Never-Ending Problems: Like Dandelions in the Grass

I like solving problems – always have. I like to think triangularly, question appreciatively, figure out what has not worked before and suggest something that I think is brilliant, create a plan for real change, and measure the anticipated success. I was taught all this in grad school, some of my female friends tell me that this is such a “man thing,” but I have lived this as far back as I can remember – when I was 8 years old I tried marriage counselling with my folks! I think I did pretty good.

Now John Gottman comes along as a marital researcher and says that about two-thirds of relational problems are perpetual, like dandelions in the grass. Some troubles are unsolvable he says, and lots of arguments never accomplish a thing other than rehearsing for the next squabble. Never-ending — sounds discouraging.

Carole and I have a bunch of unsolvable problems, mostly the same ones we had when we were first married. No matter what I do to “persuade” (coerce) her to do what I want (or she me), the problems keep flowering. The solvable ones delude us into thinking that we are pretty good at conflict solving, and it’s true that we’ve had some dramatic successes. It is the unsolvable ones that really bug me.

Here are some perpetual problems that you are probably familiar with:

Personality or “your way in the world”: Who is the most introverted in the dyad and who is the most extroverted? This probably doesn’t change much. Neither does the tension between the one that is most emotionally intuitive with the one that is perseveringly logical. And some people are emotional stuffers (always have been) while their devoted other is pretty much a feeling gusher (always has been).

History: You can’t change a person’s history. The times in which you were born, and the ways in which you were raised, or dynamics in your family of origin – this is set in history. The goodness of your connection has a lot to do with how winsomely you accept each other’s life before you met.

Sensitivities: How do you react to failure, or criticism, or loneliness, or unpredictability, or being excluded from a group? This is well-wired by the time a child becomes an early teen.

Some things change really slowly. Things like your view of what success or failure means in life, or what a worldview might be. Our relationship to money, emotions, work, conflict are hard to change, but change they do.

Habits change slowly as well. If you are an early-to-bed kind of person and you are married to a late night email addict, this too can change. Savers always seem to marry spenders – at least in my practice. Maybe that is why they come to therapy. Habits change – slowly.

I have discovered that unsolvable problems require different strategies than solvable ones. First off, you need to be willing to distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. Make two lists of your problems. What can be negotiated (solvable) and what cannot (unsolvable)? What is most important to you (grade this 1-3)? What can you let go?

Secondly, focus 80% of your resources towards the good things that you already do well. Show a little “benevolent disinterest” (differentiation) towards the problem areas. It is not a moral failure to take a break from working on faults while you celebrate the good stuff you do now. Over-focusing on problems (many of which you can’t solve anyway) is a serious waste of good humour and friendly faith.

 

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Contact me at life@theducklows. Hear from you soon. Thanks.]

Ever Been Stuck?

Of course, you have been.

Charlie Brown got totally stuck when the little red-headed girl walked by. I don’t think he ever got unstuck!

Family Systems Theory considers three indicators of “stuckness.” The first indicator is like tire-spinning, the trying experience when you (or a committee) keep trying harder and predictably producing banal results. Trying to stand up is a lot more difficult than standing up.

A second stuckness is when one thinks in either/or categories, like “I win, you lose.” Binary belief systems produce teeter-totter relationships where if someone is “in” then the other is “out.” Reminds me of couples in conflict. Religions do binary thinking a lot, as do political parties. Makes quitters of even the most faithful. In marriage its called divorce.

The third stuckness is cramping answers into predictable questions, rather than recasting questions in fresh contexts and perspectives. “Business as usual” is all about this — thinking we know the questions, so our task, we figure, is to find answers that fit, rather than “appreciatively inquire.” (Appreciative Inquiry is a great way to focus on new questions.) Of course, its usually more about the question than the answer.

For more Family Systems Theory wisdom see, Edwin Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” (pp. 40-46).

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I wrote this post in 2011 and I am updating it now because so many of my clients describe being unable to decide. How do you decide to marry, let alone who to marry? Stuckness in marital conflict is a recurring theme. New clients are signing up to do vocational assessment. What job works best for him or her? How does personality relate to occupation? What about call?

