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Communication Skills

How to Fix Relationship Problems? (Jonathan Robinson video)

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Learn how to fix the 12 most common relationship problems and what to say to your partner about thorny issues, such as spending more quality time together, money issues, and splitting domestic duties from couples therapist Jonathan Robinson.

How to Fix Relationship Problems?

Book Review: Communication Miracle for Couples

by CJ Liu

Throughout the first ten years of my relationship, my husband and I argued over and over again about household chores. It wasn’t until I studied to be a life coach and a mediator, and did my own work on the couch that things really changed. (Note: our solution is at the bottom of this article.).

As a life coach, I learned about personalities and how each person has their own perception of what the world is about and how to interact and navigate appropriately. For example, I’m an extrovert – outgoing, talkative and have energetic mannerisms. My husband, on the other hand, is an introvert – reserved and solitary. While I prefer to have a more structured and decided lifestyle, my husband is more flexible and adaptable. This variance impacted our ability to agree on small decisions like scheduling cleaning tasks for the month.  As a mediator, I learned that good communication requires both parties to be open and able to listen without interruption. Another key is to adopt the give and take process when listening as it creates a sense of emotional safety and trust.

Through my own soul searching, I started owning my part in creating the problems my partner and I were having. In the end, what became clear from this experience was how we lost track of what truly mattered due to simple differences in our personalities. Ultimately, our beliefs can either bring us together or break us apart. The hard work is learning how to shift these beliefs in the interest of love.

Your life’s journey is determining whether you choose to love or be right. If you choose to love, then consider trying out some of the below ideas pulled from Jonathan Robinson’s NY Times bestselling book, “Communication Miracles for Couples”. Robinson summarizes what my husband and I learned over the past 19 years about how to communicate. I wish I had this knowledge a while back, as it would have saved a bunch of time and many needless arguments. But as Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Start creating a legacy of love and begin with how you communicate.

For more on how our perceptions of the world shape our reality, check out this 2-minute coaching tip here.

This four minute video provides a quick recap of a process I learned as a mediator in the Seattle Court System that we currently use in our family.

How to overcome marital differences? What are common areas of incompatibility? What are the main reasons why couples fight?

In his book “Communication Miracles for Couples”, Jonathan Robinson describes the importance of couples being on the same page. He explains that each of us bring a bunch of unspoken expectations into a relationship. Instead of communicating these “rules”, we expect our partners to just know what we want them to do and how to meet our needs. The problem occurs when couples have different ideas of what good looks like. In turn, couples tend to argue about the same issue over and over again without understanding the root of the problem – failing to articulate clear rules early on in the relationship.

After many years of practicing as a psychotherapist for couples, Jonathan Robinson found that there are twelve major rules he calls the “Dynamic Dozen” that causes considerable problems when not articulated.

  • How to make money decisions; who is in control of the money (see below role play video for help)
  • How often to have sex and other issues such as birth control. What happens if the woman becomes pregnant, and so on.
  • How to treat your partner when she is upset (check out role play video here).
  • How to show your partner your affection and love.
  • How to discipline the kids; what are the different responsibilities each parent has toward the kids.
  • What makes the relationship truly successful.
  • What is the proper way to listen to your partner; how much listening is necessary.
  • How to handle problems and major decisions that affect both partners.
  • How much quality time should be spent together each day or week (see video for help).
  • How much TV watching is allowed (see video for help).
  • How much alcohol and/or drug use is allowed (see video for setting limits here.).
  • What is the most effective way to ask your partner to do things for you?

Source: Robinson, Communication Miracles for Couples, 1997 (p89)

If you are at odds with your partner, a good start is to talk through the issues on this list and settle on some ground rules. This just may be the preventative medicine that you need, and if you are married you may find that setting ground rules eliminate recurring fights. Watch the videos below to get some tips on how to address specific issues.

