Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Stop Arguing...

Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Stop Arguing

You could have the best problem-solving machine known to humankind, and it wouldn’t fix your relationship.

It doesn’t matter what kind of machine it is—an advanced AI that dispenses relationship advice, a portal to a perfect universe, a time machine…


Then let me tell you a story that I share with my clients when they get stuck in the weeds on a particular problem in their relationship.

The Relationship Time Machine

Imagine my wife, Teale, and I argued every single night about a classic domestic question: Who cleans the kitchen?

The negative relationship cycle starts out a bit like this..

Me: I worked all day, we're seeing clients late at night, what do you mean it's my turn to clean the kitchen? Don't you value everything I was doing??

Teale: Oh my god, who do you think you are? Why is your work more important than mine? Asshole.

On its face, this looks like a basic disagreement about who should clean the kitchen based on workload.

We’re in conflict, but once we figure out who should do it, we’ll be connected again… right?

Let’s see what happens when fictional Figs tries to find a solution:

Me: I'll do it.

Teale: No, don't bother.

Me: Okay, you do it.

Teale: Oh, whatever.

Me: Let's do it togeth–

Teale: No, forget it.

Nothing works.

If I do it, I’ll be pissed off. 

She does it, she’ll be pissed off and I’ll be sitting on the couch feeling guilty.

We can’t do it together because we’re too disappointed in each other. 

No solution works!! 

We’re just too emotionally disconnected—every option is colored by the fact that we’re withholding a flavor of love from each other.

“Don’t you value everything I was doing?” and “Why is your work more important than mine?” are really “Am I enough?” and “Are you there for me?”

And the answer still feels like it’s “No.”

But I’m a determined fella.

I want that solution, so I build my version of the perfect relationship problem-solving machine…

A time travel machine.

So that whenever we argue about something, to cut out all the messy hurt feelings, I’ll just skip right to the solution!

The next time we start arguing about the kitchen, I tell Teale to wait a second, run to squeeze into my little time machine, and hop 30 minutes into the future.

And then I find exactly what I’m looking for…

I race to the kitchen to discover Teale, standing at the sink with loads of bubbles.

She looks at future Figs as I'm cleaning the countertops, grabs some of the bubbles, and throws them at my head. I go, "Oh!" and flick her with a tea towel as I laugh.

We're listening to music, dancin', playing and just having so much fun with each other.

Overjoyed, I run back to the time machine, jump back 30 minutes, and run out to Teale, standing in the kitchen.

She’s still pissed, but I tell her what I’ve learned: 

“I know exactly what we do! You wash all the dishes, make extra bubbles, and throw those bubbles at me. I’ll clean the countertops and flick you with a tea towel. We’ll listen to music and we’ll dance together!”

She looks at me and she says…

“Fuck you, Figs.”

And so, as the fiery descendant of Irish farmers that I am, I smash the time machine to pieces.

That night, we go to sleep in the same bed, but the distance between us might as well be the grand canyon. The future I visited was erased.

The Missing Piece

At about 4 in the morning I jump out of bed and go,

“Oh my god, I get it! The answer was in the time I skipped!”

In the 30 minutes I missed, Teale and I were eventually so hurt we were able to have this exchange…

Me: Look, I can just feel so bad when I don't feel appreciated. I'm not saying it's right, but I felt like you don't really see what I do and my feelings got hurt.

Teale: I get it. I can feel like you think the work that I do is less important, and it really hurts my feelings.

Me: That totally makes sense. Come here.

Teale: No, you come here.

Teale puts me in a headlock, grabs my little bald head, and rubs her knuckles on my head.

Then I give her little playful punches, "Yooou!" and we give each other a big hug and a kiss.

Now, me cleaning the kitchen works, her cleaning the kitchen works, cleaning it together works, no one cleans the kitchen works… anything works!

Because we’re connected.

Every solution that was completely closed off to us before works now, because we’re connected.

A couple holding hands on the road, as if choosing a path—will they problem-solve or access their vulnerable feelings?

Why Problem-Solving Doesn't Work

If you’re really fighting about something—if it’s coming up again and again, frustrations are high, and feelings are getting hurt—chances are that something is happening under the surface.

Something about it makes each of you feel like your particular flavor of love is not being met—you fear the other is either disappointed in you or is not there for you.

(For more on this, read “What is fighting?”)

The “solution” in the time machine story was the 30-minute process I tried to skip over, because the real problem was not that the kitchen wasn’t clean.

The problem was that in talking about the kitchen, Teale and I got emotionally hurt.

In conflict, solutions will not work without attending to the emotional bonding issue first.

In fact, offering up solutions without tending to each other’s emotional wounding can make things worse: in the time machine story, the more we tried to solve for how to clean the kitchen in the moment, the more disconnected we got.

So stop building time machines.

Stop trying to skip past all the messy, beautiful, painful, important bits of your relationship. 

You will get hurt. You will protest. Your partner will get hurt and protest. Rinse, repeat.

You cannot bypass the process of sharing your vulnerable feelings and understanding your partner’s, but you can avoid unnecessarily long periods of suffering by facing them.

No solution will work without emotional connection.

So if you need a helping hand reaching it, my team of counselors is here.

Maya Rudolph blowing kisses, making a heart with her hands, and winking.
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Figs is the creator of the Empathi method and the certification process for Empathi coaches. He’s also Chief Empathi Officer, husband, dad, wounded-healer and was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered as a champion for healthy relationships. Figs’ life’s mission is to help couples feel more connected.

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