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Working On One Issue at a Time

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2012 16 Jan
Working On One Issue at a Time

Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to

Do you remember the childhood game Pick Up Sticks? In this game, a handful of sticks are dumped out onto the floor, and the goal is to ever-so-carefully pick up one stick at a time without disturbing the rest of the pile of sticks.

The game was fun because of the challenge to see if we could pick up one stick without moving anything else, and irritating because of the near impossibility of the task. Each stick seemed tucked under another, and touching any one nudged the one next to it.

Working on marriage problems seems much like the game of Pick Up Sticks. Marriage problems rarely arrive singly into our lives—they come in clumps, pairs and bundles, and teasing them apart can be incredibly difficult. Working on one problem, without stirring up others, is nearly impossible.

Have you ever caught yourself fighting about one topic, and before you know it you’ve ventured down a rabbit trail, only to find yourself on another topic, wondering how you got there? Have you started to discuss one issue, only to find minutes later you’re on an entirely different topic? If so, join the rest of us who struggle with staying focused, have a hard time moving from problem to solution, and bounce around from topic to topic in random fashion.

These pinball conversations make for good illustrations on how not to problem-solve, and they wreak havoc in marriage. While our brains are capable of multi-tasking, it is never good to do this while in a heated discussion with our mate. Multiple conversations, with painful threads leading back to earlier unresolved issues, create chaos. Chaos often leads to heightened emotions which leads to further chaos.

Listen to this email from a reader.

Dear Dr. David. Whenever my husband and I fight, we end up very angry with one another. Of course, when we’re angry we never get problems solved and usually end up saying things we later regret. We can be so loving with each other most of the time, but when we fight, all the rules go out the window. I wish I could say my husband is the cause of this, but I know I am no angel. Lately I’ve been so angry I’ve even thrown something at him. Of course, I’m embarrassed at my behavior and the things I say. How can we stop having these verbal brawls with each other? Why do we act like children when it comes to fighting? Please help us as I fear one of these arguments could break our marriage. I don’t like the woman I become, and I know he doesn’t like the man he becomes. Please help.  --Foul Mouthed Wife

Dear Foul Mouthed,

I’ve got good and bad news for you.

First, the good news. Your problem isn’t necessarily your character or your marriage. What you have isn’t terminal, and you can live beyond these struggles. Your issues are common problems to most marriages—even the best ones. There is a solution, which will require real action, and making some changes can make a dramatic difference.

Now, the bad news. Most couples do a very poor job of managing emotion in their marriage. They do little to keep conversations on track, and often end up battling each other, rather than addressing the problem. Skills are needed, and hopefully you’re motivated to learn some new ones. Let’s start.

Managing emotions. We are hard-wired to want to "fight or take flight." This is a natural response to trouble and we must learn to respect it. In fact, we must learn to expect it. When something is said that pushes our buttons, we must anticipate feeling aroused, perhaps even angry. This feeling—anger—must be respected, expected and anticipated, and doing so will help us make wise choices.

Listening and learning. Excessive emotions cloud our ability to listen to our mate. Instead of listening and learning about our mate and their needs, we defend ourselves or pick apart their argument. Instead of learning what it is that is bothering our mate, anger often narrows our vision, clouding our perceptions. Work at your primary task—listening to and understanding your mate.

Sticking to the topic. Imagine playing the game of Pick Up Sticks. You have one task—pick up one stick---you must focus on one problem. “What is it my mate is trying to say to me? What is he/she bothered about? How can I help?” Become narrow-minded on this one problem. Don’t allow yourself to bounce around—it will only create chaos.

Managing defensiveness. While you’re listening to your mate, listen to yourself. How are you doing at keeping yourself relatively calm? When you reach the point where you cannot fully attend to your mate, you’re in trouble. When you want to fire something back, or defend yourself, you’re out of the game. You can’t listen and learn while defending yourself. So, remember to breathe, focus on what your mate is saying and be an excellent listener.

Solving the problem. Maintaining rationality, remember your primary task: solving one problem. With anger in check, focus on one problem, seeking one solution that works for both of you. No, you cannot focus on two or three problems, though the other "sticks" have spilled onto the table. Choose one issue to focus on. One problem is plenty for any brain to manage at any given time.  

By the way, some of you may erringly believe you can discuss multiple issues at a time. You’re multi-taskers, verbally oriented and skilled jugglers. Please don’t try it. Remember, one issue at a time, and even if you feel you can handle more, don’t.

Calling time-out. There is a moment when all rationality escapes us, reasoning is completely gone and we become one primitive, emoting organism. When this occurs, there is only one thing to do—call “Time Out!” With emotions surging through your body, you won’t be able to think of a wise and thoughtful response; you won’t be able to consider your mate’s feelings or point of view; you won’t remember the gifts of the Spirit. The best you can do is call, “Time Out!” When you do this, both of you must honor this urgent request, and go to your room!

Do-Overs. If at any time you forget some of these rules, don’t worry. I have a special skill to offer you—“do over’s.” Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. You look at your mate and calmly say, “I’m sorry; I blew it. I’d like to start over. Can we begin this conversation again?” (The sooner you do this, the better!)

Sometimes your mate will feel loving and gracious, and will gladly say, “Of course, honey. Let’s try this again.” At other times, when they’re still stuck in a bad frame of mind, they’ll likely snarl at you and give you the stink eye. Don’t snarl back or give them the stink eye. Don’t start the fight up again. Lovingly say, “I’d love to start again, when you’re ready.”

I’d love to hear from you about these strategies for managing conflict.

Share your opinion or send a confidential note to me at go to my website at for more information and videos on building healthy relationships.

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and When Pleasing Others is Hurting You. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities. You can also find Dr. Hawkins on Facebook and Twitter.