Clue #5: Note what’s different about the times that something constructive comes from “the problem”.
Samantha was angry at her boyfriend all the time. She would even wake up in the middle of the night with her teeth clenched after dreaming about something he had done. She felt that these intense feelings of rage were harming her health, not to mention her relationship. Her boyfriend was losing patience with her.
In addition to asking her the usual exception question – “What’s different about the times you feel calmer and more in sync with your boyfriend?” – I asked, “What’s different about the times your anger is constructive? My question really surprised her because she had only been considering the destructive side of her anger, and on that count, there was a lot to consider. However, she found her response to the question eye-opening. Here’s what she said.
“Now that I think about it, there are times when my anger is constructive. My usual way of handling anger is to stuff it inside and let it eat away at me. I do that for a period of several weeks, and then he does one more small, irritating thing and I let him have it. Stuffing anger inside and letting him have it are not great way to deal with anger. But there have been a few times when I handled my resentment differently and felt better about myself and about him.
“During my more conservative moments, I tell him what’s on my mind, but I do it in a peaceful manner. I’m very direct and honest, but not hurtful. It surprises him when I handle things constructively because he’s used to either hearing nothing and thinking everything’s okay, or seeing me act like a screaming meemie. He really listens to me when I talk to him like a person.”
The more she thought about my question, the more she realized that there are many times her anger is constructive. She recalled times at work when she funneled her angry feelings into a positive direction. “Those are the times,” she said, “when I make an appointment to talk with my supervisor about the things at work that drive me crazy. My supervisor really seems to appreciate my feedback and often restructures the way things are done based on what I’ve told her.”
At the end of our discussion, Samantha learned something new about herself. Although she had always thought that anger was an evil force inside of her needing to be exorcised at any cost, she now knew this wasn’t so. She realized that she had a choice as to how to handle her anger, and when she made the right choice, the end result was actually beneficial. handled correctly, anger actually brought her closer to her boyfriend and elevated her in the eyes of her supervisor. She now knew what she needed to do to turn her unbridled anger into constructive anger, and she planned on doing it more often.
Now think about your own situation. Are there times when the usual problem pops up- but something positive comes from it? Are there times you feel jealous (resentful, annoyed, irritated), and instead of allowing that feeling to divide you, it somehow brings you closer? If so, ask yourself, “What’s different about those times? What am I doing differently? What is my partner doing different?” and so on. And then do those things.
Clue #6: Pay attention to how your conflicts end.
One day many years ago, I was watching Pastor Robert Schuller on television. He was talking about an important meeting he had attended years ago along with Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, François Mitterrand, and Mikhail Gorbachev. The purpose of the meeting was somewhat unusual: they were going to brainstorm what they believed accounted for the end of the Cold War. What a refreshing goal for politicians and religious leaders – to analyze how nations make peace rather than war, how “fights” on a global level end rather than how they begin.
This story struck me because that’s precisely what I had been doing with couples for years – helping them identify how their conflicts ended rather than how they began. I learned that analyzing how conflicts begin usually leads to the same dead end: “You started it.” Starting points depend on one’s perspective.
Conversely, I’ve found it much more useful to ask couples, “What did each of you do to put an end to that argument?” For one thing, I love watching the look on people’s faces when I ask that question. No one has a clue as to why conflict ends. No one even questions it. People seem to think that peace happens unintentionally or accidentally whereas conflict is caused by ill will. It’s an interesting perspective, one with which I wholeheartedly disagree.
I believe that when couples begin to argue, they have their routines, their highly predictable ways of acting toward each other. She knows exactly what he’s going to say and vice versa. Remember the scripts! Similarly, when people stop fighting or when they make up, their actions are equally predictable. Each couple has its unique, highly patterned reconciliation method. We have distinct methods for signaling when it’s time to declare a truce or kiss and make up. In other words, there’s a method to more than just our madness.
Even if you and your partner argue, your arguments don’t last forever. They end eventually. Even though you might not know it, I bet there’s a pattern to how your fights end. I bet you and your partner act in certain ways when you’re ready to make peace or take a respite from the arguing. Are you more likely to make up after you’ve had some time away from each other? Can you count on your partner to react badly the first time you bring up a heated subject but recognize that once he adjusts to the idea, he’s a bit more understand? Will your wife fight you tooth and nail when she disagrees or feels attacked, but if you watch her behavior closely in the days that follow, can you predict that she’ll probably take your feelings into consideration? Will your spouse rant and rave all day long, but refuse to go to bed without making up with you? Does he expect you to be the one to initiate peace after the war? If so, what are the exceptions to that? When you make up, do you say, “I’m sorry”? Does she ? Do you kiss? Do you have sex? Do you just let things go without discussing what happened? Do you call him at work? Does she call you?