Reasons for Divorce – Poor communication and problem solving skills

According to a research report by the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, the two most common reasons given for a divorce were Growing apart (55%) and Not able to talk together (53%). Sadly, research from this same report found that those who were already divorced wished they had worked harder to try and overcome their marital differences.

Source: Alan J. Hawkins, Brian J. Willoughby & William J. Doherty (2012): Reasons for Divorce and Openness to Marital Reconciliation, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 53:6, 453-463 To link to this article:

The authors of the report titled “Reasons for Divorce and Openness to Marital Reconciliation”, speculated that reasons of growing apart and differences in tastes is a reflection of the partner’s belief that there is a basic incompatibility in the relationship. It’s a wonder if these differences could be bridged by communicating the rules and expectations up front or by simply finding better ways of reaching a compromise.

The authors also concluded that lack of attention from one’s partner implies that the partner could still offer something in the relationship if he or she chose to be attentive. This idea begs to question what is more important than being attentive to your partner’s needs? It’s likely that each partner was choosing to be right and alone, than choosing to compromise for the sake of love and coming together.

The videos below illustrate how most people fight about these issues and how you can strengthen your communication style so that you don’t grow apart, and can reconcile your differences in tastes and what constitutes quality time.

Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a model for handling conflict:

While much of the problems that cause divorce are real, many of us would rather not deal with it and resort to what Thomas Kilmann’s model on conflict styles describe as avoiding. This most often resolves in deep resentment from both partners because many things are never said, but are certainly felt and eventually the couple grows apart.

The other conflict style according to Kilmann’s model is, the act of competing. This sort of verbal sparring, similar to debate, is the default mode for many couples to which only one person is declared winner. Contrastingly, it comes at the risk of either connecting and loving the other person or growing apart.

The rest of this guide will show you how to compromise, collaborate, and accommodate so that you can both win and reach an outcome that makes both you and your partner happy.

“Would you rather be right or be loved? The bad news is, if you want a happy and loving relationship, you’re going to have to give something up: your insistence on being right. When you insist on being right, what you indirectly communicate to your partner is that she/he is wrong. You simply can’t insist on being right (a form of blame) and have intimacy.” Source: Robinson, Communication Miracles for Couples, 1997 (p89)

What we all want, but never ask for?

Before we get into the details of how to communicate with your partner or loved ones, it’s important to look at the psychology behind our communications. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pretty much sums up what we are looking for in life and gives us an indication of what goes wrong during a conversation.

Source: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Picture from Wikipedia article:

In his latest book, “Communication Miracles for Couples”, Jonathan Robinson identifies that we tend to blame instead of just asking for what we want and need. He suggests that we start listening without interrupting and imposing our two cents. Tune into what your partner really needs which is most likely acknowledgement, appreciation and acceptance as described in Robin’s book as:

  • Acknowledgement is being willing to agree that your partner really is having the experience they say they are having. Jonathan offers the simple script he calls the “Acknowledgement Formula” to follow next time you feel that you are being nagged by your partner and describes this as the most powerful formulae that exists for increasing intimacy and decreasing conflict. (see more on how to acknowledge in the next section)
    • It sounds like (or, It seems) you…paraphrase your partner’s experience.
    • That must feel… Guess on what you think they may be feeling
    • I’m sorry you feel…Guess as to what they’re feeling.
  • Appreciation: This is the art of telling your partner what you appreciate about them. “I really appreciate all you do in keeping the house clean, organized, and beautiful, when I get home it feels so welcoming and it allows the kids and me to feel a real sense of home and relax when we come home.   I probably don’t think you enough, but today it really hit me just how nice it is to come home.”
  • Acceptance: This is about loving your partner the way they are with no changes and to give them unconditional love. During a trying time, assume the best intentions of your partner and ask  “What positive feeling does my partner want from this behavior—even if he/she is trying to get it in an unskillful way?”

The next sections are tried and true formulas that were used by couples Jonathan had previously worked with to improve communications and aid in ending arguments.

How should we receive criticism or feedback from our partner?

