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.]

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.]

Standing for the Relationship

I am used to conflict both in myself and with those that mean the most to me. I read somewhere (a Family Systems Theory book) that conflict is most likely a result of too much closeness (as in smothering) or too much distance (as in cutoff). Either way, people then often blame, attack or hide and get all emotionally flooded. We stop thinking. Emotional ruminating is not thinking.

Even when we hide from the other who we feel has hurt us, we probably fight with them in our heads. We imagine beating them into powerlessness with our wonderfully practiced attacks. Our opponent is probably doing the same thing right when we are.

It seems to me that when we attack and defend, we ignore our relationship. How we are covenanted suffer-ers in the elusive benefit of defeating the other.

Who stands for the relationship?

I visited with a couple in noisy conflict yesterday. Like pugilists whacking and hacking, they listened only to their “inner dialogue” not to each other and thus projected rage and hurt to their partner.

I asked them “how is your hatred working for you?“ The husband complained that he didn’t hate his wife, but she agreed with the word “hatred.” I said, “how is your hatred towards your marriage working for you.“

Hmmm.

When couples bicker they bleed the goodness of what is between them. The couple may harangue each other thinking that it is just about them. But it is the marriage — a distinct entity — that loses most.

 

[You can respond to this blog or anything else you see on my web site by emailing life@theducklows.ca.]

Fighting: We See Things as We Are

Anais Nin commented that “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

Acknowledging this – that our life and especially our pain, skews our seeing and our thinking – is the first step in mediation and conflict resolution.

If the psychologist observes this when two parties are deeply stuck and viciously divided, she challenges her client-friend’s way of being in the world, his world view.

The second step is to appreciate the other’s point of view – to see that it has merit.

The third step in mediation is to find an agreed upon goal that both parties can strive towards. This is popularly known as a ‘win-win’ solution and puts the combatants on the same side.

These 3 steps result in a ‘success’ that is seldom better than 70%; in other words, neither party gets the perfection they think they are due.

Acknowledging, then appreciating and finally agreeing. And that seems right to me.