When problem-solving IS the problem

A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to this YouTube video of a couple struggling to connect with each other.  As one who frequently teaches communication skills to couples, I immediately recognized the stereotypes, and the parody made me laugh out loud.  But I’ll warn you in advance: it’s written from a male point of view, in which the husband is utterly befuddled by his wife’s seemingly irrational need for him to simply listen to her feelings.  Watch it, and see if it makes you laugh, wince, or both.

Let’s begin with a qualification: even if the script sounds maddeningly familiar, marital conversations don’t always play out this way.   Sorry, John Gray fans, but sometimes the wife is from Mars and the husband from Venus.  Or both are from the same planet.  And sometimes, that planet is even Earth.

That said, experience suggests that if I showed the video in a marriage workshop, at least one husband would exclaim, “Exactly!  I don’t understand why I should just listen to her feelings when there’s obviously a problem to be solved.”

If only it were that simple.

What drives the humor of the video is that the problem is obvious to everyone but the woman.  When she says, “It’s not about the nail,” or “All my sweaters are snagged,” she seems laughably out of touch with reality.  I know problem-solving spouses (again, it doesn’t have to be the husband) who feel just as lost as the man in the video: “But if we just got that nail out of there…”

The reality is this: of all the concerns and problems we deal with in our marriages, few are quite as obvious as actually having something from Home Depot protruding from our foreheads.  Imagine the video re-scripted without the nail: it’s not funny anymore.  And if one spouse keeps acting as if the problem is that obvious, while the other doesn’t feel heard, then the unspoken message that comes across is, I think you have a hole in your head.

Here’s a typical marital scenario, that gets played out again and again (and you can flip the genders if you like–it’s the difference in expectations, not gender, that matters most):

  • She tells him about some difficulty she’s having, needing someone who will understand and sympathize, just so she won’t feel like a crazy or bad person.
  • He assumes she wants help solving the problem, so jumps in with questions or suggestions.
  • She doesn’t want advice, so pushes it away.
  • He is either miffed or confused, and tries harder.
  • She gets increasingly frustrated and is soon convinced that (a) he doesn’t care, (b) he doesn’t get it, (c) it’s no use trying to talk to him, or (d) all of the above.
  • He gets exasperated in return, wondering why she bothered to bring it up in the first place.  (Does she just like to suffer?  Or does she like making me suffer?)

Needless to say, there’s not a lot of charitable feeling being passed back and forth here.

Let me talk to the problem-solvers among us for a moment (myself included).  To be clear: yes, there are practical problems that need concrete solutions.  It’s possible that we see the situation more clearly, and that our advice would be helpful.

Here’s the other side, however: sometimes, problem-solving becomes a problem in its own right, a problem for the relationship.  Why?

If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have a mix of motivations when we jump in to solve someone else’s problem.  We don’t like seeing friends or family suffer; we want to help.  To some extent, their problem becomes our problem; their pain causes some corresponding pain or anxiety in us.  Rightly so.

The misstep occurs when we cross the fine line between solving their problem and solving ours, between helping with their anxiety and trying to quell our own.

And we can cross that line before we even open our mouths.

Think about it: if my only motivation was to be helpful to the other person, then why would I feel angry or resentful that they didn’t take my advice and thank me for it?  At some point, the focus has shifted from what they need or want to what I need or want.  I don’t just want to help, I want to feel helpful.  Or smart.  Or insightful.  Or competent.  Or superior.  Or any of a hundred other things that are more about me than the other person.

They know it when it happens.  That’s why they push back.  And we can be certain we’ve crossed the line when it’s not about helping anymore, but about winning.

Christians in particular should remember that marriage is built on a foundation of humility and compassion: the humility to set aside our own needs for a moment; the compassion to focus on what our spouses need.  And yes, sometimes that means just listening attentively while resisting the urge to fix things.

There might still be a place for that problem-solving discussion, later, when that’s the kind of help the other person really wants.  But right now, by listening, by tuning in, we might find that the real problem was that they just wanted to connect with someone they love, someone who supposedly loves them in return.

Let’s not disappoint them.