How to Work on Relationship Problems

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How to Work on Relationship Problems

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Photo: zoetnet/flickr

You hate that feeling of tension between you and your partner. Maybe you argue, or maybe you shut down, creating a silent divide. Of course, all couples experience this at times. But recently, things have gotten worse… or, perhaps they’ve been bad for a while, and you are just now acknowledging it. So, now what?

The most important step in resolving relationship problems is to acknowledge them and gain some perspective before trying to fix them. The idea is that if you can step out of your emotional way of seeing things and view the issues more like an objective, yet caring, outsider, you can develop a pathway to a healthier, happier connection.

As part of couples therapy, I often guide couples in doing this by asking four questions. I ask them to answer the questions at home without speaking to each other. Then I have them share their answers with each other and me. As we talk through the answers, I gain a better understanding of their struggles and the relationship they would prefer to have.

You can try this exercise at home by enlisting your partner to answer these same questions. Do not share your answers until after you have completed all of the questions. At that point, choose a quiet, undisturbed time to talk over your answers, really trying to understand each other’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective.

1. What is going on in your relationship now that is a problem? While there may be differences between you that cause some tension, you might also be truly accepting of those differences. In answering this question, explain not just areas of difference, but those differences that you do not think are okay or acceptable. This is something that can change over time. For instance, Steven has always been okay with being more outgoing than Hannah. He even thought that they were a good balance for each other. However, she has been increasingly isolating herself and wanting him to stay home, too. Now he is resentful about this.

2. How has this affected you? Address how it has made you feel, affected your thinking about yourself and your partner, and affected how you behave. For instance, you might be so frustrated that you often snap easily at your partner.

3. How have each of you contributed to the problem? This question has 2 parts.

a) What is your contribution?

b) What is your partner’s contribution? Address specific behaviors, not your partner’s character. If you say that you hate when your partner leaves his clothes all over, there is a possible, positive solution – for him to put them away. By contrast, if you say that he is an uncaring slob, it is a statement of who he is as a person, and it tends to shut down any further conversation.

4. What have you done to try to correct the problem? And, in what ways have any of your attempts been successful?

5. How will you know when your relationship has become the one that you want?  For example:  What will each of you be doing differently?  In what ways will the relationship be different?

As you discuss these questions, the way you talk with each other is important. To help with this, you might want to read “4 Ways to Improve Your Communication” and “How to Better Understand Your Partner.” Also, if the tensions have risen to a level where you cannot have a positive conversation or be open to each other’s experience, you might consider seeing a couples therapist. But by communicating openly, honestly, and with a true desire to make your relationship better, answering these questions can help get you on the road to a better future together.


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