Circling Back: The Key to Solving Marital Problems

Key to solving marital problems

It was late, both Henry and Marnie were tired; Marnie snapped she wished Henry would have helped with the kids’ bath instead of “fooling around on his computer.” Henry quickly defended himself, said he was wrapping up something for work, and besides when he does help with the kids Marnie is always looking over his shoulder micromanaging what he is doing. The argument got ugly and angry fast, with Henry stomping off and sleeping in the spare bedroom.

Next morning, they met in the kitchen. “Sorry about last night.” “Me too.” “We okay?” “Sure.” “Hug?” “Okay.” They makeup. They’re done. Ready to move on.

But no, they’re not done. While they may have emotionally calmed the waters, what they didn’t do is go back about talk about the problems. This is in some ways understandable – they’re afraid that bringing up the topic again will just start another argument. And sometimes in the light of day, last night’s argument wasn’t really about anything important but both being cranky and sensitive because they were tired and stressed.

Sweeping problems under the rug

But they need to be careful not use such thinking as their default. To sweep problems under the rug means that problems never get solved, and are always ready to ignite with just the right amount of late-night tiredness, or a bit of alcohol. And because the problems go unresolved, the resentments build so when an argument does flair, it’s easy for it to go off the rails pretty quickly; again they push it down, further fueling an endless negative cycle.

The way to stop the cycle is, of course, to go against your instincts, step up, push against your anxiety, and take the risk of talking about the problem later once the emotions have calmed. This is circling back, or what John Gottman called in his research on couples, return and repair. If you don’t, it’s all too easy to use distance to avoid conflict; intimacy is lost because you both are constantly feeling that you walking through emotional minefields and can’t be open and honest.

Fortunately, most of us are able to do such circling back in other relationships outside our intimate ones. If a colleague in the staff meeting seems upset by a comment that we made, most of us are able to approach her after the meeting and apologize for hurting her feelings, explain our intentions and concerns, and address the problems that may be lingering. In intimate relationships all this becomes more difficult because of the importance of the relationship, our being more open and less guarded, because of the easy stirring up of old childhood wounds.

How should you circle back?

The starting point for circling back is to try adopting that same business, problem-solving mind. This is where Henry says after the hug that he’d still like to talk about helping Marnie with the kids with bedtime and about his feelings of being micromanaged. We don’t need to talk about now when we’re rushing to get ready for work, he says, but maybe Saturday morning while the kids are watching TV. This gives Marnie, and Henry time to gather their thoughts.

And when they do meet on Saturday, they want to adopt that rational business-like mindset that they would have a work. They both need to focus on problem-solving their mutual concerns, and avoid slipping into their emotional minds and defending their positions and arguing over whose reality is right. They probably should keep it short – say a half hour – to help them move forward and not fall back into the past. And if it does get too heated, they need to agree to stop and cool off.

If this seems too overwhelming, they can also try writing out thoughts. The advantage here is that they have time to craft your thoughts, and can include and offset what they think the other may think. Here Henry says that he is not trying to critical of Marnie, and not appreciative of all that she does for the kids. Here Marnie says that she understands that Henry does have to check his emails at night for work, and that she doesn’t mean to be micromanaging but has her own routines with the kids and has a hard time letting go of them. Both can read what the other has written, and then meet to settle on a workable solution for both of them.

Counseling as an option

Finally, if they are too easily triggered and these discussions are just too difficult, they may want to do even a short stint of counseling. The counselor can provide a safe environment for discussion, can help them learn communication skills and recognize when the conversation is going off-course and help them get it back on track. He can even ask the hard questions about possible underlying issues that are part of problem puzzle.

Counseling as an option

And thinking about this as mastering skills is actually helpful and healthy. It ultimately isn’t about bedtimes or who’s at fault, but how do we they, as a couple, learn to have the same, problem-solving conversations that allow them to be heard, feeling validated and have the concerns settled in a positive way.

Problems may always arise, but having the ability to put them to rest is the key to relationship success.

Bob Taibbi is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with 42 years of work experience as a clinician, supervisor and clinical director. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina, and has served as adjunct professor at several others. He provides trainings in couples therapy, family therapy, brief therapy, and clinical supervision.