Tips for dealing with problems in relationships

Planning and Principles

  1. Plan together what your values are in the relationship. Test yourself against them and check out with your partner whether you both agree on what is important and what your vision is; include beliefs and discuss your understanding of love, commitment, relationship boundaries, honesty, forgiveness, spirituality, fairness, fidelity, trust etc.
  2. Accept that at least in some measure both parties will fail in some of these values. Decide on how failures will be addressed.
  3. Ensure that both parties have emotionally left their family of origin – this means leaving them as children and reconnecting with the extended family as adult visitors.
  4. Set aside time to discuss process (how you communicate) and issues (problems).
  5. Make physical safety (no violence)  the top priority and when this is in place work towards emotional safety (care for each other) as priority number two. There is no room for any abuse in a healthy relationship. There are ways to express anger without abuse.
  6. Do make the issue of how you talk with one another or argue, the very first topic. There may be 25 issues but only one continuing destructive process (the way in which you talk with each other). Work out the communication process and you may well be able to resolve many problems together!
  7. Defensive responses invest energy in protecting oneself. Aim for responses that protect the relationship. Be courageous to admit wrongs, listening to what the other person is saying but offering an alternative explanation only when you have understood where the other person is coming from and especially if there is misunderstanding.
  8. Focus on the building of the relationship rather than preservation of self. Two people offering self sacrifice always build relationship and both win. Two people taking from relationship depletes the investment and both lose.

Agree on Rules of Communication

  1. Invest in resolving the problem rather than attacking the person.
  2. Strive to remain calm but when angry, work hard at keeping the volume down. The process is about understanding and explanation but not intimidation.
  3. Allow one person to speak at a time (this is respectful, loving and allows for effective listening).
  4. Keep points made short and take turns – summarise your points rather than do all the talking and overwhelm with information, complaints or distractions.
  5. Deal with one point at a time even though it is connected to many others.
  6. Listen to the other person even if you disagree. Emotional maturity is in place when you can summarise to the other person’s satisfaction what they are saying even when you disagree.
  7. Listen without advice (you don’t have to agree; just strive to hear and understand where the other person is coming from). Give credit that the other person can solve problems unless they request help or ideas.
  8. Stay on track with the issue raised. When challenged do not challenge back even if “attacked” as this changes the topic of discussion and avoids the concern. You could take time out to discuss how a concern is presented, inviting gentleness, but then return to the matter raised. If you have the same concern about the other person raise that when it is “your turn” but avoid ‘What about you…' until the first topic has been fully aired.
  9. Focus more on the here and now and less on the past - working in the present gives plenty of opportunity to find new ways to engage and relate and love. Past issues are addressed below.
  10. Speak for yourself - share what you feel and think (but not for the other person who can express their own opinions and tell their own story).
  11. Avoid put downs, judgements, name-calling and blame – these are false projections of one’s own anger not acknowledged. Instead, describe the concern, talk about the impact upon you (your feelings) and the consequences in the situation of the relationship (outcome and impact). Invite a new response rather than demand. Courtesy is more attractive than bullying.
  12. Advice needs to be given only with permission or invitation (in the context of a loving and safe relationship – which may not be present).

When the Past gets in the way of the Present

  1. Heal the past - the past, if not dealt with may be full of ammunition which is endless and full of hurt. To empty that you may decide to discuss one past issue at a time and stay with that to heal it. This will involve strength of character to be honest and humble in confessing mistakes and the same sort of strength to forgive. If you have been in a long term relationship you may wish to decide upon a few major issues that need repair and spend a lot of time on those – and forgive the rest of the wrongs:
    a. Confess wrongs – you may need a time for grieving the loss (with all the stages of grief) because of shared values broken. Both partners need to enter into this pain which should not be rushed.
    b. Forgive mistakes - New mistakes may be challenged but without the tempting phrases of 'again', 'never' or 'always'. Once forgiveness is in place that issue or wrong must not be raised again because by definition it has been released even as an undeserved gift. Forgiveness begins with a decision, then strengthens as it is practised in attitude and finally manifested in behaviour.

Dealing with Risky Relationships

  1. Never: Use physical force or threats of violence to make a point no matter who started it, how you are provoked, how frustrating it is or how outraged you may feel. Walk away and find ways to calm down. If force and fear are your only weapons you don’t have a relationship – you have control.
  2. Don’t retaliate (get back at the other person) or you sink to their low place and both lose.
  3. Don’t put the relationship on the line to win an argument (e.g.'if you don’t agree with me, I am leaving!'). This only adds insecurity and fear and makes the situation worse in the long run. If the relationship is genuinely at risk, decide on the shortest time you guarantee to stay together while you attempt to work things out (e.g. a few days to a few months). Honour that guarantee and invest in the relationship for that period. Review and offer new and longer guarantees if possible until you can both re-commit.
  4. Offer a degree of mutual tolerance but do not accept abuse. If necessary, put into place the following progressive steps of withdrawal checking after each step to see if there has been any change: turn away, walk away, go to another room, leave the house, leave the relationship temporarily – but one step at a time . Always seek safety first in dangerous situations. Leaving as a first step might be necessary in some situations.
  5. Do not ‘pay off’ personal attacks by giving them undue attention (unless dangerous) but find time to describe what you experienced. Invite the other person to take a different approach which you need to honour with an affirming response even in disagreement. Work first on the way of relating (relationship) and then the solving of problems (issues).

How to use Separation as a Tool

  1. If separation is the only initial outcome, consider a trial separation and make it short (time out for a few days and work on a plan while away from one another to work on the issues – i.e. do something different from what you were doing before). Set a date for reconciling or at least review. Keep the joint values in place during this time. Make restoration the aim unless under threat of or in an experience of Domestic Violence in which case seeking professional and other support and adhering to a Safety Plan is vital.

Relationship Maintenance Along the Way

  1. Give appreciation and accept it humbly. The more unconditional the better. Offer it frequently.
  2. Offer attention to the other person’s interests even if this is a sacrifice for you.
  3. Work on growing as a person and on your responses to the other. Accept that you can’t change anyone else but we can change our response to others. Accepting the other person as they are with all their idiosyncrasies is a milestone to be reached (not to be confused with accepting abuse).
  4. Spend some special time with one another on a regular basis even if brief.
  5. Consider some maintenance counselling or do an enrichment course together. Consider a communication skills course or if appropriate a parenting course together.
  6. Accept any efforts towards change even if awkward or seemingly artificial. Appreciate the effort and intent.