Problem-Solving Tips for Couples Struggling during Corona
To say tensions are high right now is a huge understatement — the world's in a pandemic, people are panicking, and the market is all over the place. On the micro level, all these challenges turn up the volume on pre-existing issues in people's lives, especially conflicts. Take relationship issues for instance. Things that might have been problematic before now feel catastrophic, and you have fewer options for dealing with them. You can't go to court. Your mediator or lawyer might or might not be doing virtual work.
That's why I'm not surprised that we're seeing reports of divorce and separation rates go through the roof in countries coming out of quarantine, and while some of that would have happened anyway, I'm betting some of it could have been avoided (or certainly made a better experience) with some good problem-solving skills.
So, here's my advice for working through problems on your own:
First things first: start out by approaching the other person privately, and clearly state the purpose for the conversation. Ask the other person if this is a convenient time to have a difficult conversation, and if not, then negotiate for a workable time and neutral location. Starting out with these "ground rules" can help show your good intentions and begin the conversation well.
1. Identify the problem.
Start out by getting clear on what the problem actually is –– ideally sooner rather than later! Don't wait until things build up to start addressing the issue, it'll just get worse, especially when tensions are already so high. People often have very different takes on what's really going on in a situation, and so often end up talking past each other, which is of course a non-starter for conflict resolution.
Also, in introducing the problem, differentiate between your observations and how you're evaluating those observations. Focus on what you saw or heard versus how you interpret or feel about those things.
2. Get a sense of what everyone needs.
You can't hope to create an effective solution if you're not clear on what people need to be OK. So once you've identified the problem, agree to push "pause" on your differences and really listen to what the other person's saying so you can get a sense of what you both need. A couple of tips for making this easier on yourself: tell yourself before you go in that you're here to listen, not just to respond. Repeat back what you heard the other person say, and go back and forth with your listening. (As opposed to just downloading to each other!) Above all, focus on understanding the other person's needs, not on being understood. This develops understanding, so it's really important to do this before discussing any potential situations.
You may want to take a moment to pause after this step, as you might find tensions running high. Even if you don't experience that kind of tension, it's a good idea to separate the process of idea-generating from evaluation, since this is the only way to get the best ideas off the ground.
3. List out possible solutions.
This is the time to get creative — list literally any solution you could think of here. Don't worry about getting attached to one yet, the point of this step is just to get ideas on the table. It's probably a good idea to take a break after this step.
4. Assess for workability.
Once you come back, take another look at your list, and write down the pros and cons of each solution. Again, try to be as dispassionate as you can, and work with the other person as much as possible. If you find yourself getting stuck here, take a break. Then consider going back to the earlier steps to set a deeper foundation with more understanding, more back and forth, and more exploration.
5. Choose at least one option.
Now you've got everything on the table. You've thought through your options, and you can see which one has the most pros. Hopefully by this point there's a clear option that will satisfy at least most of the needs of each party. If not, see if you can combine or alter a couple of options to make them a better fit. This may take some time and negotiation, so don't rush it.
6. Write it down.
Most people stop at the above step, but this is a recipe for broken promises. Don't rely on your memory or your understanding of what you've agreed, write down what you've agreed on together, and any details you want to make sure actually happen. One great way to do this is to assign one person the role of typing it out and sending it in an email for review to ensure joint approval. This not only makes sure this step happens, it also allows for more complete agreements, since you've both got a chance to add in details that might be missed in the initial drafting.
7. Create check-ins, and keep them.
Things are almost certainly going to change as you start implementing this agreement, so decide on a time to check in on how things are going and whether you're still in agreement about things. Finally, this is a good time to express appreciation and reinforce the other person's best intentions. While you may be getting to the "ending" of this conversation, this is really just the beginning of the next conversation, so make sure you end things as well as you can.
8. Get help if you can.
And finally, if you go through this kind of process and it's just not working for you, or you're in a situation that's already way past the DIY problem-solving stage, reach out and get some help. There's lots of legal professionals offering services online, and even though you're limited in terms of going to court and some types of legal work, you can still get help.