If you’re like most of us, hearing the following four words from your partner is akin to getting punched in the stomach: “We need to talk.” That’s because we’re conditioned to expect conversations to be about problems rather than solutions.
Amazingly, it only takes a few simple behavioral shifts to flip problem-focused talk into its positive counterpart: solution-focused communication. I’m going to show you five key areas in your relationship where you can practice this new approach. In my many years of experience working with all kinds of couples, I have seen remarkable changes happen between two partners when they apply these solution-focused strategies.
Replace “where we’re at” with “where we want to be.”
For any prickly issue that’s causing conflict in your relationship–whether it’s sex, money, kids, or division of labor–you have a choice when it comes to discussing challenges. One choice is to view the issue as a problem and discuss who’s to blame, how it happened, and how it makes you feel. A better choice is to discuss the issue in terms of a goal. If one person is doing most of the housework, for example, what would be an ideal scenario that takes both partners’ skills, schedules, and other contributions into consideration? When you begin the conversation with goals, it gets both partners thinking about solutions, possibilities, and opportunities for change.
Look beyond flaws and discuss your honeymoon phase instead.
Couples get into a negative state of mind when they start to fixate on pet peeves: their partner’s annoying habits, shortcomings, and flaws. Talking about what you don’t like about each other only does damage–there’s no opportunity for positive feelings to emerge. Instead, try this activity. Retell each other the story of how you first met. Try to remember everything you loved about each other–all the traits about your partner that surprised and delighted you. What did your partner do that led to the relationship moving forward? What did your partner do that let you know they were interested? How did you keep the passion going in the beginning? Having this conversation will stimulate lots of good ideas and feelings.
Notice what’s pleasing about your partner and the relationship.
It’s all too common for couples to notice problems but overlook progress. Think about what your partner did right in the past few days–for example, a small endearment, helpful behavior, a pleasant mood, asking you about your day, or even just looking great. Share with each other what you noticed. This simple activity accomplishes two things. It makes you aware of the kinds of everyday gestures and behaviors that make your partner feel good. And it helps each partner feel noticed, valued, and appreciated. If you can get in the habit of mentioning progress, not problems, you’ll feel happier and closer.
Redefine your relationship by continuing to date.
When I ask married couples to define their marriage, I often hear comments such as: “It’s a lot of work,” or “It’s pretty humdrum–not like when we first met,” or “There aren’t a lot of surprises–we finish each other’s sentences.” Those are just clichés, and they don’t have to define your relationship. When you were first dating, you said and did things to please your partner. He brought you gifts. She put on that dress you loved. You took each other to your favorite places. It’s easy to get out of this rut by doing the same kinds of things you did when you were first dating. It can be as simple as holding hands or as complicated as booking a trip together. The key is to do things regularly–daily–that make your partner happy.
Function as a true partnership, and establish new roles.
Couples divide up the responsibilities in their relationship in different ways. One partner may do more domestic work, such as cleaning, shopping, and cooking, while the other may take on finances and larger household chores, such as bill paying and upkeep of the property and cars. Couples who recognize and hone their respective skills as partners tend to have fewer problems. Have a conversation with your partner about what you’re each good at (your strengths) and what you’re not so good at (your weaknesses). In one’s personal life, just as in a business, the partnership is most effective when people’s roles are matched with their strengths. Couples who take the time to come to this agreement once a year will find that it creates an effective and high-functioning relationship dynamic that brings out the best in both people–and minimizes conflict.
Elliott Connie is a best-selling author, well-known couples therapist, and an internationally known speaker and teacher who trains clinicians in Solution-Focused Brief Therapy around the world. His newest book is The Solution-Focused Marriage (2013).