Relationship Problems: Where Do They Start?

Image from Unsplash by Marl Clevenger

Have statements like these caused problems in your relationship?
1. Our relatives take too many liberties with us and our time
2. Our son has temper tantrums. We need to figure out how to respond

As a couples counselor, I hear statements like these on a regular basis. What I can tell you straight up is that the approach to resolving and managing problems come from will differ depending on where they start: inside or outside the relationship.

In my counseling practice, I help couples identify and externalize their problems. One of the patterns we find in happy couples is that they take an “Us vs The World” approach to conflict management. They can identify a problem and position themselves as a united front in managing the problem.

For example, if the problem is “Our relatives take too many liberties with us and our time,” the problem to be managed is setting boundaries with extended family. If you can view the problem as external to you as a couple, it is a matter of teamwork in managing that problem together. 

The external problem, “Our son has temper tantrums. We need to figure out how to respond” can easily become a relationship problem. I often hear couples say things like, You criticize me and don’t respect my parenting or You think your way is the right way and you don’t listen to any of my ideas about how to parent.

External problems become relationship problems when we personalize them and don’t honor each other’s perspectives. 

Managing External Problems

External problems should be addressed as a matter of compromise. Try not to personalize those that are differences in perspective.Try to externalize the problem, which will create space for you to work as a team.
• Listen to your partner’s perspectives, emotions, and wants. Ask questions so you truly understand one another
• Mirror and summarize what each of you thinks and feels so that you both feel understood
• Validate the cognitive logic or emotional logic that your partner has expressed in how they address this problem. Validation is an important part of conflict management, even if you don’t agree with that perspective
• Explore and validate underlying emotional needs to the conflict
• Explore the similarities in how you view this problem. Somewhere in there is a compromise to your different perspectives

Managing Internal Problems

Internal problems are about emotions. In some way one or both of you feels rejected, unsupported, disrespected, or betrayed. Whether intended or not, there is damage to the bond.

• Listen to how each of you experienced the conflict. Accept the differences in perspective—don’t argue about what happened
• Validate the hurt feelings and the distress they have caused. Even if you don’t agree with your partner, honor their emotional experience
• Take ownership of your contribution to the conflict. Apologize for anything you said or did that was particularly hurtful
• Talk about what you can learn from this conflict so you don’t have the same fight again. What have you learned about each other that is helpful?

Learning to identify a problem and position yourselves as a united front in will go a long way in building a “happy couple” foundation.


Have questions or want to learn more about Couples Therapy? CLICK HERE to contact Dr. Parker