If you find yourself arguing about the same things over and over again you’re probably not focused on what you really need to be talking about.
It’s true! If you try to fix a problem by talking about the problem, you’ll never fix the problem!
Because “the problem” is not the problem.
For example, if you argue about the dishes, or who is not helping with the kids, or who is not picking up around the house, chances are you’re really just talking about the symptoms.
You have to look deeper, because beneath those symptoms is the problem of not feeling connected with your partner.
When a couple feels disconnected almost everything becomes a problem!
On the other hand, if a couple reconnects their relationship, all the “problems” they want to solve, DISSOLVE!
Here are three practical steps to help you uncover and deal with the real problem in your relationship.
1. Use “the problem” to begin a Couple’s Dialogue
Let problems and frustrations you experience in your relationship be a catalyst to get you into a safe dialogue. Nothing positive happens in a relationship until both partners work to make it safe for each other.
(Click here to download the Couple’s Dialogue tool that Frank and Katie used.)
Frank and Katie found themselves arguing about the same things over and over again. But no matter how much they talked about their problems, they found themselves going around in circles.
Resolving conflicts? Sometimes. But solving the real problem of feeling disconnected? Never! It was SO frustrating!
When I asked Katie what the problem is, she said…
The problem is “Golf”!
Katie felt like golf was Frank’s highest priority in life. She said repeatedly that “golf” is the problem.
“He works hard all week. And then on the weekends he just wants to play golf with his buddies.”
So Frank said, “Well if the problem is golf, I’ll quit.”
And he did.
So, on the weekends that followed, Frank was not on the golf course with his friends. He was at home…
…but he was in the garage, on the computer, or watching TV.
You get the picture. Frank was at home but he still wasn’t with Katie. There was still a disconnect in their relationship. And stopping his weekend golf did not fix that.
So fixing “the problem” did not fix the problem.
Most couples use “the problem” to hammer on each other. But blaming and defensiveness do not help you solve the problem, much less get to the root problem.
Even though “the problem” is very real to you, it’s important to talk it out in a healthy way rather than act it out. So let the problem lead you to Dialogue.
2. Use the Couple’s Dialogue to unmask the real problem
Now that you’re in a safe dialogue, you can look for the real problem.
In the Couple’s Dialogue, safety and curiosity replace judgement and reactivity.
Then validation and empathy help one partner fully appreciate and validate the other partner’s reality while holding their own reality as both valid and separate. (Does that make sense?)
When we’re in that kind of safe conversation, vital insights come bubbling up from our unconscious mind that we would never see otherwise.
The Couple’s Dialogue revealed something beneath Katie’s anger about golf. Her anger was only a surface emotion masking her deeper issue.
Katie’s deeper issue was FEAR. Katie feared that something would always take her place in Frank’s life. At the moment it appeared golf was the culprit.
She said golf felt like “the other woman”. And as long as “she” was in their life, how could she ever feel connected to Frank?
Katie grew up in a family of high achievers. Her parents gave her the gift of believing in herself, and that there was nothing she couldn’t do.
But what she did not get from her parents was a consistent, close emotional connection.
Later Katie became a problem, rebelling and acting out in her teen years. This was obviously an attempt to get the attention and connection she so desperately needed and was lacking.
Through the Couple’s Dialogue, it became clear, that when she married Frank, she married her “Imago”.
Her what? Her Imago.
Your Imago (latin for image) is someone who has the positive and negative traits of your parents. Science tells us that we’re drawn to, and fall in love with someone who matches this unconscious image of your early caretakers.
Your Imago is someone who will activate those old wounds from childhood in a way that is similar to how you were wounded while growing up with your parents.
Katie’s unconscious relationship agenda was to marry Frank so those old wounds could be activated.
Why? So they can be healed. Of course all this is going on unconsciously.
In Katie’s case, when Frank “left her” to play golf, it triggered those old wounds of abandonment she felt when her parents “left her” for other interests.
Katie was now doing an adult version of those earlier childhood defenses – feeling abandoned and unleashing her anger toward Frank.
The fear of rejection or abandonment she felt went much deeper, and it was based on that timeless unconscious pain of abandonment or rejection she experienced in childhood.
A childhood where the work, goals, hobbies, and aspirations of her parents always seemed to be more important than she was.
The 90/10 Principle tells us that approximately 90% of our upset in a relationship is from history. 10% is from the present.
So Frank was relieved that his choice to play golf on the weekends was not the source of Katie’s upset. It was only the trigger.
3. Make a request that will bring healing
As Frank was able to empathize with Katie’s fear of abandonment, I encouraged Katie to make what we call a “Behavior Change Request”. Something that Frank could do that would be helpful to her in this frustration she experiences.
A Behavior Change Request is something tangible that Frank can do to meet a deeper need Katie has. It’s a caring behavior that makes Katie feel loved and sets their direction as a couple toward healing and growth.
It’s only effective in the context of a Safe Dialogue where Katie can be vulnerable enough to ask for it.
If our defenses are in place, a change request, even if granted, will NOT have the same powerful healing effect.
Katie’s Behavior Change Request went something like this…
“Next month will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”
And because Frank validated and empathized with Katie and was not reactive toward her, he was more than willing to do this.
As a matter of fact he was excited about the potential of being more connected with Katie. He hadn’t had any hope that this could happen before.
Do you think this might be why he was on the golf course so much?
Could that have been the way he dealt with his own pain as he lived with the same feelings of disconnection that Katie had?
When Frank granted Katie’s request, it met her need in a powerful way and brought healing.
And equally important, it set them both on a direction toward a deeper and more stable connection with each other.
Although Katie couldn’t solve her marriage problem by talking about the problem, she was able to solve her real problem by reconnecting with Frank.
Want to know what Frank’s issue was? Click here to read more of their story.