There are two parts of a conversation, the person delivering the hard feedback and the person listening. This section covers how you can change the way you are relating to the conversation by listening and reacting in a different way.

In the beginning of my relationship with my husband, I cared mostly about being right and focused mostly on blaming my husband for all my problems even when he was trying to give me feedback. I’d try to flip the blame game back on him. Here’s a typical argument:

My husband:  “I don’t like when you do x”

Me:  “X, what about the times you did A,B, and C? It’s way worse than X.  Last week you did A twice and then this week you did B and C again”. (Implication: you are way worse than me, and ultimately to blame for all the ills in our relationship).

Nineteen years later, here’s what a similar conversation looks like today.

My husband says jokingly: “You did a bad job cleaning up the dishes yesterday”.

Me: “What did I do?”

My husband: “I had to wash some of the dishes over again. I left this pan so you can see what it looked like.”

Me: “Oh. Sorry. I was really trying this time too since the last time you told me that I didn’t wash the pots well. Sorry about that”.

How To take feedback and be responsible for your actions?

Frankly, there is nothing worse when people don’t take accountability for their actions and apologize. While we can all nod our heads in agreement, do we behave this way when the blame is pointed towards us? Here’s Jonathan’s RARE formula for accepting negative feedback with grace.

Take Responsibility for what you did.

Apologize for wrongdoings.

Request info on your partner’s needs.

Entrust a new promise to your partner.

Here’s what it would look like:

Responsibility: I didn’t realize that I was divulging your secret to your sister. Regardless, my actions caused harm to you.

Apologize: I’m sorry for any problems this may cause you and for any way this may affect your relationship with your sister, and I hope this doesn’t affect you revealing your private thoughts to me.

Request:  What can I do to help fix the problem?

Entrust: I will promise to be more careful in the future.

How to listen and respond from love not from anger?

One of the critical aspects of listening is to truly listen before responding. If you can get curious about what is happening according to your partner’s perspective, it helps a great deal.  Let’s say your partner was unhappy with the way you cleaned up the house before your big holiday dinner. This really pissed you off. Before reacting, the best course of action is to tell your partner you need a break to think about what he said. First, take a few deep breaths to get fully resourced and get to a place of calm. During your calm moments, change your perspective so that you are in a place of love. Try answering these questions from “Communication Miracles for Couples”:

  • What is likely to happen if I insist on being right and blaming my partner? We’ll probably have a tense and unpleasant holiday dinner, and I’ll be annoyed the whole dinner and I won’t be able to connect with family I haven’t seen in awhile.
  • Would I like to feel loved or be right? Mostly, I want to be right. After all, I am right.  I’m going to have a bad time if I start this argument again.  It seems important for all concerned that I at least come from a place of love?
  • What is something I especially like about my partner? Let’s see, I’m feeling mad, but I guess I like it that he is at least trying to clean even if he’s not doing the way I like it.  At least it is cleaner than it was.  It’s not about perfection and no one will even really notice. 

Once you have a balanced and calm state, it will be way easier to use the RARE formula above.

How to Listen and give acknowledgement?

It really doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with your partner’s points when they give you negative feedback.  Blocking or negating another person’s feelings will not make those feelings go away any faster or make the problem resolve itself. Generally, blocking these ideas and not acknowledging your partner’s emotions just leaves the other person feeling frustrated, alone and misunderstood. Instead, start asking questions to gain clarity on what may be happening from their perspective. As with the process above, it may be hard to do in the heat of the moment, so if you need to get a time-out then use it so that you can come from a place of calm. Jonathan Robinson suggests asking these questions:

  • How do you feel about (the situation at hand)?
  • Why do you feel that way?
  • What leads you to think (whatever it is they seem to think)?
  • Can I do anything to help you feel better?

As Jonathan says in his book, “Being in the heart is healing, and the more you invest in hearing your partner, the more likely she/he will take the time to fully listen to you”.  Jonathan does a great demonstration of this at the end of this video here.

