Big, Hairy Problems


When you’re facing a big, hairy problem, you can curl up in a little ball and beg your spouse to solve it for you. Or you can come up with a possible solution and try to talk your spouse into joining you in implementing it. Most of the time, both of these will just leave you with a big, hairy problem and an unhappy relationship.
Since, of course, you deserve better, these will probably also leave you angry–and prone to saying things that take a long time to repair.
While you are in fetal position or flailing your arms on the bed, your spouse will likely suggest a few things you could do to tame the problem. When you hear them, it will become clear to you that you married a crazy person, who is now riding your big, hairy problem like a rodeo rider on a bull and coming right at you. It’s not a pretty moment, but it pretty much comes with the wedding rings.
Is there another way? Yes. It is called the Third Alternative.
Two Scary Alternatives and One that Works
Sure, the big, hairy problem often poses as big a threat to your spouse as to you. After all, you are a couple. Whether your spouse is blithely unworried about the problem, scared silly and feigning helplessness, or just rattling off solutions you know would never work for you, the answer is the same. If you don’t agree on what to do about a big, hairy problem, you need a Third Alternative.
Alternative One is whatever you propose, whether it’s hiding under the covers while your spouse makes everything OK, drawing up a plan together, or implementing your own battle plan. What we know about Alternative One is that it pleases you, but there’s something about it so dreadful to your spouse that no amount of love for you could make it palatable.
Alternative Two is whatever your spouse hopes will happen, whether it’s that he or she can ignore the problem, postpone dealing with it a while longer, or get you to carry out his or her battle plans.
Just a small note here. There would be no Alternative Two–and no issue between you–unless something in Alternative One scares the bejeebers out of your spouse and something in Alternative Two has the same effect on you.
What Does a Third Alternative Look Like?
The Third Alternative is not ever Alternative One or Alternative Two, so don’t waste your breath arguing for or against them. Leave yours at the door. Walk away and back into your spouse’s arms, because it will take two of you to find the Third Alternative.
Here’s what the Third Alternative looks like. It has at least as much benefit for you as Alterrnative One, but none of the OMGs of Alternative Two, the stuff you just know you couldn’t do or won’t do or don’t want to do or find just plain icky. It lets you protect your spouse from whatever it is about Alternative One that scares your spouse. And it lets you give your spouse the moon and the stars–all the benefits of Alternative Two and maybe even more.
Fake Bacon (It’s always about bacon, isn’t it?)
If you’re not clear about the two sides, consider Raven, who is panicked about their financial crisis, and Mike, who won’t give up buying high-priced Beggin’ Strips for the dog during belt-tightening, not even for a lower-priced substitute.
If Raven argues with him about price, she will never find the Third Alternative. It’s evident he cares about price and values the price reduction of the substitute, but if he’s still not on board, it’s because there is a big negative associated with not having Beggin’ Strips. For Raven, there is no positive associated with not having Beggin’ Strips. She’s interested only in saving money, and it looked to her like this was a place to save some.
Their Third Alternative saves money, which they both want AND includes having Beggin’ Strips for the dog, which Mike needs. Raven could debate the importance of these treats for the dog, but it would signal she doesn’t trust his judgment. Sane men don’t fight for fake bacon unless it matters. Far better to work together to find other areas where they can cut costs and to find free or less expensive sources of Beggin’ Strips.
Bigger than Bacon
Your big, hairy problem might be a lot bigger and hairier than buying Beggin’ Strips when you can’t pay your electric bill. You might be choosing between chemotherapy and living like you’re dying: windsurfing in a hurricane, bungee-jumping, giving all your money away. Or the two of you may be trying to figure out whether to take one six-figure job in Akron or two jobs that pay half that in Raleigh, where you will be close to your aging father. Or whether it is crazy, in this economy, to take time out to get a PhD at the age of 44.
The Third Alternative can only be found by laying out both sets of valued positives and both sets of feared negatives and brainstorming together (or even with other people) to find a way to accommodate all of them. And the only way to get honest participation in this from a spouse is to (1) stop arguing for whatever you propose, (2) stop arguing against whatever he proposes, and when it’s clear you have done this, (3) offer to give him all of what he needs, (4) share what you need to get and avoid, then (5) ask gently for what he needs to get and avoid, and (6) start brainstorming together, with no criticism of any suggestion, until you find one that qualifies as a Third Alternative.
Your Turn
Have you and your mate resolved any big, hairy problems? Or is there one on the table right now? Let me know in the comments. Thanks!

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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  • Design of unique solutions is an area that is obviously overlooked in problem solving skills. Design is not just a matter of “taste” or “preference,” it is serious business.
    Great post!

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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