When should you tell your spouse,
"We have a problem."


Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.


A marital complaint usually falls into one of two broad categories:
    1) "You are not meeting my emotional needs," or
    2) "Your behavior is upsetting me."
The first category reflects a failure to make your spouse happy, and the second category reflects a failure to avoid making your spouse unhappy.

When you meet your spouse's emotional needs, you deposit love units into your spouse's Love Bank. And when you avoid behavior that makes your spouse unhappy, you avoid withdrawing love units. That combination leads to romantic love, the feeling of incredible attraction that is essential in a happy and fulfilling marriage. So if your spouse ever registers a complaint in either of these two categories, my advice to you is to take care of the problem as quickly as possible. Don't wait for it to become an even greater problem, in hopes that it will eventually go away. And then, let the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse) guide you to a solution.

I give you this advice because I want you and your spouse to be in love with each other, and I'm sure that you want that, too. But most marital therapists disagree with me on this issue. Because their advice is so pervasive, and so destructive to the love of couples that follow it, I use whatever opportunity I have to defend this crucial position.

The difference between my approach to saving marriages, and the approach of most other therapists, is that I focus on building romantic love (being "in love") between spouses, rather than simply focusing on conflict resolution. As it turns out, I also address conflict resolution, but I do it in a way that builds love between spouses.

Since most marital therapists fail to address the romantic love issue when they try to help couples, their approach to conflict resolution usually fails to build love, and as a result, the couples divorce, even after "resolving" some of their conflicts.

An example of this current effort to "resolve" marital conflicts is found in a book by Jacobson and Christensen, Integrative Couples Therapy (Norton, 1996). In this training manual for marital therapists, couples are to be encouraged by their therapists to lower their marital expectations by becoming more understanding of each other's dysfunctional background. Irreparable wounds inflicted during childhood should inspire empathy toward a thoughtless spouse, not disappointment. Awareness of each other's limitations should lead to acceptance of each other's behavior and a willingness to meet one's own needs, instead of expecting each other to meet those needs. The suggested goal of therapy is to teach each spouse to make themselves happy, and not look to each other for their happiness. While this approach to therapy may resolve a couple's conflict, it most certainly will not lead to love. When couples follow this advice, few love units are deposited and many are withdrawn. In the end, the couple is likely to divorce.

The same sort of advice is given in Getting the Love You Want by Hendrix (Holt Rinehart, & Winston, 1988). While the book title seems to address the issue of romantic love in marriage, the author's strategy for couples is to learn to accept each other's marital failures, rather than doing anything to overcome them. I guarantee you, if you follow this strategy, you will NOT get the love you want.

My experience, and the experience of a few others who are carefully studying what it takes for a couple to be satisfied with their marriage, proves the opposite of what is currently being popularly recommended. Instead of spouses trying to lower their expectations, I believe that they should raise them. Instead of spouses learning to meet their own emotional needs, I believe that they should expect to have them met by each other, and met in a professional manner. Why? Because that's what it takes for a couple to be in love and stay in love. Furthermore, couples should not waste their time trying to "understand" each other's failures, but rather, they should try to overcome them as quickly as possible so the issue does not have time to drain their Love Banks.

In a great, but mind-numbing, article entitled "The Mathematics of Marital Conflict: Dynamic Mathematical Nonlinear Modeling of Newlywed Marital Interaction" (Gottman, Swanson and Murray. J. of Family Psychology, 1999, Vol. 13, No.1, 3-19), the authors provide evidence that couples should not "let things ride and have a chance to build up" (p. 17). Instead, couples should address any conflict as soon as it arises, and resolve it quickly. The authors indicate that the biblical principle from Ephesians (4:26), may be helpful in marriage, "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."

In this study, newlyweds who divorced within 6 years were compared with those who remained married during those years. It was found that the divorced couples tended not to respond to each other's complaints as quickly as those who remained married. These divorced couples ignored each other's complaints until they became intensely negative. Those who remained married, on the other hand, went to work addressing each other's complaints soon after they were mentioned, not giving the complaint a chance to build up.

My experience with couples agrees with the results of this study. In successful marriages, spouses expect to change to accommodate each other's needs, so when a spouse registers a complaint, it's a signal for action. In failed marriages, on the other hand, spouses expect to be accepted as they are, without change. A complaint is interpreted as an unwillingness to love unconditionally, a failure of the complaining spouse. So instead of adjusting to the complaint, the defense is offered, "if you really loved me, you would not try to change me. You would let me continue to do whatever it is I'm doing."

The Buyer and the Renter

In my Q&A column, Living Together Before Marriage, I described two approaches to marital conflict: The approach of the Buyer and the approach of the Renter. To help you understand why it may be difficult for you to complain to your spouse as soon as problem arises, I return to that analogy.

When a couple live together before marriage, they tend to be "renters." By that I mean that they view their relationship much as they would renting an apartment. If something goes wrong in an apartment, the landlord is expected to fix it -- if it needs paint, the landlord paints it; if it needs repairs, the landlord does the repairing. In other words, the renter is not responsible for making the apartment suitable for living -- the landlord is responsible. And if the apartment is not repaired, the tenant isn't expected to fix the apartment himself, he simply moves to another apartment if he doesn't like the one he is renting.

In the same way, couples who live together before marriage do not expect to make many changes to accommodate their lovers. The relationship is a test of how "livable" their relationship is, and if they were to find it uncomfortable, or if one were to complain much, it would mean that they would not be right for each other.