How to tell our partner about our feelings?

In the previous sections we focused on how to listen to illicit a positive reaction from your partner. In this section, we focus on how you can deliver hard feedback with kindness.

Let’s say that your partner or loved one did something that hurt you and you want them to stop. Here’s an example of how you can deliver your requests in a more helpful way:

I Feel (sad, impatient, hurt, and/or fearful)

Because I (explain why)

What I want is (be very specific)

Here’s what this may look like in a real life situation.

I feel sad and worried with the amount of football that you are watching.

Because I worry that we are growing apart and that makes me sad. I know that football is a way for you to spend time with your guy friends and relax, but I feel like football is crowding out time for the two of us.

What I need is for you to carve out time during the week to spend time with me and to really talk about what is going on in our lives, not about family logistics, but really about us.

Demonstration: How to respond to your partners request for quality time?

The main reason why someone wants to spend more quality time is because that is how they feel loved (see section below on 5 love languages). While you may have other ways to show your love, your partner may only feel love through quality time.

In this video, CJ and Jonathan role-play what typically happens during an argument. In this example, Jonathan explains how to listen to someone delivering a message on quality time. While this video is about TV and sports, this can translate to many actions that take away from quality time such as watching too much TV, spending too much time online or playing XBOX, spending more time with other family members or friends than with your partner, working too many hours, etc.

I feel (emotion here) with the (insert the action you feel takes away from quality time).

Because I don’t feel loved and appreciated. I worry that we are growing apart and that makes me sad. I know that (insert the action taking away from quality) is meaningful to you because it allows you to (insert reason here), but I feel like (insert action taking away from quality time here) is (describe result).

What I need is for you is for us to spend more time connecting by (insert what you want here).


Why does quality time matter so much? How do we express our Love?

One of my biggest aha moments about loving my husband came after reading Gary Chapman’s “5 Love languages”.  Chapman explains that we each have a unique combination of ways to express and feel loved. Here is a quick description from his website on the five primary love languages each of us speaks:

  • Quality Time: This language is all about giving the other person your undivided attention.
  • Words of Affirmation: This language uses words to affirm other people.
  • Acts of Service: For these people, actions speak louder than words.
  • Receiving gifts: For some people, what makes them feel most loved is to receive a gift.
  • Physical touch: To this person, nothing speaks more deeply than appropriate touch.

The idea of love languages was new to me. Who would have thought I was speaking French while my husband was speaking German. This got me curious, so I asked my husband what love languages were important to him. What I found was that while I expressed my love through quality time and acts of service (laundry, filling up gas, etc), my husband cared mostly about quality time and physical touch. I was shocked to find out he’d rather receive a back scratch instead of filling up the gas tank. Shocking! Based on my experience, I highly recommend taking 30 minutes to talk with your partner. You may be surprised.

How to get our partner to change a behavior? And stick to the agreement?

Some of the most common arguments couples have are related to money and sharing domestic responsibilities. The videos below demonstrate how you can respond differently the next time you are having issues with your spouse.

Jonathan offers the following process to successfully negotiate an agreement on these kinds of issues with your partner using the acronym “A PI SWAPED”.

  • Appreciate your partner
  • Say our Positive Intention
  • Say What you see as the problem or what you’d like him to her to change
  • Ask Partner for input and solutions
  • Negotiate an Experimental Solution
  • Declare your agreement

A long time ago, I was involved in negotiating corporate deals and can attest to the usefulness of this model as it aligns pretty closely to any good negotiation. In a business negotiation, it’s about each party stating their goals, offering your suggestions on how you could work together, and then hashing out the agreement. After the broad strokes are agreed upon, the next steps are nailing the details. Check out how you could handle the most common arguments using Jonathan’s A PI SWAPED process

Why do couples fight over money? How to stop fighting about money?