It is easy to get stuck and harder to get unstuck.

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Thanks.]

Masks of Melancholy

“Masks of Melancholy” is the name of a book on depression written by a friend, Dr. John White, who was a psychiatrist and a church leader (he died several years ago). This phrase has always struck me as a great description of depression. John was bipolar and he knew a lot about “The Masks People Wear” (see an article on my web site about such masks).

Depression puts on a mask. The mask can look needy or agitated or “pissed off” or apathetic and all kinds of other miserable things. The mask depends pretty much on our genetic wiring and what was emotionally practiced in our family of origin.

I have been depressed lately. I visit this state periodically like I am checking in with how bad life can really be. My mask is “agitated anger.” People I love bug me. I long to be left alone but I am lonely when no one is around. I ask for help in a way that keeps anyone from really caring. I isolate when I want to connect. Even coffee and chocolate (both vital food groups) fail to inspire me. “Pissed off” pretty much summarizes how I feel it. “Stay away” is what my mask reads to others.

So now that I have told you more than you want to hear, let me refer you to some resources that might be helpful to you.

So now that I have told you more than you want to hear, let me refer you to some resources that might be helpful to you. Visit Wing of Madness – this is a great sight. As well, this is where I would start with consuming anxiety. This is a blog spot so you get lots of interaction with real people.

The assessments will give you a pretty accurate reading of where your emotions are right now. Print off the results and take it to your doctor or counsellor if you wish. (If you are visiting with Carole or me, do bring the results with you.)

As for me and my treatment, I think I am going to take off my mask (it doesn’t fit very well, anyway), visit Crema Café a few blocks from my office in West Vancouver, eat a piece of their wheat-free chocolate cake, and drink a grande latte. It won’t cure my depression but it does put a smile on my face.

[Updated in March, 2019.]

[You are welcome to comment on this blog or anything else you see on my website. Please suggest improvements or ideas, or just dialogue. Thanks.]

1 Out of Every 2 Couples Divorce? (Happy Valentine’s Day)

I have people tell me that “1 out of every 2 couples divorce.” The tabloids say it often so you think it must be so. But it is not my experience — and I am a marital therapist who sees people who might have lots of reason to divorce (and, of course, some do).

My bet is that over 80% of couples who seek marital therapy revive and even thrive. So happy Valentine’s day.

Statistics Canada (2005) tell us that by the 30th wedding anniversary 38% of couple divorce. About 16% of the divorces include people who had already been divorced at least once. The probability of divorcing for a first marriage is lower because remarriages have a higher divorce risk than first ones.

Concerned couples starting out in marriage are sometimes worried about the reported divorce numbers and it surely does not help that we are inundated with “media divorces” who break up on a seeming whim, perhaps to obtain more glitz and blitz.

The Vanier Institute reports that the divorce rate for first marriages is about 30% throughout 30 years of marriage. In other words, first marriages have a 70% chance of surviving and even thriving for 30 years!

I have seen in my practice several variables that affect marriage stability. Let me give you a few:

  • How well the couple was brought together. Was a decision really made or was the couple in a romance trance (limerence) where they felt they could not interrupt the process?
  • Will the couple participate in premarital counselling or mentoring? My experience is that this process allows couples to differentiate, that is, to thoughtfully and even prayerfully decide if marrying this person and at this time is what they wish to do.
  • Location of where the couple lives has an impact. Urban and suburban life can have a negative impact on the survivability of the marriage. However, this is ameliorated by participating in an intentional community (e.g. a church, community network).
  • The willingness to obtain early marriage counselling when conflicts become wearing and unsolvable.
  • And another key factor has to do with the couple redefining the relationship with their respective families of origin. For the parents, this involves a kind of relinquishment and for the marrying couple, it requires a new definition of themselves with their parents.

Get the word out — marriage still works and the numbers are getting better! And your marriage can work well even if you come from a divorced family or had a previous marriage.

[You may respond to this blog or anything else on this website by contacting us at life@theducklows.ca. Paddy wrote this blog in 2010 and updated it for 2019.]