Sometimes, when I ask people how their arguments end, they say, “I’m always the one to initiate making up, and that infuriates me.” First of all, it is rarely the case that relationships are so one-sided, even though it might feel that way. If you’re someone who feels that you do more than your fair share when it comes to making up, you have an option. You can start doing less of it. Remember the see-saw analogy? The more you do of something, the less he’ll do. This applies to making up, too. Now I can just hear you saying, “If I don’t approach him, he’ll never approach me,” but my guess is that you haven’t tried this strategy long enough to see what happens. You probably hate conflict, so you’re quick to rush in and patch things up.
But perhaps you’re still saying, “I have tried that and it doesn’t work. He’ll hold a grudge for days, and unless I give in, nothing changes.”
I bet that there are times you’ve approached your partner to make up he or she has been receptive, whereas other times, not . My guess is that you’ve developed a sixth sense about this. If you think about it, when you sense “a green light,” that your partner will be open to your gestures of reconciliation, it means he or she is sending signals to you, truce triggers. Granted, they may be subtle signals, but they’re signals nonetheless. In essence, your partner is reaching out to you in an indirect way. His or her actions are saying, “Come closer.” So maybe the responsibility for making up is more evenly split than you think after all.
You might not have given much thought to your truce triggers. I suggest you do. Once you know your peacemaking signs, you can get your partner to stop arguing and start loving you more quickly. You can decide to have more peace in your house. You can consciously and intentionally find faster resolution to all kinds of relationship problems. So the next time you fight, notice what happens at the end. Stop wondering what causes your problems and start wondering what causes your solutions. Start figuring out what creates peace in your life after you’ve been at war. You’ll find that happiness is not as mysterious as it seems if you can see the pattern leading up to it. And, as always, do what you know will work, even if you don’t feel like it. Do it anyway. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.
Clue # 7: Pay attention to what’s doable.
Often when I ask people what’s different about their relationships when there’s more romance or more communication or when they fight less, they’ll describe a situation that isn’t feasible. For example, I might hear, “We got along better before the kids were born” or “We get along just find when we’re on vacation.” In other words – since the decision to have kids is a one-way street, and unless you’re independently wealthy and retired, perpetual vacations aren’t an option – these aren’t realistic exceptions. If those are the exceptions you’re noting, you’re in big trouble. You’ve hit a dead end- that is, unless you pay attention to what it was about those situations that made it easier to reach your goal. Here’s an example.
Julie was one of many women who have told me that she and her husband were closer before the kids were born. (Surprise, surprise. Did you know research shows that marital satisfaction goes down with the birth of each child?) I asked her, “What were the two of you doing differently before the kids were around?” She replied, “We were more spontaneous back then. We spent more time together. We did fun things like going out for dinner, going away for the weekend, skiing and hiking. And we talked more. Now we hardly see each other at all. He’s so busy working, and when I’m not working, I’m making sure the kids are happy.” Can you guess what their solution might be…?
Back to you, now. If in your search for solutions you identify an exception that is something you no longer want to do, ask yourself, “What need was it satisfying?” and then find another, more viable way to fulfill that need.
Clue #8: Focus on the future.
Maybe after reading this, you still haven’t been able to think of any exceptions. So you’ve been wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” or “Boy, my relationship must really be the pits. I can’t think of a single exception.” Well, there’s nothing wrong with you or your partner (that isn’t fixable, anyway). Some people just have a hard time finding exceptions. Don’t worry about it.
Instead of examining your relationship for past successes, I’m going to help you fast-forward into the future. I’m going to give you some future-oriented questions you can ask yourself any time you feel stuck, questions that will help you discover solutions. The future is a great place to go shopping for ideas. And I’ll be your personal shopper. Ask yourself questions along the lines of the following:
- When you go to sleep tonight, if a miracle happens so that when you awake tomorrow the problems you and your partner have been having completely disappear, what will you be doing differently tomorrow?
Many times when people answer this question, they talk about how their feelings will change – “I’ll be happier” or “I’ll feel more secure in the relationship.” That’s a good start, but you’re not quite there yet. You need to identify what you’ll be doing differently when you feel happier or more secure. Action, baby. That’s what I’m after.
- Imagine that your children (a friend, your boss, and your relatives) are watching you. What will there be about your actions that will tell them that a miracle has happened?
Once you’ve envisioned the miracle picture, ask yourself,
- What would be one or two small things you could do immediately to begin making the miracle happen?
- Are there pieces of the miracle that are already happening? If so, what are they and what do you need to do to keep them going?
When you answer these future-oriented questions, be as specific and concrete as you can possibly be. It will be easier to bring future solutions into your present lives when you are. Having a future vision of where you want your life and your relationship to be is very important. Remember, if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.
Now that you have 8 tips for becoming a solution detective, start doing your sleuth work now, Sherlock!!!
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers, learn more on how you can solve marriage problems and stop divorce. Follow me on Twitter @divorcebusting, add my Divorce Busting Facebook Page, and subscribe to the Divorce Busting YouTube Videos for more advice and upcoming marriage saving events.