A couple’s problems unfold in the same way, at the same time, in the same location much of the time. Arguments become highly patterned and once these patterns are discernible, any minor change might yield different results. To help you identify what to change, pay attention to the pattern the problem takes by asking yourself the following four, “What, Where, When and Who” questions. As you respond to these questions, you will see that problems can be resolved by altering the way the problem is handled (who, what) or by changing the contest (where, when) in which the problem regularly occurs.
1. What Have You Been Doing to Try to Make Things Better? What Are Your “More of the Same” Behaviors?
From your spouse’s perspective, exactly what have you been doing lately in order to solve a particular problem? Would your spouse say that you have been nagging a lot lately? Or would he say that you have been withdrawn? Would she say that you’re outspoken or that you keep your thoughts to yourself? Does your spouse use a pet phrase to describe your way of handling things? If so, what is it? It is essential that you identify how your spouse sees you because your behavior has been triggering him or her to react in ways you dislike.
Try to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes. Imagine what he or she has thought and felt about your problem-solving efforts. If you were not present in the room and your spouse was asked, “How has he or she been acting lately in regard to the problems the two of you have been experiencing?”, what would he or she say? For example, a man told me that if his wife were asked about his behavior, she would say that he is lazy and never helps around the house. While he disagreed, saying that he worked hard on outside chores, he knew he would have to do more inside tasks in order for her to feel that he was changing. Keep in mind that like the man in this example, you probably won’t agree with your spouse’s assessment of your behavior, and that’s okay.
Whatever pigeonhole your spouse has placed you into, this is the behavior you must change. Ask yourself: “What would I have to do differently for my spouse to think I’m changing?” You must surprise your spouse by handling the situation differently the next time. Any change might do as long as it is different enough for your spouse to notice. Be creative, use your imagination. The single guideline is: The next time you get into the situation where you feel tempted to do the same old thing, do something different. No matter how weird or crazy it might seem, do something you have never done before.
Take for example, my own experiences with my husband Jim:
Since I rarely prepare a homemade meal for dinner (my husband is the gourmet cook), I expect punctuality (and appreciation) when I do. Although my husband is generally considerate about informing me of his schedule, he occasionally “forgets,” returning home later than usual without a phone call to advise me of his plans. There seems to be an uncanny correlation between the extremely infrequent occasions I decide to prepare a meal and his “forgetting” to come home on time.
The sequence of events, when this occurs, is always the same. Dinner is ready and I mumble about the food getting cold. I suggest to my daughter that we begin without dad so that our food will still be hot. She senses my growing impatience. Later (what seems like years later) the door opens and I carefully plan my revenge – I will silently pout until he asks me, “What’s wrong?” and then I will let him have it!
As he enters the room he greets us and seats himself, commenting about how good dinner smells. Then he cordially obliges by asking what I’m upset about and when I tell him, he accuses me of being unreasonable. Things generally deteriorate from there. This particular plan of attack never works. I know this but my behavior belies this awareness.
However, something unusual happened one particular evening. The dinner scene was unfolding as usual when he walked through the door thirty minutes late. I was rehearsing to myself what I would say when he asked the million-dollar question. He predictably entered the room, said hello to us, sat down and began to eat. A couple of minutes passed and he did not inquire, “What’s wrong?” “He’s probably starving,” I thought, reassuring myself that my attack was imminent. He then turned to my daughter and asked her how her day went in school. She launched into a ten-minute monologue consisting of the longest sentence I have ever heard. I thought she would never stop talking. After all, I was still waiting for my invitation to explode.
When she finally finished, instead of addressing me, my husband began to tell her some details of his day at work. She listened politely as I felt rage building inside: “What nerve, he didn’t ask me why I am pouting!” I waited a while longer, though I couldn’t help but become mildly interested in the conversation. Without realizing it, I found myself joining the discussion. The remainder of the meal was very pleasant.
