The Solution to Tuesday Tip (#1)*

This was my “puzzle” (the paradoxical Tuesday tip) for yesterday:

The attempt to solve a relationship / marital problem is the cause of nearly all relationship problems. The refusal to solve the problem is nearly always the solution.


Many of you commented, and all had good things to say, which cheered me up and gave me some optimism that this new feature, suggested by Lisa Kelley, might be fun or useful for some of you! That’s great!

Two or three folks were really close to the target, and I would have to say, got it right.

Here is my explanation. Often two people in a relationship get frustrated because they cannot solve some problem they are kind of arguing about. For example, I once treated two divorced individuals fell in love and got married. They adored each other. But the woman, in her 30’s, really wanted to have a baby, since her first husband, who dumped her, was against having children.

However, her new husband was a super handsome and loving man who was 15 years her senior, and he already had five children from his first marriage, and he did not want any more. So they kept debating about the so-called “correct” solution to this problem. And, of course, they just kept running around in circles.

In a situation like this, there are really two different levels that one can think about when you view the interaction between the two people. On one level, you have the so-called “real” problem, which is: should we, or should we not, have a child? So you argue about what is “fair,” what is “just” and what will work out the “best.” etc. That is level one, the “content” of the argument, the intellectual side, you might say.

And the attempt to solve this “problem” IS the problem. Because, on some level, it CANNOT be “solved.”

But at the other level, you have a “river of emotion” flowing underneath the surface. She has many strong feelings, of sadness, of love for her new husband, of strong desires to be a mother, of frustration, of abandonment, of anxiety about growing old and childless, and so forth. He also has many strong feelings, of love for her, frustration, oppression, sadness, and anxiety about being overwhelmed just at the time of life he was looking forward to some freedom, to name just a few.

So the “solution” is to STOP trying to solve the problem, and instead to use the Five Secrets of Effective Communication to listen to the other person’s perspective, to acknowledge the truth in it, and especially to acknowledge how he or she is feeling, and to share, respectfully, your own feelings. The goal becomes the sharing of feelings, and listening to feelings, in an attitude of openness and respect, rather than compulsively arguing about the “best solution.”

This means letting go of feelings of entitlement, and focusing on how your partner is thinking and feeling. Getting back to a loving relationship. When two people feel loved, in most cases you won’t have to solve the so-called “real problem.” A solution will generally emerge.

So I coached them in how to do this, and we practiced in the office. I gave them the “assignment” to practice communicating, but both must refuse to try to “solve the problem.”

They were motivated because of their love for each other, and did their “homework.”

The wife called me in a state of excitement three weeks later to report that her husband woke up that morning and announced he’d had a sudden change of heart and wanted a baby. Their daughter was born less than a year later.

To learn to use the Five Secrets of Effective Communication, I would strongly recommend my book, Feeling Good Together, which you can order through and other booksellers. This book will be helpful to therapists, your patients, and the general public alike. You can also listen to my Feeling Good Podcast series on the Five Secrets as well as the series on Healing Troubled Relationships.

So now you have lots of new tools to use if you want to develop more loving and satisfying relationships with the people you care about!

Hope you enjoyed the first riddle and its solution. Next Tuesday, look for “Tip #2!”


* Copyright © 2018 by David D. Burns, MD.

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6 thoughts on “The Solution to Tuesday Tip (#1)*

  1. Nice paradoxical tool. Its simple but may not be easy. I think people easily fall back to their own demands and needs. So they better correct their cognitive distortions first in order to be in much better position to practice EAR with partner. The beauty of this technique is once you give up your strong demand or goal you become more centered and are in a much better position to practice EAR and raise the probability of getting what you want in the relationship. Paradox indeed! Thanks.

    • Rajesh, as usual you are hitting the ball out of the park. Nice home run! I absolutely love your terrific and wise comments! Thanks! david

  2. Adding more, the only question that comes to my mind is there a point in relationship when you think we say, enough is enough and move on? When the cost of investing in relationship is more than the happiness you derive out if it? Like you rather be happy by yourself than continuing in the thankless relationship.Thanks.

    • Right. If you read Feeling Good Together, or listen to the podcast series on healing troubled relationships, you’ll find that Interpersonal Decision-Making is a part of the Agenda Setting phase of the session. You always have a decision to make: Do I want to: 1. Leave this relationship? 2. Stay in the relationship and work to make it better? or 3. Stay in the relationship and behave in a way that will guarantee it will remain crappy.

      The third option is by far the most popular in my experience in therapy, and in the experience of some of my most trusted colleagues. And clearly, there is no rule that says you are obligated to try to get along with everyone!

      The first option is also quite popular.

      The second option is the road less traveled by, the road that can make all of the difference! But it’s clearly not a popular option, as you can see by watching the news every night on TV!


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