Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Relationship Problems vs. Difficulties

The other day my recently graduated from High School son and I were “discussing” the merits of working "full time vs. part time" through the summer. We were not exactly on the same page in terms of goals, outcomes and expectations for the summer before he goes off to college. He would state, “Dad, none of my friends work 40 hours a week through the summer! And where am I going to find full time summer work?” David's perception is situation = “difficulty that needs to be lived with.”

My perceptions differ significantly. Situation = "problem has a solution." My "father speak" sounds like a math teacher trying to get a student to apply the proper formula in order to get the correct answer. The result = emotional gridlock.

In family life failing to discern the difference between a "problem to be solved" and a "difficulty that needs to be managed" can lead to the destruction of relationships. Many conflicts emerge because folk are trying to cure something that needs to be managed. Preferring “order” to “spontaneity” isn’t something that needs to be fixed. Trying to get your partner to be more like you only leads to emotional gridlock. But these differences in partners need to be discussed and managed effectively. Ignoring differences can lead to conflict and emotional distance.

A Lutheran pastor and family therapist Kenneth A. Halstead writes in his book “From Stuck To Unstuck: Overcoming Congregational Impasse” about the important assessment of determining whether something is a problem to be solved or a difficulty to be lived with or managed. He draws from the Systemic thinking on family life.

  • A "difficulty" is something we must accept and learn to live with or manage. It is a perpetual issue that never really evaporates, but needs to be addressed without looping and fighting.
  • A "problem" is something that is solvable. Some people love Math because there are clear-cut solutions. Trying to treat your kids or partner like a Math equation usually does little for feeling connected.


Thoughts on Problems
By no means is the following list exhaustive of problems that need to be solved. But hopefully what is listed here will stimulate your own list...

  • A partner’s infidelity is a problem to be solved. Lying and deceit are problems that have clear-cut solutions (stop it!).
  • Addictions are problems to be solved (both for the person in relation to an active addict and for the addict that is in denial).
  • Physical or emotional abuse needs clear bottom line solutions.

Difficulties or perpetual issues never really go away, they require a different response. Like living with Diabetes, there needs to be an ongoing monitoring, checking in and continual adjustment of behaviors and interactions. Like a change in diet, what you take in verbally and emotionally needs to be altered according to changing life cycles and current events. There are cycles in a relationship where differences are muted and create little stress. At key points they can become ingredients for a “perfect storm” (first year of marriage, first child, kids leaving home, etc.). The following is my list of differences or what perpetual issues (Gottman's term) that need to be lived with and managed effectively. They are listed as differences in personality preferences and beliefs.

Perpetual Issues

  • Order vs. Unstructured
  • Feelings vs. Logic
  • Personal Space vs. Togetherness
  • Emotional Intimacy & Sex
  • Financial: Saving vs. Spending
  • Family Ties: Distance vs. Closeness
  • Chores: Structured vs. Bursts of Inspiration
  • Parenting: Self Esteem vs. Consequences
  • Orientation to Time: Punctuality vs. In the Moment
  • Social vs. “Homebody”
  • Secular vs. Spirituality vs. Organized Religion
  • Ambition: Driven vs. Contentment
  • Adventure vs. Stability
  • Other Issues


Understanding whether you are dealing with a problem to be solved or a difficulty that needs greater communication and management is critical to avoiding increasing distance and dissatisfaction in relationships. Managing and communicating about differences and ongoing differences creates greater connection and relational health. Many couples have expressed that life together would have been easier and more fulfilling if they had come in earlier for assistance. If you are encountering serious problems without discovering mutually satisfying solutions, it may be time to get help from a couple’s therapist. If you find you have several ongoing differences or perpetual issues that are creating patterns of conflict, seek outside support.