How to Solve Solvable Problems in Marriage

Conflict is inevitable in marriage. But the ability to recognise which battles to fight and which to compromise in can spell a big difference in our relationship. 

According to Dr. John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, one of the important things we need to know is how to “solve the solvable problems.” 

For example, we recently bought a small apartment, and Daniel and I could not agree how we wanted to furnish it. It’s a small studio unit, so obviously, we need to think through the furniture carefully. My idea was that, because of its limited size, the furniture needed to be multi-purpose. For me that meant that we needed a long, rectangular dining table. But Daniel wanted a round dining table. And neither of us was willing to give in! The issue caused us a lot of strife.

Finally, we realised that we could agree for each of us to have at least one item in the house that we couldn’t compromise. He shared his heart for a round table, about how it was communal, with no head, and everyone is equal. Initially, I really felt it was unreasonable and consuming a lot of space! But after hearing why it was so important for him, I started to waver. Then, I found this really ugly cabinet in the bedroom, and I decided I must have mirrors on it! I was then willing to let go of the issue with the dining table as long as I could fix that other part fo the unit. The rest of the things were OK with us, but as long as we each had these non-negotiable furniture in, we felt it was a win-win already. 

Conflict is inevitable in marriage. But the ability to recognise which battles to fight and which to compromise in can spell a big difference in our relationship.    
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Through this experience, we learned that it’s quite common for couples to fight about building a house together or designing a house, because it’s shared ownership but different preferences. Usually it’s solvable, but we need to learn how to resolve these kinds of conflict in a skillful manner. 

The two most common kinds of conflict are a conflict of needs and a conflict of values. Usually, a conflict of needs is more reasonably solved. 

How to Solve a Conflict of Needs 

Here are some steps to help you resolve a conflict of needs. 

1. Confirm that you are dealing with the issue, not with each other. 

Sometimes the problem with conflict resolution is that we end up attacking each other. Some marriage experts recommend putting an object in front of you when you start talking, such as a balloon, a pillow, or even a coffee mug: then, have this object represent the problem you want to solve. The visual aid helps you understand that you are dealing with an issue that is separate from you as persons, and helps you avoid taking things personally. 

2. Talk about what you both feel, need, and want—and why.

One of the most powerful tools in marriage communication is learning how to express how we feel or what we need. We use statements like “I feel” and “I need,” which helps us share our own heart, instead of blaming the other person for what he or she does.

Consider the difference in the following two scenarios: 

Scenario 1. Wife says: Honey, you know, I feel annoyed when you do [insert action here]. 

Scenario 2. Wife says: You always do [insert action here], it’s so annoying! 

Can you see how the first scenario lets the wife express how she feels without passing blame onto her husband? In Scenario 2, the most likely response is that the husband feels defensive, further complicating the conflict.

3. Discuss negotiables and non-negotiables.  

At this point, lay down at the table the things that are negotiable and non-negotiable to you. 

For example, if you are in a disagreement about what school to send the children to, you can both share the things that are negotiable and non-negotiable for you. A possible non-negotiable might be a school that has a lot of extracurricular activities, or a school with a good Chinese program. A negotiable might be the distance from your house. 

Of course, negotiables and non-negotiables will depend on each person, and the more you are able to talk about this, the closer you can get to a possible resolution. 

In our case, Daniel felt that the dining table being round was a non-negotiable for him, whereas for me, after seeing the other parts of the house, I felt that my non-negotiable was improving how the bedroom looked with a large mirror! 

4. Explore the meaning behind the non-negotiable. 

Then, you can talk about the reasoning behind things. What makes you feel the way you do? Why is this important to you? Remember, our goal is a deeper understanding of each other, and the conflict is just the trigger that helped bring up these things before you two. 

For example, in the case of the dining table, Daniel said, “A round table makes me feel that people are all equal, like the Knights of the Round Table, and therefore we can share our ideas freely around meals.” That helped me see things from his perspective, which eventually made it possible for me to give in to his preference of a round dining table. 

5. Discuss how you can meet each other’s needs.   

Once you are able to express your feelings and needs, then you can move towards discussing possible solutions. The previous step of sharing your negotiable and non-negotiables can help you find ways to work around the problem.

Resolving Solvable Problems 

Learning how to communicate in order to resolve solvable problems can help you strengthen your connection as a married couple. This way, you get to share both your feelings and thoughts about why things are important to you, helping you expand your love map of each other. If handled correctly, it can help you get to know and love each other better! 

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