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I Stopped Solving Family Problems and We’re Chill Now

Men like to offer solutions when they see a problem. But what happens when you stop trying to solve problems and let people figure it out on their own?

fatherly logo The Experimental Family

As I sat with my two sons, shoving fast food in my face and staring impassively at an episode of Teen Titan’s Go, I had an epiphany: I am a terrible problem-solver.

It wasn’t the gut bomb of a burger I was eating or the frenetic, gross-out antics of B-list DC superheroes that brought me to the realization. I’d long suspected as much and tested my hypothesis. A few days prior, I had stopped trying to solve perceived problems and, in the following days, seen hard evidence that my efforts to control my family were having few long-term effects. The moment I stopped telling the boys not to watch TV, they started watching TV. The moment I stopped telling them not to yell, they yelled. I hadn’t been solving these problems; I’d been exerting control.

I’m not the only guy who instinctually tries to control people and situations. It’s a common problem for men. We often work to find solutions rather than offering support, love, listening, and communication. Our systems aren’t built on empathy so they don’t inspire change. Instead, they reinforce consequences. Take away the consequences, you take away efficacy.

Family therapists are pretty clear that most family members should be able to solve their own problems without a dad or husband stepping in. In fact, most people want to solve their own problems. By jumping in before empathizing, which was my standard response to problems, I tend to demonstrate to my kids and my wife that I don’t trust their ability to work things out. Do that long enough and things get dicey. I didn’t want dicey things. So I decided I’d just stop. And I did.

Unfortunately, human nature abhors a vacuum.

At first, I felt a sense of relief in not putting myself on the hook to make my family’s problems disappear. I mean, I didn’t like seeing them suffer. But, to my surprise, most problems were pretty minor and solutions were easily found. This was particularly the case with fights between my kids. You don’t want to share the bag of pretzels? Figure it out. You’re fighting over the television show? Not my problem.

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Compromises were found. 

Then Wednesday came and my wife was struggling. I didn’t know it at the time, but a combination of bad family news and health issues were wearing her thin. She was losing patience with the boys. She was losing patience with me. It happens to the best of us.  I’d resolved not to problem solve, but I still felt compelled to try and get to the bottom of why she was so angry with everyone. But I was new to this so, instead of approaching with empathy and recognizing her struggle, I came in hot with questions — the shock troops of solution. And she didn’t want a solution. She wanted a shoulder. There were tears from everyone that night.

The next day, I went into problem-solving mode again. I made a deal with my wife. If I let the boys bend the rules on screentime, junk food, and eating in front of the TV, she could retreat to the quiet of our bedroom until the boys were in bed. She accepted my solution. And that’s how I found myself on the couch with a burger and cartoons.

But the solution permitting a lack of solutions wasn’t good a solution. My wife still wasn’t being heard and the rest of us were indulging in crappy habits as a coping mechanism. Nothing was resolved. We’d just delayed the real need: open communication.

I’d come into the week thinking that all of my family’s so-called problems were basically the same problem: Someone was doing something wrong. That this was not the case seems ridiculously obvious in retrospect. Some problems — like those between my sons — are superficial and, yes, generally involve an antagonist. Those problems can, and should, be solved without my help. There are even problems involving adult logistics that don’t necessarily require my beautiful mind. For certain problems between my wife and I, solutions naturally shake loose. When the issue is about when to go to the grocery store or about who is walking the dog, collaboration is natural and easy. I don’t need to solve these problems. We solve them seamlessly together.

But when the problem is bigger — as some problems are — or defies solution — as some problems do — the only solution is no solution. It’s about listening. What I didn’t understand going into the week was that neither really big problems nor really small problems are best solved authoritatively. You can’t make people happy. You can’t make people healthy. You can’t demand peace or quiet. You can walk the dog and you can listen. That’s about the size of it. 

So, on Wednesday night, after the kids went to bed, I sat with my wife and I listened. Was it hard not to offer advice? Was it hard not to suggest she sleep more, or eat better, or take a walk to think over the news? Yes. Very. But none of those things would have helped, because none of them would have actually solved the problem. Only her solving the problem — or just time and loss — could bring resolution. I resolved to give her an open ear and a beat to think for herself. And I’m trying to give the kids the same. It turns out that is the solution to nearly everything.