Have you ever thought to yourself, “Our relationship would be easy if it weren’t for you?” If so, you will definitely need to read this two-part blog. It will help you enormously. Perhaps you have noticed that blaming your partner for things that go wrong doesn’t work all that well. I have rarely met a person who, when his or her partner points the finger of blame, replies, “Well, thank you for sharing that, dear. I will have to work on it. Does this mean that when things go badly, you just have to accept the status quo, grin and bear it? Absolutely not. There are many things you can do to change things, make things better and get your relationship on higher ground. You have to become a solution detective.
What do I mean by a solution detective? In short, you have to focus on what works in your relationship. And in truth, this is more challenging than one might think. That’s because it is our natural tendency, especially when things go wrong, to focus on and ruminate about what isn’t working. This post will give you 8 tips for focusing on what is working in your relationship so that you can build upon its strengths. That’s because, after all, what you focus on, expands. Here are 8 tips for becoming a solution detective in your marriage.
Clue #1: Notice the times when your partner responds the way you want him to.
Avoid the temptation to engage in black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. “We never get along,” or “He always is unkind to me.” Even if you and your partner are going through a rough time, there undoubtedly are times when things go somewhat more smoothly. What is your partner doing when you think to yourself, “Today is a better day,” or “We had a better evening”?
It’s helpful to recall recent experiences first. These events will be most vivid in your mind. Even if the experiences were short-lived or, in your opinion, a fluke, it doesn’t matter. It’s still an important clue.
If you’re having trouble recalling a recent example, keep pushing yourself, but if you’re still drawing a blank, it’s okay to think about times past. If you have to, you can go as far back as the beginning of your relationship. It’ll help jostle your memory.
Clue #2: When things are better, note what might account for the differences.
Although it may be difficult to figure out why things are going more smoothly, it is important to give it a shot. Here are some things you might consider:
Your Own Actions
Ask yourself, “When I get a better response from my partner, what am I doing differently?”
Even if you think your behavior doesn’t trigger your partner’s behavior (it does), answer the question anyway. It’s tempting to assume that your partner’s positive actions have nothing to do with you and everything to do with his job, her personality disorder, his midlife crisis, but don’t do that. It won’t help much. Force yourself to think how you might be treating your spouse differently during those times when you end up getting the results you want.
Another way of determining how your actions might be affecting your partner is by asking yourself, “when s/he acts more ____ [fill in the blank with your specific relationship goal], how does that affect me and, as a result, how did I treat him or her differently in return?”
So, let’s say that your goal is to have your husband be more helpful with the kids. You’ve been resenting his preoccupation with work. And then, for some strange reason, he starts pitching in more, being a take-charge dad. Naturally, this will please you. You will be happy. Now, what I’m asking you to do is figure out what’s different about you when you’re a happier person. You must be nicer to him in some way, a more loving partner. How are you different when he pleases you?
The reason I’m having you ask yourself this question is that even if your partner’s positive behavior wasn’t prompted by you, your more positive outlook might be influencing him to keep it up. He may enjoy the “new you” so much that he’ll keep doing what works. So, if you can’t determine what you’ve done to get him started, figure out what you’re doing to keep him going.
Perhaps your partner’s positive actions have less to do with what you’re doing and more to do with some other factors. To figure this out, keep the words, “who,” “when,” and “where” in mind.
Sometimes the presence or lack of presence of another person can be associated with good things happening. For example, some women tell me that their partners are more easygoing after they’ve spent some time with their buddies. So, buddy time is part of the solution. One couple noticed that they got along much better when her mother, who was living with them, went out of town for a few days. So, think about whether the “people variable” applies to your situation.
Have you ever noticed that if you approach your partner with a particular concern on one day, all hell will break loose, but on another, everything works out just fine. This may have something to do with your timing. People are more receptive during certain parts of the day, week, month, year, and so on. We deal with the people in our lives somewhat inconsistently, depending on our mood, energy level, physical condition, and stress level, which varies over time. Smart people think about timing when they deal with their partners on issues that matter. Good timing can mean the difference between achieving your ends and waging war.
