Problem solving

Problem solving – 3 step guide

Don’t let problems tear you apart. Learn from them and use the solution process to help you create an even more intimate and satisfying marriage. While relationship problems are varied and complex, we believe that most relationship problems are by-products of ineffective or counterproductive communication within the relationship. Improved problem solving starts with improved communication that is then enhanced with problem solving skills. We recommend that you use the following steps to improve your problem solving abilities.


Good methods of communication are the best preventative you can have as a couple to keep the inevitable problems from interfering with your marriage. When problems do arise, seek understanding first. Marital research shows that about 80% of problems don’t even have to be solved when the couple talks through the issues and reaches mutual understanding. Only the most difficult problems will require the use of problem solving methods. Even then, understanding is vital. Beneficial communication methods include the following:

  1. Start the discussion in a positive way. Most discussions end in the same positive or negative manner that they are started. Choose to make a positive start by speaking for yourself and not pointing the finger at your partner. Phrase the problems as questions to invite solutions and cooperation. If you are having problems talking, use written notes to communicate until you can talk.

  2. Use questions to invite solution to the problem. For example, say “What can we do together to solve this problem?” or “In what ways might we solve this problem?” Questions like these can be a positive way to start, and a productive way to continue the discussion.

  3. Employ active listening skills during your everyday conversations. It’s a good idea to practice paraphrasing, mirroring, and other active listening skills when there isn’t any stress because otherwise they may get lost when you’re under pressure.

  4. Use time-out’s to cool off if the pressure gets to be too much to stay positive. Remember that whoever calls the time-out must set a time to continue the discussion. You don’t want to start a pursuit – withdrawal cycle.

  5. Treat each other with respect and kindness at all times. This is especially important when problems raise emotions. It will be easier to maintain kindness and respect when you are well practiced.

  6. Reduce your stress and learn how to get beyond your money problems.


If you find that you and your partner are going around and around on the same problem without solution, it’s time to get off the merry go round. In breaking this endless cycle of complaint and cross-complaint, you will be taking the first step toward reaching a solution that is acceptable to both of you. The decision to change, to do something different allows you to take a new path. You may start by stating your concern in the form of a positive question such as, “What can we both do differently to solve this problem so it doesn’t continue to be an issue for us?”


  • Agree to partner and work as a team on the solution: Make a commitment to each other to be on the same team rather than opposing each other. When you work together and play by the same rules, you have a real chance of finding new and better solutions to your problems.

  • Keep the problem the problem: One critical rule is that you state the problem in terms of how it impacts you. If you feel a particular way as a result of what the other person may be doing, the problem is that you feel a particular way. For example, say “(wife) I feel lonely when you (husband) are not home at night,” instead of saying, “You are never home and that makes me think you don’t love me.” There is no room in effective problem solving for blame, name-calling, bad history lessons or other negative behaviors that are typical of arguments. Problem solving is not an argument.

  • Work on one problem at a time. It’s important that you both agree to focus on one problem at a time. It becomes confusing when multiple issues are raised. Pick one issue and stick to it even if you have to remind each other to stay on that one subject. Stay with the one problem until you’ve reached an understanding or solution.

  • Understand the problem: Quite often, what first appears to be the problem is only a part of the problem. It may be a symptom of a different problem that is not immediately obvious. Reaching understanding of the problem requires that you communicate with a joint desire to understand what the problem is. It does not require that you agree on any solutions at this time. It is, in fact, important that you agree to defer your opinions, reactions, and proposed solutions while you’re seeking understanding. Save your judgment for later when you are evaluating problem statements, ideas or options that you have created together. Understanding the problem can be simplified by doing the following:

  1. Write down any descriptions of the problem that you can think of.
  2. Describe the problem in terms of what positive outcome you would like to have. It’s helpful to state the problem as a question. For example, state “How might I not feel lonely in the evenings?” or “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be together more often on weeknights?” Review these and select the one that best describes the situation. Then go on to the next step.
  3. A simple starting point for understanding is to gather information about what you have stated the problem to be. List the facts, feelings and other data that are associated with the problem. For example, “You have to work a lot of overtime. I stay home on weeknights. We’re both tired after work.”
  4. Review the information in light of the problem that you have described earlier. Now restate the problem in a way that most clearly describes the situation. To continue our example, “How might we arrange our schedules so that I don’t feel lonesome on weeknights?”
  • Find solutions together: This is the stage where you work together as a team to create a new future. Use the problem statement (question) from the above step as the focus for all of the activities at this stage. Again, focus on the problem.

  • Develop ideas for possible solutions. The technique of brainstorming has been found to be very effective in creating many possible choices. Brainstorming is the process of thinking of and writing down all the ideas that come to mind without judging them. The guidelines for brainstorming are:

    • Reserve judgment. Do not judge any ideas in any way – good or bad.

    • Strive for quantity. More ideas give a better chance for one good idea.

    • Freewheel. Include every idea no matter how strange or silly it might seem.

    • Look for combinations. Try to create new ideas from the ones that are listed.

In the example about loneliness, some brainstorming ideas might include the following: “Get a new apartment closer to work so there is less time commuting. Husband gets a new job. Wife changes work shift to match husband’s schedule. Couple makes dates.” There are many more possible solutions.

  • Evaluate the ideas carefully. Once you have created a list of ideas, pick the top few that appeal to each of you. If an acceptable solution is obvious, go on to the next step. If the voting is not that easy, write down the advantages and limitations of each of these ideas, discuss them in a positive way and then select one or more to try out. For example, neither husband nor wife wanted to move or get new jobs but they realized that they could plan their time better to be together more often so they agreed to the following solution. The wife agreed to adjust her schedule to do more of her weekend work on Monday and Wednesday evenings while her husband worked late and he agreed to work late only on those evenings when it was possible. They both agreed to go out on a date at least once a week even if it was just to get a hamburger. Loneliness was no longer an issue.
  • Plan for success
    . Our example couple made a schedule and agreed to call each other at work if they had to change it. If a change was needed, they made up for lost time later. This avoids disappointment. 
  • Recommended reading  We Can Work It Out: How to Solve Conflicts, Save Your Marriage, and Strengthen Your Love for Each Other


You don’t have to let problems run your life. You can take control. See our article on Conflict. The determined pursuit of understanding will make most problems go away and you can solve the rest when you take a team approach to solving them together in a positive way. Keep the problem the problem and keep your relationship a priority. Problems can be an opportunity to learn and grow together. Talk with each other, learn and grow, and use effective problem solving methods with a positive, productive approach to life’s challenges. This will keep your loving relationship alive and happy with mutual honesty, kindness, and respect.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This problem solving model was developed using the principles of the Creative Problem Solving model and the book “Talk to Me: How to Create Positive Loving Communication”.  Similar methods are taught in the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program developed by the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies.

Recommended Reading List for Couples: