When talking about problems Doesn’t Help

1600 words = 7minutes

“I feel better about my problems when I don’t have to talk about them”, this from a child who was sent into therapy after experiencing some trauma. Boy, did she challenge the one thing that we in the helping profession assumed as ‘the truth’ i.e. talking about our problems makes us feel better. It is after all known as ‘the talking cure’ so there must be some truth in it? True for some but not for everyone and not in all contexts it seems.

Although I started out as a counsellor and recognize the many benefits of talking about problems in a variety of contexts, I have come to believe the relationship space is not one of them. It is this shift in thinking from ‘past and problem talk’ to ‘future and solution talk’ that converted me from counselling to coaching.

 I like to use an analogy here to differentiate the difference between the two. Imagine looking down a deep dark hole and analyzing in great detail why the hole exists, who put it there, how deep it is, how wide it is, how dark and scary it is. That hole represents the ‘problem’ and the more you talk about it, the bigger and scarier it seems. And, the more depressing it gets, the less hopefulness and motivation you have to pull yourself out of it. It becomes immobilizing. 

Now conceptualize looking forward to a place where the hole does not exist. Imagine building a new pathway away from the darkness. The further away you travel, the thoughts that kept you locked in fear and hopelessness dissipates.  The ‘preferred future’ represents life without the problem or a time when the problem is manageable. Even though the hole exists somewhere, obsessing over it just keeps us stuck in that dark place instead of noticing that there are many places where that hole does not exist. There are many opportunities available to create bridges to overcome the hole or transcend it completely. Once we have created some distance, hope is restored, motivation to continue is resumed. We become mobilized again.

In a recent post ‘Couples who make it work’ I shared some of the findings from Dr.John Gottman’s 40 years of research with 3000 couples. One of the things he speaks about is the need for constructive conflict. Digging a little deeper into what that actually means I discovered an interesting statistic:

69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. These problems don’t go away yet many couples keep arguing about them year after year.*

“Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage” (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work –John Gottman.)

After the death of their three children, Mort Fertel’s marriage was practically over. The tragedy drained their lives and relationship of joy and love.

He said, “Everything felt different. Instead of talking all night, it was a chore to talk for a few minutes. Instead of using our code words, we used curse words. Our relationship consisted of screaming matches and silent treatments.”

They tried every form of counselling but it was only getting worse. The ‘problem talk’ was keeping them close to that very dark hole. And then they decided to do something different.

“We decided to SET ASIDE OUR PROBLEMS. We didn’t talk about them at all. We didn’t bring them up even once. Instead, we put our energy into trying to connect. We used certain relationship techniques that transformed our marriage. Not only did we resolve our differences; we fell in love again! And we did it not by dealing with our problems (as serious as they were), but by establishing new relationship habits that brought positive energy to our marriage.

This is the solution to most marital situations—to ‘step away’ from your problems and spend your time and energy building your relationship through positive actions. If you do this RIGHT, your problems will dissipate, the threat of divorce will go away, and the other people invading your marriage will become irrelevant. Slowly but surely you will come closer together again”.

As a consequence of that experience, Mort has gone on to develop ‘Marriage Fitness’, a marriage improvement programme manufactured out of his personal tragedy. He describes the process he offers as ‘an alternative to counselling’.

Like Mort, my personal experiences inform my own approach in supporting troubled couples. It’s not only theoretical and clinical, it is applied. I have been there too. My career has been born from my wounds, my personal and relationship transformation. My decision to convert from couple counselling to relationship coaching is a consequence of witnessing its efficacy.

Few marriages avoid the suffering of a major trauma- be it death or illness, financial loss or ruin, emotional betrayal or neglect, sexual or addictive issues, destructive or abusive behaviours- they all hit that brick wall at some point. The likelihood of the relationship recovering from the trauma by talking about our problems to each other however is not what we have traditionally believed. It just might be the worst thing to do. Sure, talk it out and unpack the emotions with your personal devil’s advocate if you are someone who likes to talk.  After all, breath is to the body what being heard is to the heart. In fact, keeping ourselves buoyant mid crisis often means talking to someone who listens well, has compassion and can empathize/ normalize your situation but don’t assume that talking about it with each other is going to help.

When our relationships are on the rocks, we all know deep down what we are doing that is contaminating the relationship and what we could be doing instead to nurture it. Like smoking cigarettes, excessive drinking or other bad habits, we know what the problems are, we just don’t care enough to fix it. There is not enough desire to make the concerted effort required to change bad habits or negative patterns of behaviour. Wallowing in the drama of it all also keeps us distracted from doing anything about it. The ‘drama’ keeps us stuck in who’s to blame, who’s responsible, who’s the victim? Having a good rant at your mate might feel good momentarily, but in the long run it doesn’t help. Feels good does not mean it is good.

Is it likely to lead to the renewal of a struggling marriage? Unlikely.

If not that, then what?  How can we make sure our problems don’t push us apart?

Don’t Fix The Bad. Increase The Good

Start behaving in a way that connects you to each other. Develop habits that bring out the best in your relationship and each other. Prioritize one another.

Instead of talking problems, take the time to discuss together in vivid detail the things that would be happening in your ideal future. What would signify to you both that you have built the relationship in a way that was right for the two of you?

It is important to develop a defined picture of your preferred future so that both parties understand**:

• Exactly what they are building

• The required skills to build it

• How to know when your partner is effectively helping to build it

• When you have successfully accomplished your goal

Why will this help?

The answer comes in two parts: what we notice and what we practice.

Noticing relates to being sure you notice what is best in your partner, in yourself and in your relationship (instead of all the things you dislike and what is going wrong). And then having the ability to make those qualities part of your routine conversation i.e.  having conversations that connect us to each other instead of conversations that disconnect us from one another.

Research proves that the single most important factor that determines happiness in life is CONNECTEDNESS. Not surprisingly, the ‘connectedness’ you feel with your partner and the more you talk about that, the more hope, possibility and motivation returns. The fact is, when we feel happier and more connected to each other, we are more likely to feel motivated to do what needs to be done to improve our relationship.

Coaching is a partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Relationship Coaching is a partnering with couples in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their relationship potential.

Paradoxically, understanding and hashing out the problem and why it exists is not a prerequisite to the improvement of anything. It might make us feel better to get stuff off our chest and blow off some steam but if that emotional vomiting is aimed at your partner, your problems are unlikely to go away.

If you are looking to overcome a bumpy road in your marriage, I would advise that you stop exploring the holes and instead start building bridges over them.  Take some advice from the experts and stop talking about your problems. Relationship coaching is a progressive and powerful option to explore instead of couple counselling.  When you fall in love again and can recall why in the world you chose your current spouse over other potential suitors (not easy when times are tough) you will be thrilled that you did.

If you are interested in private Relationship Coaching or attending a Relationship Coaching Couples Retreat, please inbox me.

*Statistic extracted from The Science of Happily Ever After. Time Magazine.’

** Exercise extracted from The Solution Focused Marriage: 5 Simple Habits That Will Bring Out the Best in Your Relationship (Elliott Connie)