5 Practices for Solving Solvable Problems in Marriage (b202)

This post continues my series drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” Today’s installment is:

Principle #5: Solve Your Solvable Problems

If you haven’t read them, you should read the previous four principles I’ve covered in my blog (click on the title to read the post):

Remember, solvable problems have to do with behaviors and attitudes. What would you like your spouse to stop doing, start doing, or just do differently. It could be helping around the house. It could be not heaving a sigh whenever company is coming over. It could be talking more in the evening. It could be something more serious.

You can learn how to solve these problems in ways that will build your relationship and increase you respect for your partner. It may take some education, some practice, and even some self-discipline. But relational problem-solving is a learned skill. You can do it.

Through his study of couples successfully resolving conflict, Dr. Gottman came up with 5 steps (p. 158):

  1. Soften your startup
  2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts
  3. Soothe yourself and each other
  4. Compromise
  5. Be tolerant of each other’s faults

It is important to note that these five steps do not include the empathic listening skills taught by many therapists. Dr. Gottman writes

It’s not a bad method— if you can do it. But, as I’ve said, many couples can’t— including many very happily married couples. Plenty of the people we studied who had enviable, loving relationships did not follow the experts’ rules of communication when they argued. But they were still able to resolve their conflicts. (pp. 157-158).

Soften your startup by complaining about a behavior instead of blaming a person. Start your statements with “I” instead of “you.” Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up. (Instead of “You never put the dishes in the dishwasher,” try “I get frustrated when I clean the kitchen and then I come home to dirty dishes in the sink.”)

Repair attempts are points at one partner will share a feeling, apologize, indicate a need to calm down, share a change in thought or believe part way through the conversation or express appreciation.

Soothing has to do with using techniques and time that reduce the emotional heat that’s been raised by the discussion you’ve been having.

When approaching compromise, be sure that each person shares what’s behind their position in the conflict. Why is it important to partner A that partner B puts dirty dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink? Dig a little. Then get creative. You don’t want to go to mother-in-law’s house because she controls everything? Maybe take her out to dinner. Or maybe suck it up because it’s important to your partner. Or maybe non-related partner goes for a short time and then leaves for some other important event. You get the idea. Don’t dig in on your positions. Dig deep to find out what real needs are underneath then dig around to find creative ways to find the best compromise. BTW – If you are trying to keep a relationship going, it’s not weak to compromise. It’s strong.

Finally, be gracious toward each other. Don’t expect perfection. Changing habits takes time. Some days are better than others.

As with every post in this series, there’s much more in Dr. Gottman’s book, including inventories and exercises to help you grasp the seven principles and put them into action.

Thanks for reading my blog. I hope it is helpful to you.

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1Gottman, John; Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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