Who’s the Problem?

Can we please just stop, now?

It is a familiar scene for me, when a couple shows up asking for help AND certain about who is the problem in the relationship. What if there is no Who? Our itchy anxious selves deeply need an explanation. We look for all the reasons that support, justify, and make meaning of why we do what we do when You do what You do. We are wired for meaning making. We default to self protection and defense building. We are good at looking at You and giving ourselves a free pass. Can we please, just stop, now?

No More Labels

We have become a collective body of diagnosticians. We spot the symptoms of narcissism, depression, anxiety, pointing our well meaning finger at You. We look at Your behaviors while screaming: gas lighting, denial, deflecting, projecting, blaming, criticizing, name calling…You, You, You! What if we gently turn our discerning eye on ourselves and ask instead: WWYW (What would you want?), right now. Can we slow down in the moment and be curious about what we want when we are scrutinizing our partner for flaws, failings, and other evidence that support our secret diagnosis of them?

What if we could see reactions, as highly effective adaptive responses that protect You from me and me from You? Would we do or say something different if we could arrive in this moment with no diagnosis, no certainty of why you are the way you are? Could we be gentle and curious about why we are reacting to You the way we do? Would you agree to take your inventory and I will agree to take mine?


My partner never starts the day with the intention of disappointing me or seeking how I am a disappointment to him. He does not plan to say something that cuts me or minimizes me. He does not intentionally look for ways or reasons to criticize me. In recovery circles taking ones inventory is intended to be a foundation for growth and change. Much like a business inventory, a personal inventory is a review of one’s assets. We look for what is there and what needs to be restocked. A good inventory is effective in looking through a neutral lens. The inventory points us in the direction of what we will do next.

My partner does not stock blame, shame, and criticism. And if that shows up in what he gives me or how he interacts with me, it is his job to notice it and own it. It is my job to notice what I am missing or need more or less of. I can turn that lens on me and me alone. When I take my inventory, it is important to be honest and gentle with myself.

Got Milk?

When I show up at the hardware store and ask: “Got Milk?”, it is my responsibility to recognize that the hardware store does not stock milk. The hardware store is not the Problem, for not having it. These days most hardware stores do have candy at the reigster, and that might help soften the blow. (Just sayin’.) And with a little luck the hardware store will gently point me to the corner store, that carries milk.

Knowing what I need is an inside job. Asking for what I need is incredible self-care. Getting what I need is still my responsibility. You not giving me what I need when I need it does not make you the Problem. The Problem is what I do when I object to not getting my needs met. Or the Problem could be what you do when you react to my expression of need.

I object!

My objection to you being you, exactly as you are, is an expression of longing for you to be more like me, just for the moment. Why can’t you just do it the way I want? If You could, I would feel…fill in the blank. When You understand my need, You often have capacity to meet me. But when You feel the burden, weight, threat, judgment, anxiety or fear behind my need, you may protect yourself. That makse sense! Our objections take over and we find ourselves saying things like you never… and I always have to…

My reactive response, which was planted and nurtured long before You showed up, is the thing that will most readily appear when my expectation is that my needs are never going to be met. You and I are NOT the Problem. the Problem is what we do when we are scared, lonely, tired, hurting, and generally depleted. Which we all are right now.


My best self, knows how to slow down and look for all the ways we have practiced to stay in connection with each other. My little inner self will default to old well-practiced behaviors to protect my little inner self from another disappointment. When I spend time with my feelings, pitch a tent there, as my therapist tells me, I learn that they are fleeting.

Those pesky feelings show up with a job to do. They are just feelings. They are not Me! And if I can be curious about why my feelings are here now, I might actually move towards understanding and healing. I might be able to tell You more about what is happening to me. You might undrstand me. And THAT is what I really long for most.

People are not Problems

Can we agree to stop labling people as problems? People have problems. People may act in problematic ways. When we see each other as a problem, we treat each other as a problem. The problem is not who You are or even what or how You do or say. The problem is how I feel when You do or say it that way. It is uncomfortable to feel these feels. And I will likely do whatever I already know how to do to STOP feeling uncomfortable feelings or avoid them in the firt place.

My auto-response is keeping me in this dance with you. And the way I know to stop feeling is to blame, you, shame, you, criticize you or freeze you in the image that you will NEVER change. That IS the problem.

Problem Solving

  • Learn a new language to describe what is happening
  • Try a new perspective, seeing each other from a different angle
  • Slow down and notice what I am saying and doing
  • Welcome curiosity about Me and You
  • Take your inventory daily: How am I doing?
  • Be a willing learner of the other person’s experience
  • Get in tune with what you deeply long for
  • Ask for what you want
  • Recognize when You or I are depleted and do not have the capacity to give it, right now
  • Make an appointment to check back and see when you CAN meet the longing of the other person
  • Look for what works in the relationship
  • Tell each other what delights you about this amazing person your chose!
  • Laugh and Smile More!
  • Sit quietly together and gaze with adoring soft eyes at your best beloved.
  • Get outside help when needed.

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