When I realized what had happened I asked my husband why he decided to talk to our daughter instead of asking about my silence. He replied, “You always tell your clients to do something different when they get stuck, but you never follow your own advice. I thought I would give it a shot.”
It’s just awful to have your own weapons used against you.
2. Where Do Most of Your Arguments Occur?
Have you noticed that your battles usually occur in one particular location? Perhaps it’s the bedroom, living room, during visits to friends or family or in the car. What is the pattern to the locations of your fights? After you’ve identified your usual battlefields, try an entirely different location. For example, if you usually argue in the bedroom, start your discussion in the living room. Or you might consider discussing matters while on a walk around the block. Some couples go out for dinner to discuss their differences knowing that they will not let things get out of hand in a public place.
A colleague of mine once told a couple that the moment they felt a fight coming on they were to go to the bathroom and continue in there. The couple reported their trip to the bathroom made them start laughing and they were unable to continue sparring.
3. When Do Most of Your Arguments Occur?
When do you most often get into arguments with your spouse? Is it right after one or both of you return from work, right after a fight with the children, every Friday night, on the weekends?
Try Varying the Time of Day or Week You Deal with Bothersome Issues
If you usually fight the moment your spouse walks through the door at the end of the day, postpone it until after dinner. If you wait until weekends to work out your differences, try doing it during the week. If Friday nights are problematic, try talking things out Friday morning. Varying the time you confront a problem often changes the way it’s handled.
Keep Peak Performance Times in Mind
“Timing is everything,” people say, and while it may not really be everything, it is extremely important. People would be better off if they recognize the significance of timing. Clients tell me, “If she would just wait thirty minutes after I come so that I can unwind, I’d be happy to discuss it with her,” or “He wants to cuddle at eleven P.M. and by then, I’m exhausted. If he came upstairs with me at nine-thirty, we would still have a sex life,” or “I’ve noticed that if I talk to him on the phone when he is at work, he is not very warm.” When people act at the appropriate moment, they frequently get more of their needs met.
Ask yourself: “When am I most likely to get the kind of response I want from my spouse?” Even if you think that there never seems to be a good time to discuss things, some times are clearly worse than others. Avoid those times at all costs.
4. Who is More Likely to Handle Certain Issues?
Many years ago when I was a rookie therapist I had an experience which taught me a great lesson about problem solving. A colleague was working with a mother who was unable to get her eleven-year-old daughter to school in the morning. The mother said her daughter had a school phobia. The school psychologist was also working with the daughter to help her overcome her so-called phobia. The father left their home early in the morning for work each day and was not aware of the problem because his wife didn’t want to bother him with it.
But when the woman had to leave town suddenly because of a death in her family, the father reported to work later in the morning in order to take his daughter to school. Unaware of the girl’s “phobia,” he woke her, made her breakfast, prodded her along as she dressed, ignored her requests to stay home and drove her to school. When the mother returned, she couldn’t believe that her husband had gotten their daughter to school without a major confrontation. The girl’s school phobia had miraculously vanished! In light of this “miracle cure,” the father agreed that he would take the girl to school until regular attendance was more of a habit.
Vary Who Handles the Problem
The lesson I learned from this family was that one way to introduce novelty into the habitual handling of problems is to change who handles the problem. We cannot conclude that the father was a better parent, we can only conclude that in regard to the school problem, his actions, which differed greatly from his wife’s, did not trigger his daughter’s resistance about going to school.
Changing who is in charge of a particular decision or set of decisions can free couples from endless, unproductive debates about whose way of doing things is correct. Although there is rarely only one correct approach, this fact never stops people from trying to prove themselves champions in decision-making battles. As they debate, the problem persists and gains momentum.
The great news about all of this is that you don’t have to be an expert on what works in order to try something new. You just have to steer clear of what you know doesn’t work. Once you apply this very simple principle to your problem-solving efforts, you will be surprised at how quickly and efficiently you can bring about change. That’s how you save marriage and prevent divorce. You don’t even have to wait for your partner to change. You can trigger change singlehandedly!!
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.