Solve the Moment versus Solve the Problem
Life Lessons put together by Dick Conant, LCPC
Bill and Genie had some very strong cutting words for each other on Friday evening. The words from both were so penetrating that neither could speak to the other for the rest of that evening. They slept in separate rooms. They didn’t speak Saturday and slept separately that evening. Sunday was more of the same until just before bed Genie walked by Bill in the kitchen and said, “I know I didn’t handle Friday evening’s conversation all that well. I said things in anger that I didn’t really mean. I should have been able to control my own emotions better.”
Bill, feeling a wall melting away, volunteered, “I didn’t do any better. My need to be heard won out over your need to be heard. I wasn’t able to hear you say that all I had to do was call and tell you I’d be late. So I got on a roll and poured my frustrations back on you.”
Bill and Genie have found their voice. They have solved the moment. They had been emotionally separated moments before. They had awkward and angry feelings toward one another.
Dan Wile, PhD, teaches that in order to solve the moment (the most immediate conflict) each has to risk vulnerability. When people can find their voice they are able to own what they contributed to a fight. They can see what they are doing that adds fuel to the fire. When they cannot find their voice they default to fallback positions of attack and avoidance. It is the fight or flight mechanism that kicks in to protect us against hurt or feeling bad about ourselves.
How did Genie get to this moment of being able to confide in Bill? During the weekend she had looped through several self-talk stages such as:
- Self-reproach – “Why do I have to say things that always inflame the situation? I deserve his wrathful response.”
- Justification – “I’m an emotional person. Why should I hide how I really feel about Bill’s lateness?”
- Blame – “Bill’s never going to be on time. He agrees one day to call, then doesn’t call the next. He’s the one not keeping promises in this marriage, not me.”
Genie didn’t like the distance between her and Bill. The feelings of justification and blame were only going to maintain that distance unless she did something to break through, and even then she wasn’t sure it would encourage a different response from Bill. So she chose to express how her words escalated the conflict. Bill was able to receive her words as an olive branch of peace and was willing to extend his own olive branch back to her. Each risked vulnerability. This is a good example of a repair conversation.
Dr. Wile says “we are always one sentence away from closeness or distance.” What if Bill wasn’t able to accept Genie’s olive branch and responded, “You meant what you said to me Friday night. You’ve said those same words to me on other occasions.” Then Genie has three options:
- She can return to the attack-back-mode of Friday night
- She can shut down (avoid) and not respond with anything meaningful hoping that he will drop the charge, so to speak
- She can stay with her confide approach by saying, “You’re right. I have said these words before and it must sound like I’m lying tonight to just make amends. Then you could easily believe that I would come right back with similar statements in the future.”
Making this type of confide statement keeps the door open for a possible solving of this particular moment. They can’t solve the problem, which is the history of what Bill’s lateness has caused in their relationship. But they have a shot at solving this moment in time in terms of how they talk about his lateness. The problem at the moment is their separation and inability to talk. That’s what needs to be solved before the lateness can be addressed.
Another example of trying to solve the moment is seen as Dan asks Alice, after hearing her on the phone for an hour, “How come you always have so much to say to your friends and so little to say to me?” If Alice hears this question as an attack statement, she has three choices:
- Respond with her own attack statement (Attack)
- Don’t dignify his comment with one of her own (Avoid)
- Respond with a confide statement that will hopefully open the door to solving this particular moment.. “I worry about that, too.” Or “You’re right, I have been speaking to my friends more than I have with you.”
We have these same three choices in our interactions with our spouses all the time. Only the confide approach opens the door toward oneness which is ultimately what both partners really want. This approach has the power to turn the partners into allies as each admits, reassures, acknowledges, empathizes and looks at things from the other’s point of view in response to the other doing the same.
Solving the moment yields more immediate rewards than trying to solve a problem that has continued for years. As moments are solved hope is increased. As hope is increased it can give the partners a greater motivation to solve more moments. Before long, the interactions are more respectful and kind.
The simple fact is that couples argue. They fight. That’s common in all societies. Why is it that some couples can have good repair conversations and others can’t? The scriptures help identify the root, “Why do you look at the speck in your (spouse’s) eye and do not notice the log that is in your own eye … (Matt 7:3-5).” This is an appropriate question. When you find yourself harboring resentment toward a spouse for something they said then hear them take responsibility for it and understand how it affected you, what happens? The resentment no longer has the same power to stay lodged in your emotional compartments and cause later damage. Then the potential for solving that particular moment widens.