How to Tackle Life’s Problems Together


Matt asked a very interesting question in his comment on Not All Your Problems Are Marriage Problems:
What happens when other problems get in the way of the marriage and one spouse is better at dealing with them than the other?
Marriage problems are the ones that end if your spouse suddenly dies. They are problems between the two of you, like whether 4 am sex is enjoyable or not and whether Saturdays are for family, golf, or landscaping.
The ones Matt is asking about are the problems that stay with you, like providing what your children need, bringing in enough money to buy the housing you want, finding someone to share a hobby with, or getting snow off your front sidewalk and trash out of your kitchen.
How do these problems get in the way of the marriage? Usually by telling yourself a story about what’s fair. For example, “There are two of us, so each of us should do half of what needs doing.”
Each of us has some must-do items we just don’t like to do or believe we cannot do. These tend to be the ones we think it would be fair for our mates to do.
Each of us also has some items on our must-do list that don’t show up on our mate’s must-do list. They might include things like “grow fresh, organic vegetables” or “keep the garage neat and clean.” Even though we married someone who is fine with going a decade or two without doing them, we still believe they figure into our spouse’s fair share. Then we fail to include their “take kids apple picking every fall” and their “dust under the bed daily.”
If you would be upset if your spouse earns more than you and uses some of the money to pay someone to do his or her share of this work, your story might go like this: “There are two of us, and it’s only fair that we each put in the same amount of effort.”
Add in something out of your control, like a dip in the economy, and your story might be this: “When your income drops, you cut expenses to match.” But your life partner’s version of the story might be more like this: “When your income drops, you take on more work.” But this leaves less time and energy for cost-cutting measures.
The result of any of these stories? We convince ourselves we are being taken advantage of by an unfair spouse. If we keep it up long enough, we may find out the truth: Fair is you responsible for everything on your must-do list, and marriage is delightfully unfair, because there is bound to be a good bit of overlap to enjoy.
What happens when real problems get in the way is resentment and distance from someone you love. But you possess the power to stop all that. Just drop your story and do what you would feel needs doing if you had no unfair spouse.
You’ll start noticing the unfair advantages of marriage, and your husband, wife, or life partner will be hard-pressed to accuse you of doing less than your share. When the old story creeps back in unwanted, as it did for me, start singing, out loud, “All You Need is Love.” Love is so much richer (not to mention more abundant) without the overlay of resentment.
Who’s The Better Problem-Solver?
And that brings us to the other part of Matt’s question, about one of you being better able to deal with problems than the other.
It’s not true. No, really. It’s not true. Not even if you’re married to someone deaf with no hands and an IQ 20 points lower than yours. It’s just not true.
If your way of solving problems is perseverance, trying one thing after another until something works, your assessment of someone’s problem-solving ability is simply an assessment of his or her perseverance. If your way of solving problems is to solicit advice and help from your vast social network, networks and social intelligence are your measures.
If your approach is to pray, agnostics and atheists probably look like dreadful problem solvers. If your approach is to look at the problem from many different angles until you can see the forest as well as the trees, those folks on their knees, on the phone, or doing a Thomas Edison impersonation probably don’t look like they could possibly succeed.
If you often hop in the car as part of solving a problem, you may never notice that blind people find other ways to solve the same problem.
Just about every strength provides an effective way to solve tough problems. If you want more help from your spouse with the ones facing both of you, try a sandwich request:

  • Admire one of his or her strengths that you have a lot less of. I have always been so impressed by your ability to find bits of extraordinary beauty I would overlook.
  • Ask if there is any way to apply it to this problem. Can you think of any way this talent of yours might help us get Jake the special care he needs?
  • Admire the strength again. I’m happy to support in any way I can, but I admire your talent and I know others do, too. Maybe it’s exactly what we need to fix this problem.

People using their best strengths often get into a flow state. You may get a long string of possible solutions, and they are bound to amaze you. They are not ones you can get to with your learned knowledge or your analytical skills. And if you are not the more conventional problem-solver in your relationship, they are also not the ones you will come up with using your prayers, your people skills, your leadership abilities, or your great sense of humor, all of which are other ways to solve a problem.
Marriage is doubly unfair: not only is there overlap between your lists of must-do items, but you get a lot more strengths to draw on in figuring out how to do them.
If you want a great example of just what sort of unfair advantage marriage can give you, check out the blog of a recent commenter on Assume Love: The Great Jollyhoombah. Theirs is a story of very successfully tackling life’s problems together.

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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  • Another marvelous post Patty! Tammy has an incredible knack for being nice which always comes in handy. I too can be exceedigly nice, but often come off as a bit aloof. So I use humor. But as you say, our history and overlap of abilities and style almost make it “unfair” when we problem solve. Inspiring stuff! (your post, that is)

  • I love how you gave specific examples of the different ways we problem solve. It is good to know I have another song to add to my list. “All you need is love, love…love is all you need!” We also appreciate the mention and continue to draw inspiration from your site.

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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