When it comes to intimate relationships, it can take a lot of work to make them successful! Especially when divorce or significant split is in the history books. Proble solving is key, especially if you can get ahead of problems before they become a setback you can’t return from. Because there are so many responsibilities, demands and noise that divert our attention and focus from our partners and our relationship, avoiding dealing with issues is not an option. We get less sleep, we work longer and harder for less pay, we are responsible for more things inside our home and outside our home. It’s like distracted driving. I work with a lot of stepcouples who struggle, not just with the typical stuff other couples struggle with, but also the extra layers of the stepfamily dynamics. All these extra layers can take its toll on your partnership and your relationship bliss. It can be messy, and sorting out and prioritizing takes honest self-reflection for both partners to be open-hearted and open-minded to the process. But here are 5 simple steps to help you plan your journey to prevent crisis .
Establish your baseline
1) Part of problem solving is establishing a baseline or taking stock of your relationship. A quick and easy starting point for set a baseline for your relationship is a scaling question. For example, you can ask your partner where on a scale of 1- 10 they would rate the happiness of your relationship. Then, offer your assessment to your partner. I like to do these regular check ins with my husband because it keeps us focussed on the two of US. Are we still on the same team? If not, we need to get back to “our team” as soon as possible. After the quick check in, my husband and I also ask which area needs the most improvement, especially if our numbers are far apart. Common hot spots for collisions on our highway are communication, intimacy, disciplining the kids and finances. If we are not an eight or nine our next step is to figure out what will get us to the eight or nine (or ten).
Keep it Separated
2) Another useful method to manage the “mess” is to compartmentalize. I used this method for my own marriage during a particularly challenging time in our stepfamily. The idea is to break down the baseline check- in with your partner into two separate ratings. One, solely your relationship and two, how outside factors impact your relationship. The outside factors are those that can impact your relationship, if you let them. For example, job stress and stepfamily challenges are common ‘outside’ factors. Keeping my outside factors outside my marriage has been incredibly valuable to our marriage success so far. Simple not easy
What do you mean compartmentalize? I use the method John Gottman coined the solvable versus unsolvable problem or a perpetual problem. Here’s what he says: “Our research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. All couples have them”.
According to Gottman solvable problems are usually situational. And typically, a solution can be found and maintained. However, perpetual problems are the ones that center on fundamental differences in your life style needs. The biggest difference between a solvable problem, and a perpetual one is that perpetual problems are ones that couples bring up repeatedly and there is no easy solution
Solvable problems fall into one “box” or compartment, perpetual problems into another. For example, most of my perpetual problems are those related to stepfamily life. I rate our relationship as a nine, but if I include our perpetual stepfamily issue and how it impacts us the rate is a five. But I keep those scores separate. I have chosen to not allow my five to hurt my nine. And my husband’s perpetual problems are different than mine. How do you compartmentalize when something falls into different boxes than your spouse or partner?
It’s about perspective.
3) Ever hear of the parable of the blind men and the elephant (Story HERE )? The moral of that story is that people have a tendency to believe their own truth based on their limited, subjective experience and they ignore other people’s limited, subjective experiences. But, which perspective is right or true? Both of them are equally true. And if you can accept that many of your problems aren’t going away AND that you can’t change their fixed position, then you have another option. You can focus and plan on how you will accept the issue if it won’t go away and when it comes up the next time. Because it will come up the next time. Respectful conversations are a must in that case.
4) A baseline check- in is a quick snapshot. Dr. Gottman calls the business meeting a “State of the Union”. It is more of an in depth assessment. It is critical to ensure that you are spending fun time together on a regular basis to balance the business meeting. However, the purpose of this meeting is to ensure that both partners feel heard and understood before problem solving together. When couples meet once a week for an hour, it drastically improves their relationship. Set aside a regularly scheduled time. That way, if issues are leaching into your relationship, you know that there will be a set time to deal with it. Then it won’t be forgotten or dismissed. In addition, if emotions are running high, setting that time down the road gives everyone a cooling off period. If meeting isn’t realistic, writing a plan ahead of a discussion can help keep you time efficient and emotions in check. The State of the Union also gives the relationship space to have constructive conflict and the partners to remain on the same team.
Control what you can, let go of the rest.
5) Two favourite sources that I often share with other stepmoms is how to not take things personally (that in itself is a multistep endeavour) and recognizing where I do and do not have control. I often remind myself what I DO control: my thoughts, my feelings, my behaviour. Then focus on achieving perspective, empathy, and, ultimately, having a dialogue with your partner about how you’re going to cope on a go forward basis.
Stepping in front of the stepfamily challenges are important before they become a hurdle you can’t overcome and pitfalls you can’t dig yourself out of. Problem solving may take time to make progress but it is progress that is well worth the investment for the long term benefit of your partnership- and your family. Five steps of setting a baseline, keeping things separated, shifting your perspective, having focussed business meetings and letting go of controlling the outcome will set you on a smoother sailing journey.