You don't have to be married long to discover that relationships are difficult and problems inevitable. You'll experience disagreements that will at times force you to acknowledge the person you married seems to have disappeared-and been replaced by someone who's either cranky and demanding or someone who disappears whenever there's conflict.

Our marriage started like many marriages. We experienced a romantic courtship and thoroughly enjoyed being together. We laughed, played, and prayed together. During our nine-month engagement we felt a clear sense of God's blessing on our relationship. We wanted to lay a strong foundation, so we sought pre-marital counseling.

But after the wedding, the surprises started coming. We'd been married less than a year when Carrie became pregnant with our first child. Nineteen months after our son was born, another son was born. Carrie was now a full-time mother of two and Gary a full-time doctoral student working part time as a marriage and family counselor. We'd wanted a family but the pressures were more than we'd bargained for. Finances were tight. The normal childhood ills combined with school, work, and church meant less sleep and little couple time. Most nights we dropped into bed tired and drained.

Like most couples, we expected parenthood to be a time of great joy. We didn't understand that it's also quite challenging. While the birth of our children didn't throw our marriage into a crisis, it dramatically changed the dynamics. We were slowly becoming married singles.

It seemed as if one morning we woke up more aware of each other's weaknesses than strengths. More aware of what each other did wrong than right. And more negative and critical of each other, our kids, our friends, and even God.

Neither of us enjoyed dealing with relational problems. They made us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, tapped into our insecurities, and brought up painful childhood memories. So we stuffed, denied, and ignored the problems-while pretending everything was fine. We didn't know that whenever you bury a problem, it's buried alive. At some point it will emerge bigger, stronger, and even more threatening.

Looking back now, after 22 years of marriage and our experience as marriage counselors and educators, we know our experience wasn't the exception. Most couples experience a time when it's easy to become problem-focused. Little irritations and minor frustrations that were glossed over by romantic love are suddenly magnified. Combine those with the challenges of starting a family, climbing the vocational ladder, and being involved in church, and it can become overwhelming. Many couples divorce because they get stuck in the problem-focused rut and can't see any way out.

After years of struggling, we realized what we were doing wasn't working. After much prayer and many long conversations with each other and with friends, we discovered we'd developed a problem-focused marriage. We needed to spend less time going over the problems and more time talking about solutions.

Working toward solutions

The process of problem-solving together gave us hope, energy, and the ability to become more positive. Amazingly, the mere act of looking for solutions caused the size and number of our perceived problems to shrink. But while the solution-focused stage was an improvement, even it had some limitations. We were solving more problems and arguing less, but we weren't experiencing the depth and intensity of love God designed for marriage.

In the solution-focused stage, it's easy to find a solution and say, "Thank goodness, that's behind us," then quickly move on, pretending it never happened. There's no question that getting through a problem is good. But do marriages grow simply through solving problems, or is it more about solving them in ways that help our relationship grow? Is it possible to solve a problem without learning anything?