Relationships: Whose Problem is It?

In relationships, it is not uncommon for couples to have difficulties—your partner may do things that drive you crazy. In my work with couples, I often hear complaints about men leaving their dirty clothes right next to the hamper. I have seen women on the verge of divorce or a mental breakdown over this seemingly simple and innocent issue. Something men complain about is their wife’s inability to put gas in her car; it drives them wild! Though it seems like another simple issue, it has also placed a huge strain on many relationships.

When I ask the question, “Whose problem is it?” what I am really asking is, “Whose most upset by this problem?” In the previous examples, the woman is upset about the dirty clothes, and the man is upset about the gas tank. Do you think the man is sitting at work, upset about the dirty clothes he left on the floor? It’s doubtful he even gives them a second thought once they are off his body. It is just as unlikely that the woman is sitting at home, thinking to herself, “Oh darn, I forgot to stop for gas and now my sweetie is out driving our car with an empty tank!” Instead, she is likely oblivious to the gas situation.

If we can agree that the person with the problem is the person most upset by the issue, then we can get somewhere. If Bob is upset by something Sharon does or does not do, then it’s Bob’s problem. One of the biggest mistakes we make in relationships is having an inaccurate definition of ‘problem ownership.’

However, this is what commonly happens. If I am upset by something you do, then I am certain you are the problem, and I am going to do everything in my power to ensure you understand just how much of a problem you are. In other words, I am taking my problem and trying my hardest to make it your problem. If you are on the receiving end of my frustration, you have three common responses. You can ignore my attempts at making you responsible for my issue, you can accept it’s your problem and attempt to fix it, or you can fight back and resist my attempts to make you guilty.

In each of those situations, we both lose. It may look like I win if you choose the second choice, but do I really? Even if you fix the problem as I’ve identified it, how are you feeling about me? You are probably resentful of my methods. You may not like having to do something you don’t think is important. You may even find me unreasonable in my requests, thinking I don’t have my priorities straight. None of these results will do anything to strengthen our relationship. So, even if I think I’ve won something, our relationship has suffered, and so I lose.

The only way I see that a winning outcome is possible is for the person who is most upset to accept the problem as their own. Instead of forcing your partner to fix your problem, accept responsibility for its solution. Pick up the clothes. Fill the gas tank. Whatever the issue is, fix it. And while you’re at it, leave the resentment behind. Don’t get angry because your partner doesn’t see the world the same way you do. Don’t be frustrated that your priorities are different.

If you truly love this person, then accept him or her as he or she is. Stop trying to change your partner. Fix the things that annoy you gratefully. Be happy that you have this wonderful person in your life. You will be less frustrated and a better person to live with. Your relationship will prosper.

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