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Published December 23, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Can you solve problems with your spouse?

I am continually amazed at the number of intelligent, well-meaning couples who fail to communicate and resolve differences in their relationships. On the job, they are great. With their friends, they are great. With each other, they are like squabbling 10-year-olds.

By: By Val Farmer, INFORUM

I am continually amazed at the number of intelligent, well-meaning couples who fail to communicate and resolve differences in their relationships. On the job, they are great. With their friends, they are great. With each other, they are like squabbling 10-year-olds.

Usually on a job, there is agreement about goals and clarity about who is responsible for certain activities. Communications center around decisions on how best to get the job done and how much money, time and energy are going to be devoted to various projects.

It’s not like that in a marriage. A lot of the conflict has to do with trying to decide what is best – or right – or good. Also, it is not etched in stone who should do what. Each partner has strongly held opinions and emotions about these matters, primarily from his or her experience from growing up in their own families.

“What is the best way to handle a teenager’s violation of curfew?” “Do we really need to buy that?” “How important or how often do we show affection between us?” “Is the hunting trip that important?” “Who does the work around here, anyway?” “How clean do we keep the house?”

The answers are not obvious, even though each partner seems to think so. These differences can be alarming and threatening.

Happily married couples address their painful differences and work through them. It is a test of their love. Too many unhappily married couples either avoid conflict or else the process blows up in their faces.

- Trust. Successful communicators take risks in talking about sensitive subjects when there is a backdrop of love, trust and mutual respect. Security in the relationship grows when each partner appreciates the other’s abilities, opinions and essential goodness. A spouse who senses this bedrock of commitment and love will dare to bring up sensitive issues because he or she knows that the marriage isn’t continually on trial.

Also, the willingness to talk about delicate problems depends on whether the overall tone of the relationship is positive and mutually rewarding. Touchy subjects bring pain, uncertainty and temporary alienation. The key is that both partners know that the alienation is temporary.

- Agreeing to disagree. These couples also know that they don’t have to agree on everything, only on the important things. As a 19th-century psychologist, William James, said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

Some things are not going to change. There are some things about our spouse that are going to be forever exasperating. These qualities or strongly held values or opinions need to be accepted.

- Minimize defensiveness. You can minimize the defensiveness of your partner by telling how a specific situation or behavior makes you feel. Focus on issues, not personalities. For example:

“I feel something is wrong.” “This is my opinion. I’m interested in how you feel about this.” “I may be wrong, but this is how I see it.” “Help me understand how you see this issue?” “What do you think?”

- Get a commitment. Sometimes people recognize there is a problem but refuse to do anything about it. Further discussions won’t be helpful until there is a willingness to work on the problem.

- Listening to understand. I wish every couple would approach listening to a loved one as carefully as they would any examination or interview they will ever take. Wouldn’t it be great if notes were taken, if clarifying questions were asked, if rebuttals and disclaimers were restrained and if courtesy was extended?

- Showing courtesy and respect. Don’t interrupt. Make sure that your spouse’s point of view comes out fully and completely. Respecting the right for their partner to finish his or her thoughts and to draw them out is a gift.

- Reflecting main points. Help bring feelings into the open. Reflect back a summary of his or her main points before answering.

Don’t be mechanical or technical. Show respect and concern in the way you reflect back their points. Body language means a lot.

Allow your partner to correct any misunderstandings of what you have heard. Understanding your partner’s ideas is key to finding a mutual solution that meets both your needs.

- Problem-solving. When you come to a common definition of the problem and understand each other’s views, then you are in a position to propose and generate solutions. Too many people skip the understanding and listening part and jump into problem-solving. That doesn’t work well.

The question becomes, “Now that we agree on what is wrong, what can we do about it?” It is time to brainstorm for alternatives. Solutions and alternatives should meet both partners’ needs. Thinking time is important.

Pros and cons are weighed. A decision needs to be clearly made and commitments given toward a specific plan. Details need to be fleshed out. The plan can be implemented on a trial basis. A time frame is set aside to review how the plan is going and to make any necessary adjustments.

This is incredibly important. Couples often get divorced when one of them gives up thinking problems can be solved with his or her marriage partner.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website.

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