One of the most important lessons I learned about how to improve my relationship with my wife was to STOP problem solving. This lesson was difficult for me to learn. I love to solve problems. It can be very satisfying to review and research potential solutions, decide on a course of action, execute that solution, and resolve that problem. Using this approach to life I was able to problem solve my way through many obstacles and challenges. (One of my favorite books is Sun Tze the Art of War.) Life often rewarded me for being a good problem solver so I embraced that aspect of myself and naturally I incorporated it into our marriage.
While I was familiar with techniques of empathy and active listening, at heart I was a problem solver. When others discussed a problem with me, my mind would start chomping at the bit to start finding a solution. This was especially the case for family and friends. The more I cared about them, the more I wanted to find a solution. After all the last thing I wanted was for somebody I cared about to be suffering because of a problem they were encountering - especially if it was one that I thought could be solved.
There is a popular YouTube video created by Jason Headley, “It’s Not about the Nail”. In it there is a couple arguing because one of them wants to discuss the pain and discomfort she is feeling and to get emotional support from her partner, while her partner wants to solve the problem. I think it illustrates how somebody who is listening to their partner’s pain and suffering may get frustrated by their partner’s desire to continue to discuss their pain and suffering rather than actively figuring out a solution. While this perspective may be understandable, it is often an unskillful and even harmful approach to take for marriages. Men can be especially guilty of this. The marriage research shows that women tend to get the importance of showing empathy over problem solving more than men.
For some of you problem solvers out there you make be thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah empathy is nice, but isn't problem solving the more efficient and pragmatic approach? Also you can't really expect me to believe that helping my partner problem solve can hurt our relationship. That is just silly!"
Before studying the marriage research and becoming a Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work educator I would probably would have agreed with you. However, I came to an understanding via my research, that many people get intuitively from an early age. If you want a happy relationship. If you want to strengthen your friendship with your partner. If you want to build the resiliency of your relationship to withstand hardship. If you want to enjoy intimicacy, respect, and mutual influence. Then you need to take the day to day opportunities that arise to communicate an important message with your actions. This most important message is: "I care about you."
The research is clear that showing empathy through our words and actions is a much more effective way to communicate that message than problem solving. If I communicate to you that my head hurts and your response is to show me empathy with your words and gestures then my mind and heart receives the message, "my partner cares about me." This creates all sorts of wonderful physiological, emotional, and relational chain-reactions. If you offer to get me an aspirin than that is just topping on the cake. However, if you suggest that I take some aspirin with little or no expressed empathy with your words and gestures, then I do not receive the message that my partner cares about me or it is received with a small emotional charge. We evolved to be emotional creatures in part because responses such as empathy bind us to each other. These emotional dynamics meant the difference between survival and non-survival in our ancestors.
The implications for this research to our relationships is profound. Every time our partner expresses stress, pain, suffering, or even just discomfort it provides us with an opportunity to communicate an important message to them: I care about you. We do not communicate this message by literally saying "I care about you". Rather we communicate it by showing empathy in our words and gestures. This emotional communication my friends is the cement that keeps relationships strong.
Problem solving does not have this effect. At best it will be a missed opportunity to use the much more effective relationship building strategy of showing empathy and at worst it may unintentionally communicate a destructive message to our partner: "I do not care about your suffering." It is important to emphasize that the emotional level that these communications are occurring may not even be conscious to us or what we intend to communicate. However, an awareness of these emotional dynamics can help to make previously invisible relationship dynamics to us visible.
Once I grasped the significance of these interactions in my relationship with my wife it became a whole different ball game. Instead of becoming anxious about trying to solve a problem that was creating discomfort for my wife I could relax and offer my sincere empathy through words and gestures. I did not have to come up with a strategy from the book The Art of War to help her deal with a situation at work. Instead, if I feel sad or angry about what is happening to my wife I tell her how I feel. If I feel like I want to support her I touch her hand. I can embrace this approach because I know it is strengthening our relationship. If she wants my opinion I can also offer that as well, but I do so within the context of showing her empathy.
This really struck home with me when I was recently struggling with an issue at work and my wife was so supportive and loving in her response that I was filled with immense gratitude for her and our marriage. It made me reflect and regret that I had not been doing a very good job of supporting her when she was having a similar problem at her work. Having such a wonderful experience with her support made me want to do a better job at being supportive and strengthening our relationship as well.
One way to cultivate the skill of responding with empathy vs. problem solving is to take time to have stress-reducing conversations during your day or week. These conversations are easy to do and can have many benefits to your relationship and help you to reduce the harmful effects of stress on your health! Here’s how to practice having stress-reducing conversations:
1. Take Turns. Each person gets to talk uninterrupted about a stressful situation for 15 minutes or so. Do not pick a topic related to your marriage or that is controversial between the two of you! This is important because the last thing you want is to get into an argument. Pick topics where your partner can easily take your side.
2. Do not give unsolicited advice or go into problem solving mode. The major rule when helping your partner de-stress is to focus on understanding and empathy.
3. Be 100% present and in the moment. Do not let yourself get distracted. Attention is part of how you show you care.
4. Communicate your understanding with empathy and compassion. Remember the unspoken message you are showing through your words and gestures is "I care about your suffering."
5. Take your partner’s side! This means being emotionally supportive, even if you disagree with their perspective. Remember this conversation is an opportunity for you to emotionally bond with your partner and the point is not to debate whose perspective is correct.
6. Express solidarity with your partner. Let him or her know that you have their back and you are a team.
7. Be affectionate with your partner. Hold their hand, hug them, tell he or she that you love them.
8. Validate emotions by letting them know that their feelings make sense to you.
By incorporating stress-reducing conversations in your marriage you can strengthen your bonds and and experience other benefits including better mental health and increased attraction! Some of you may be wondering - well what about the nail? That is a topic for another blog. Stay tuned and let us know how it goes!
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