For instance, if Jim, my husband, and I are arguing about something, I know that it’s fruitless to try to resolve it at night, before he goes to sleep. From past experience, I’ve learned the hard way that my efforts to find a resolution when he’s tired only make matters worse. Much worse. It’s better to give him some space to de-escalate and then go to sleep. In the morning, he’s much more reasonable, conciliatory, and even apologetic, upon occasion. So waiting until dawn to find a solution is something I do when we have arguments in the evening. I only wish it hadn’t taken me so long to figure this out.
Is timing a factor in your more enjoyable, productive moments with your spouse? Is s/he more attentive on weekends? Is he in a better mood after he goes for a run? Is she more attentive on weekends Is he more willing to communicate or do things you want him to do after great sex? Should you avoid her entirely when she’s preparing for a presentation at work? Does the transitional period he’s going through due to his stopping smoking make him less approachable at the moment? So, ask yourself, “Is there something different about the timing of our positive interactions with each other?”
Some couples say they can have productive conversations at restaurants, other people’s houses, car rides, and on walks. At home, these talks don’t go so well. The point is that environment really can make a difference in how people feel and how they interact with each other. If you’re more successful times with your partner happen in certain places, create opportunities for you to be in those places more often. Do what works.
Clue #3: Note what’s different when the problematic situation occurs, but for some reason, it doesn’t bother you at all.
Janine and Stan argued a lot about the amount of time he devoted to golf. In fact, it seemed that they were arguing all the time lately. Janine was at her wits’ end about it and wondered whether she could tolerate being a golf widow any longer. I asked her, “What’s different about the times when Stan plays golf but it doesn’t bother you?” and she admitted that occasionally his outings were fine with her. “Think about it,” I said, “what’s different then?” She replied, “I guess when I take better care of myself, spend some time with my friends, get a massage or get out a little, then I don’t mind when he plays golf. I get infuriated at how easy it is for him to take off and ignore his responsibilities at home. But if I have a chance to recharge my batteries, I’m more understanding about the time he needs to unwind.”
Think about your own situation. Are there times when you would normally get upset by something that happens, but for some reason you’re okay with it? If you determine why you reacted differently, you’ll be on to a solution.
Clue #4: Note what’s different about the times the problem is less intense, less frequent, or shorter in duration.
We all like it when our lives are problem-free. But blissful times don’t last forever. Even in the very best of relationships, “shit happens”. In my practice, I teach people to pay attention to problem free times, but I also teach them to notice when problems are kept at bay or held down to a dull roar. Therefore, it’s very common for me to hear, “Michele, I’m really excited by what happened last week. We had an argument… but it didn’t last more than fifteen minutes. Generally when we argue, he holds a grudge for a day or two, and this time it was over when it was over. I couldn’t believe it.” Or “We’re doing so much better. We had two fights this week. We usually argue about something every day, several times a day. This is great for us.”
It’s just as important to notice times when the problem is less intense, less frequent, or shorter in duration as it is to notice times the problem doesn’t happen. So, in addition to asking yourself, “What’s different about the times when we’re getting along well?” you can ask, “What’s different about the times when the arguments are less intense or less frequent?” Instead of asking yourself, “What’s different about the times when he doesn’t criticize me?” ask yourself, “What’s different about the times he’s less critical or his criticism is less hurtful?” Instead of asking yourself, “What’s different about the time she arrives on time for a change,?” ask yourself, “What’s different about the times she arrives more promptly than usual?”
When you figure out your answers to these “less intense, shorter in duration, less frequent” questions, you may not feel that you’re home yet. And maybe you’re not. You still may have a way to go to feel satisfied with your partner. But trust me when I tell you that if you know why a situation is improved, even slightly, though you may not be home, you’re on the home stretch.