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Problem, Problem, Who Owns the Problem?

Every important relationship will inevitably navigate difficult territory. Whether it’s a marriage trying to find a balance between stressful pulls of work, family, friends and recreation or something more challenging such as a friend or partner with an addiction, a pattern of financial irresponsibility, or lack of honesty, all relationships must work through problems, grow, and change in order to be healthy and endure over time. 


Last month, we looked at 4 questions to get you started when you want to change a relational dynamic. Now it’s time to zero in on one particularly important consideration—making sure that the person who can effect the change is the person who most feels the need for it. When a relational problem continually replays itself, it’s likely that the person feeling most of the fallout is not the person who has much control over it.  The answer to “Who owns the problem?” will reveal whether the right person is in the drivers seat.


An issue between Dolores and Todd is a good example. Dolores was upset because, regardless of how many times she has asked Todd to stop, he continued to checkout other women while they are together. He views it as harmless, she feels disrespected. For now, she owns the problem.


Here are steps you can take to shift ownership of a problem:




Tip the management of your emotions away from an external solution and toward an internal solution. Being dependant on the problem going away as your only strategy for feeling less reactive leaves you vulnerable and helpless. Being conflict-avoidant hampers negotiations because not ruffling feathers becomes more important than finding a reasonable solution that you both can live with. Therefore, learning to stay calm in the face of problems is very empowering. Activities such as meditating, using guided visualizations, or hot baths are helpful. Also, I recommend you create a “Soothe Me” box full of items that are personally relaxing:


·      Your favorite calming music

·      A poem that opens your heart

·      The internet address of a You Tube clip that makes you laugh

·      A taste of something you love (chocolate, cinnamon, etc.)

·      A bottle of your favorite aromatherapy oil

·      Something yummy to rub between your fingers (piece of satin, velvet, or chenille)

·      A picture that reminds you of your Best-Self


Two things more: First, take some time to examine where you have become overly emotionally dependant and how you can reclaim control. No relationship can meet all of a person’s needs. Second, it’s important to have a range of relationships and resources to support your sense of wellbeing.




If you want something to change, make it safe for change to happen. Bring more SAFE-ty to your relationships by:


Showing Interest

Affirming and being Affectionate

Focusing on communicating commonalities

Eliminating criticism


Not only is safety foundational for making changes but it is essential for cultivating closeness between two people. Closeness, the glue that holds relationship together despite difficulties, makes people more agreeable. Additionally, research has shown that 80% of divorced men and women said their marriage broke up because they gradually grew apart and lost a sense of closeness, or because they did not feel loved and appreciated, not because of other problems. Take the lead in keeping a high level of SAFE-ty in your relationships.


As surprising as it may sound, men’s cardiovascular systems are set to be more reactive and therefore men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than women. This can send them into withdrawal. Keep this in mind when you start to feel urgent about resolving issues. Overwhelm will get you nowhere. At the same time, recent research has shown that for women, choosing to self-silence during an argument can have physical consequences. The best choice is to speak in ways that are safe to be heard.




Identify the specific behavior you would like changed then give thoughtful consideration to how you will respond. This is all about having a predetermined response you plan to consistently implement. Find a well reasoned stance and persist, this is not a one-shot response. To the extent possible be light hearted. Here are a couple of examples of shifting the burden:


Rather than continuing to nag Todd about his wandering eye, Dolores decided her response would be to ask him to stop once and thereafter walk ahead of him. No more nagging, but he lost her company and that made it his problem.


When it comes to more difficult problems, shifting the burden may require that you look for and remove the benefits your partner derives from not addressing the problem.


Make sure you are not inadvertently and unnecessarily picking up the slack, rescuing, or covering up problems (i.e. an over-spender must not have the benefit of you paying their bills; a spouse having an affair must cease or move out).


Don’t remove any natural consequences of problematic behavior: dinner and evening plans are not delayed for a constantly late-from-work spouse; siblings who refuse to be involved in aging parents care won’t be part of decision making.


Sometimes, a contrived but well-reasoned consequence could be needed (i.e. canceling internet service when there is an internet addiction, withholding closeness when there has been dishonesty.) In all relationships, there are elements of dependency—anything from financial support and household partnering to feelings of approval and belonging. Get creative and find a consequence you can reasonably live with.


Shifting the burden of a problem in order to resolve it can be big relational work, but it’s a worthwhile investment in a relationship you care about.