In the first Blog in this Series, we introduced the topic of solving problems by defining problems broadly to include the six types of situations common to co-parenting relationships, in which some type of joint action needs to be taken. As a reminder, those situations are:
- A problem that one parent is having with the other parent
- A problem that a child is facing that can be best solved if both parents participate
- A problem with others (e.g., extended family members) that is disrupting the co-parenting relationship or hurting the children
- A scheduling conflict
- A decision that has to be made on behalf of the children and about which the parents disagree
- A concern about something that is happening in the other home
Problem Definition. We then proceeded to describe the mindset and style needed to become an effective problem solver. In this Blog, we turn our attention to defining “a problem,” that is, what it is and what it is not. Our definition is somewhat technical because there are many common uses of the word “problem” that are not really problems. For example, saying that I have a problem with TV news is not technically a problem to be solved between two people. So, let us begin.
A problem is always about something in the future, not in the past. The past might be the way a parent learned that there is a problem, because something happened that was not liked. However, there is a practical reason to focus only on the future: we cannot solve problems in the past; we can only solve problems in the future. Therefore, it would be a complete waste of time to argue about the past. The sequence goes like this:
- Something happened that you do not like.
- It meets the criteria below.
- You address the problem with the other co-parent- not to fix the past but to prevent the same thing happening again, or happening in the same way, so that you no longer have a problem.
There are three criteria that defines a problem that should be solved:
- Something must have happened more than once. In other words, there must be a pattern, not just a single instance. For example, if a father is always on time, but is late once and that disrupted plans, this is not a problem to be solved. It might be upsetting, but because it is unlikely to happen except rarely in the future, it does not need to be addressed. Remember the take-away from the first Blog in the Series: the other parent is not responsible for your feelings, in this case, for your being upset.
- There must be a likelihood that the problem will occur again in the future if not solved. In other words, the goal of problem solving is not to avenge the past, but to solve a problem so that it does not happen again in the future. For example, for the second time in a row, the other parent signed one of the children up for an activity that includes time when the child is at your home. Having happened twice, there is a high likelihood that it will happen again, if not solved.
- There must be damage to the co-parenting relationship or harm to the children. As an example of the former, if the other parent is telling people in the community bad stories about you, that damages your willingness to work cooperatively. As an example of the latter, if you learn that a child is not completing homework at the other parent’s home, one can reasonably infer that the child is being harmed.
The reasons for these criteria should be obvious: suffice to say that engaging in a potentially stressful problem-solving session for something that did no harm and/or is unlikely to happen again is a waste of time.
Define a problem in a way that can lead to a solution.
This too was one of the skills listed in the Skill Building Series of Blogs (Skill Building Blog #3). We strongly recommend that you read that Blog before continuing with this Blog. In that Blog, we give examples that might be helpful to understand this skill. The primary point is that if the focus is on the past, or is intended to make you feel better by blaming the other parent for something, or is filled with vague and ambiguous criticisms, a solution is unlikely.
A good definition starts with identifying a problematic pattern in concrete terms so that the other person understands what the problem is. They might not agree that it is a problem, but at least they should understand what you are talking about. For example, saying, “You can’t just sign Lilly up for whatever activity you want to when it includes my time. I won’t take her,” does not lead to solutions, at least not without doing more damage. Saying, “In order for both of us to support Lilly in activities, when an activity includes time that she will be with both of us or when there is an expectation that we will both contribute financially, we should have a procedure that includes both of us in the choices,” defines a problem that can lead to a solution. The conversation might start with, “I became aware that a couple of times now you have signed Lilly up for activities that include when she is at my home. That could be a problem for her because you and she don’t know my schedule, and if I did that without your knowledge, her life could become chaotic.” This gives the history, and part of the solution might be how to support Lilly in what she has already signed up for, but where there is no blame and the focus is on avoiding problems in the future.
If you have bad habits in how you have defined problems in the past, get someone to help you. Tell the person what you want to accomplish, and before addressing a problem with the other parent, practice with your “coach,” so to speak, to get help with wording.
The person who owns the problem is responsible for a solution.
A critical step is knowing who owns the problem, that is, whose problem is it that needs to be solved. Why is this critical? Because the person who owns the problem is responsible for getting it solved. Who owns the problem? The person who brings it up. This is counterintuitive to many people. Here is the sequence: Julie is frequently late for transitions and this causes Jim a great deal of frustration and at times disrupts his plans. Jim gets angry at Julie and tells her to be on time because she makes him wait and disrupts his plans. Julie says that she will try, but keeps coming late. Jim, in desperation tells the kids to see if they can get their mom to be on time. They are still late, and Jim starts getting mad at the children for not being able to make their mom be on time. Jim has given his problem away, first to Julie and then to the children. By doing so, he makes himself dependent on Julie, which is a very risky thing to do. His problem does not go away unless Julie solves it by being on time. She might be the cause, but she is not the one being harmed and therefore she does not have the problem.
If he owned the problem, he would be in charge of getting a solution, no longer dependent on Julie. First, we see that the problem meets the three criteria for problem solving. Second, Jim has to define the problem in a way that can lead to solutions. Both Jim and Julie know that she is late for almost everything, and that is unlikely to change. Part of his definition of the problem can include an assumption that she is unlikely to change that habit, even if she wanted to do so. The problem is not that she is late; the problem is that the current structure of transitions does not take into account that Julie has a hard time being on time. This can lead to solutions because the structure of transitions can be changed. The person who has the problem must take the intiative to create a solution.
In the next Blog in this Series, we will introduce the Six Steps Problem Solving Procedure. We will start with an example involving Jim, and then follow this example to illustrate how Jim can solve his problem. We will also give another example that is a little more serious.
Recap. First, a problem must meet three criteria to qualify as a problem to be worked on jointly. Second, the problem needs to be defined in a way that leads to solutions and does not get side-tracked with focusing too much on the past and/or the emotions involved. Finally, the person who is suffering because of a problem, or notices first that a child is suffering because of a problem, or the person who first notices that a decision has to be made that involves both parents, is the person who owns the problem and is responsible for a solution. If the problem is a schedule conflict, the parents know who has custody at the time in question and so the person who wants to change the schedule is responsible for the solution.
In Blogs #4 & 5, we will provide modifications to the Six Step Problem Solving Procedure for making decisions and resolving concerns. Those are particular types of problem solving that require modification of the problem-solving method that we describe in Blog #3.
In Blog #1 in this Series, we addressed the mindset and style of an effective problem solver. In this Blog, we focused on the first Step: (1) deciding if there is a problem that meets the criteria, (2) defining the problem in a way that can be solved and (3) clarifying who owns the problem and is therefore responsible for finding a solution. By developing an effective problem solving style and taking these steps, the stage is set for success.