Who Really Owns The Problem?

26 October, 2011

Lack of clarity around this quickly leads to conflict in relationships, specifically our significant romantic relationships.

I have been teaching the concept of Problem Ownership to my clients for many years, and I think it has only been recently, as a result of some significant lessons learned in my own relationship, that I have finally understood what it actually means to own your own problems and how beneficial this is to the relationship itself. I admit that when this concept is truly embodied it is a brave and courageous thing to do, and nothing that I would consider easy! However, it is totally worth it for the results.

Without getting too deep and stereotypically therapist like on you, the facts are these: when we have unresolved issues and emotions from our past, usually the stuff we never got to resolve with our own parents or caregivers, it is these deep patterns that end up showing up in our partnerships.

My own personal issue was one of rejection. Without going in to depth, it has been to do with one of my parents and how I felt as a child (it took me a long time to realise this). It started showing up regularly in my relationship - to such a degree that every little thing started to feel like a rejection! In the grip of the feeling, I didn't have the power to seperate myself from it, and it was so strong that my behaviour came - boom - straight out of that place. The long and short of it was I put it all on my partner to fix - he needed to change his actions and behaviour so I could feel better. Noticing the central flaw here? Of course, he can't do that, as it is my problem to own and not his.

Now that I realise what has been going on and gained the courage to own that feeling and do something about it personally rather than making it a partner or a relationship problem, it is like a spell has been broken, like a pipe has been unblocked, and the pathway before us is now clear.

What Is Owning The Problem?

It is a term from the NLP communication model Transforming Communication (TC), the aim of which is win-win conflict resolution. In its simplest form, it means to be able to say, right now in this moment, I am not feeling OK, I am not in my desired state of mind: e.g. I am worried, confused, anxious, angry. As far as we know, the other person, in this moment in time, is OK, they are in their desired state of mind: e.g. calm, happy, contented, relaxed. Once we have checked, we might find that they too are also owning a problem about something (they are not in their desired state of mind either) and then we have a conflict situation.

It doesn't mean that a behaviour or action that your partner is doing is not the trigger for the feeling you have, it doesn't mean that the other person is off the hook and shouldn't think about changing: all of this is relevant. However, it is the courage to say, right now in this moment, I don't feel OK, this is my feeling, and I am owning it.

Why Does This Matter?

If we don't have the courage to do this more, we will damage our partnerships. We will feel unpleasant about something, and directly attribute our feeling to something that they do or don't do, and make it their fault by blaming them. We embark on a cunning plan to change things about them, so that we feel better. The result for the other person? They feel blamed, they feel responsible, they feel like they have to fix it, they can't fix it (because it is not theirs to fix) and because they can't they feel defeated, their self-esteem travels downwards, they try and avoid doing anything that might upset us, and end up walking on eggshells, a distance grows between you both.

Not the thing lasting relationships are made of.

How Do We Do It?

As I have said througout this post: it takes bravery and courage. Remember, no one is blameless, there is always a 50/50 contribution to any relaitonship. However, you are responsible for you, they are responsible for themselves. You are responsible for how you respond, feel and act, they are responsible for how they respond, feel and act. Some things are undoubtedly a relationship problem and need to be solved between you, and some things are your problems to own. Let's see if we can begin to get a distinction between the two.

Here are some things you can start with:

  1. Notice: Who is the one that is upset the most in this relationship? Who is the one that is always asking for change? Who usually starts the arguments?
  2. Write down: If you have a pervasive feeling (e.g. anger, rejection, insecurity) start writing it down: notice when it comes up and what it comes up in response to. Write down any thoughts you have at these times. You will begin to notice some trends. For really pervasive emotions, please seek help to deal with them.
  3. Ask yourself: Who is it that is not feeling OK here? Who is not in their desired state? And see if you can identify this in this snapshot moment in time. If it is you, own it as yours.
  4. Keep your mouth closed: When you feel something and you are owning as yours, keep your mouth closed. See if you can tolerate the feeling until it goes away. Practice sitting with it, and not putting it on them. See what happens.
  5. Discuss what can be solved between you: It might be through this exercise you decide that you really can't tolerate the fat being left on your bacon and you need this behaviour to change. This can be discussed from a place of: I own this as my problem, and would you be willing to consider discussing how we could make this better. You may also notice that you can let a lot of things go.

I will leave you with this quote: "You don't marry the person you can live with, you marry the person you cannot live without" ~ Annon.

As always, let me know how you go, I welcome your interaction and feedback, Charlotte.

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