Those who live together before marriage tend to ignore conflicts until they become intensely negative. That's why these relationships are notoriously abusive (as reported in a recent Justice Department study on domestic abuse). If these couples eventually marry, they carry their renter's agreement into marriage, with the same tendency to ignore conflicts until they build up. Since the renter's agreement does not promote healthy adjustment in marriage, or the sustaining of romantic love -- the vast majority of these marriages end in divorce.

On the other hand, when couples marry before they live together, they tend to be "buyers." Much like buying a house, these couples realize that if anything needs fixing, they will have to fix it -- the sooner, the better. Their marriage is not a test of how livable their relationship is, but rather, it's a commitment to make their relationship livable. That means that when a problem first surfaces, they go right to work fixing it, knowing that if they don't fix it soon, it can lead to an even bigger problem later.

This is where my approach to building love in marriage makes a crucial point -- unless you and your spouse build your lifestyle together like a buyer, where you change your own behavior to make each other happy and avoid making each other unhappy, you will destroy the love you once had for each other. The buyer's approach to a relationship helps sustain the feeling of love because each spouse changes his or her own behavior to meet each other's needs and avoid hurting each other. The renter's approach, on the other hand, expects the other person to accept one's behavior as it is, and that, in turn, leads to a loss of love and eventual divorce.

So, how soon should you begin in your effort to address each other's complaints? My answer: As soon as the complaint is first made. Why wait for a complaint to turn into a demand, or a disrespectful judgment or an angry outburst? Why not deal with the issue immediately, as soon as it is spoken.

How should you tell your spouse, "We have a problem."

One of the reasons that spouses postpone their complaints is that the way they complain often starts a fight. While the complaint does get the problem out on the table, it often wrecks what could have been a peaceful evening at home. And after the fight is over, the problem usually remains unsolved. So, how should you introduce a problem to your spouse in a way that doesn't lead to a fight, and makes it easy to solve?

First, this is what you should NOT do when presenting a problem to your spouse:

DO NOT make a demand. A demand is an effort to force your spouse to do what you want without consideration for how your spouse will feel doing it. "Do it, or else," is the clear message given in a demand, and it coveys an insensitivity to your spouse's feelings or interests. It's a Love Buster because demands withdraw love units. Instead of helping to solve a problem, it creates a new problem. A thoughtful request, on the other hand, is a good way to ask your spouse for help, because it takes his or her feelings into account. "How would you feel if you were to do this for me," introduces the problem with a willingness to negotiate a win-win solution.

DO NOT make a disrespectful judgment. When you present the problem, avoid expressing it as being the fault of your spouse. "If you were less selfish, we wouldn't have this problem," is an example of a disrespectful judgment that will get you nowhere. Instead of blaming your spouse for the problem, view it as a problem for you that is, apparently, not a problem for your spouse. Respectful persuasion is an effort to try to change your spouse's behavior that, in the end, will not only help you, but will help your spouse as well.

DO NOT have an angry outburst. Anger is your Taker's way of punishing your spouse when he or she does not give you what you want. It's not only an ineffective way to produce long-lasting change in your spouse's behavior, but it also destroys your spouse's love for you.

Granted, if you present your complaint in a thoughtful way, and your spouse responds with thoughtlessness, you will be very tempted to revert to your Taker's instincts by being demanding, disrespectful and angry. But it takes two to fight, and if your spouse does not respond positively to your presentation, simply end the discussion, and re-introduce your problem again later.

It's very important for both you and your spouse to do a good job meeting each other's emotional needs, and avoiding behavior that causes each other's unhappiness. But when either of you have a complaint, I suggest that you use this procedure:

First, state your complaint as clearly as possible, guaranteeing your spouse's safety by avoiding demands, disrespect or anger. Be cheerful as you discuss the problem, and try to make it brief.

Second, ask for your spouse's perspective on your problem. How does your spouse view this same situation and what might make it difficult for him or her to accommodate you?

Third, brainstorm possible solutions to the problems, looking for a plan that would solve your problem, and at the same time take your spouse's feelings into account. Avoid any solution where one of you gains at the other's expense. Don't give or expect sacrifice because that means that one of you will be losing love units so that the other can gain them. If you sacrifice for each other, in the end, you won't have the mutual love for each other that you want. But also recognize the importance of eventually finding a solution that solves the problem.

Finally, from your list of possible solutions, choose the one that has the enthusiastic agreement of both you and your spouse. That way, the solution will deposit love units into both of your Love Banks simultaneously. If you can't find one that meets that standard, keep brainstorming.

To guarantee your love for each other, you and your spouse must address each other's complaints as soon as they arise. Don't let your problems build up before you find solutions, because the longer you wait, the more love units you lose. But, if you're not careful, the way you go about presenting your problem and trying to find solutions can also cause you to lose love units.

You will not only deposit love units by solving the problems themselves, but you will also deposit love units in the very way you go about solving the problem, if you do it the right way.

Most couples lose love units whenever they have a conflict because they present their complaints with demands, disrespect and anger. And then they look for solutions that help one spouse but hurt the other. That's no way to resolve conflicts, and it's certainly no way to stay in love.

The better you become at stating your complaints with your spouse's feelings in mind, and then finding solutions with the same thoughtfulness, the more you will feel like getting to each problem immediately. But until you get to the place where you feel like presenting your problems as soon as they occur, do it anyway. Don't try to lower your expectations, and don't try to meet your own emotional needs. Instead, learn to become experts at meeting each other's emotional needs. That way you will have what you have always wanted -- a fulfilling and passionate marriage.

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