of them having an affair. For this reason, if you have a sense that something is bothering your partner, it is important to raise the concerns that you suspect they are harboring so that you can address them as a couple.

Clearly, addressing problems and appreciating the positives are both essential to a healthy relationship. Sometimes both partners are able to maintain that balance. But, as I have explained, partners often lean more one way or the other. When conversations become more problem-centered, a reminder of the good they share is important. And when unaddressed issues begin straining a relationship, calling attention to the conflict and increasing distance is in order.

However they do it, couples that can continue to feel positively about one another, even as they hash out conflicts, fare better over time. Relationships do best when both partners can delight in ‘the good stuff’ in their relationship, but also identify problems as they arise, and address those issues in a constructive way.

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Important:  This article is part of the WebMD Relationships blog. The articles in the WebMD Relationships blog are for general education purposes only. They should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Do not delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read in this article.