One of my favorite explanations on why couples fight about money is from an interview with Olivia Mellan. Listen here (Also check out solutions to the 3 most common problems with money coach Emily Zellig here). Mellan explains that each partner walks into the relationship with money myths, which she describes as different beliefs and memories about money from childhood, culture, and peer group. As a way of harmonizing these beliefs, partners often meet their opposite on the money spectrum. From her article in Psychology Today, Mellan explains:

“ Couples polarized over money engage in a balancing dance of opposites. Two spenders who come together will fight each other for the superspender role; the other, as a defense, will learn to hoard because someone has to set limits. When it comes to defense styles, there’s always a pursuer (or clinger) and a withdrawer. With two withdrawers, one will become the superwithdrawer. The other will become a pursuer, because if they both withdrew there would be no connection at all.

An equally common polarity is the is worrier and avoider. Avoiders don’t focus on the details of their money life, such as whether they have enough money or how much interest they’re paying on their credit cards; they just spend. A worrier will turn a mate into an avoider just as a way of escaping the avalanche of worry. And an avoider will turn a mate into a worrier. Two partners couldn’t both avoid forever; somebody will eventually get concerned and take on the worrier role. Doubling the trouble, hoarders are usually worriers and spenders are usually avoiders.

As with all polar personality styles, hoarders and spenders live in different universes marked by opposing beliefs. What feels good to one feels horrible to the other. When not spending, a hoarder feels virtuous, in control. A spender when not spending feels anxious and deprived. Indeed, spenders can’t tolerate the word “budget;” financial planners have to draw up a “spending plan.”

Other money personalities include planners, who are detail-oriented, and dreamers, who are global visionaries. In addition, there are money monks, often ex-hippies, political activists or spiritual souls, who feel that money corrupts and it’s better to not have too much. Sometimes they marry money amassers, who believe that the guy with the most money wins. Amassers are not hoarders; they don’t simply save, they invest to make their money grow. They save, spend and invest.”  Source: Mellan, Piskaldo, “Men, Women and Money”, Oct 2012 (Accessed 2-2015)

Jonathan Robinson explains that many of these fights are really about power dynamics. Check out this video where Jonathan and CJ role-play and offer ideas on how you can handle a money squabble with your loved one.


  • Appreciate your partner: I appreciate all that you do at home with the kids and know that you gave up a lot at your high paying job to be home with the family.
  • Say What you see as the problem or what you’d like him to her to change: I am noticing that you make a lot of what I consider to be pretty expensive purchases on the credit card lately.  The consequence of all these purchases is that we are going over our annual budget, which means we won’t be able to do some of the other things later in the year that we agreed were important for the family, like going on a nice vacation.
  • Ask Partner for input and solutions. I know that you’ve said before that you want to have freedom to buy whatever you and I understand that.  How do you think we can balance both your personal need for freedom and our desire as a family to go on a family vacation?  Do you have any ideas?
  • Negotiate an Experimental Solution: Can I suggest a few ideas if you don’t have any? How about if we set out a budget during the year of what you can be free to spend without any constraints every month, let’s say anything over $200 we talk about, but otherwise you’ll call me with anything over that amount.
  • Declare your agreement: Let’s just try this out for a month and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, then we can change it.  Ok?

Why do couples fight over family chores? How to reach a peace agreement?

Most married couples are both working at jobs to make ends meet. While both are bringing in money, many couples have been raised in households where moms do the majority of the housework. Equity is often the big issue that couples argue about. The cultural expectation is for the woman of the household to contribute domestically and the man financially, which may, however, cause strife if either party feels that there is an imbalance in provisions.

Here is a sample of how you could reach an agreement on this hot topic:

  • Appreciate your partner: I appreciate that you care deeply about your job and that it’s super demanding. You are a great father and I appreciate how much love and guidance you offer kids. Both of us are trying our best to take care and provide for our family.
  • Say What you see as the problem or what you’d like him to her to change: I am feeling a bit overwhelmed with all the household chores there are to do every month.  Normally, it’s whoever gets more bothered by the mess that cleans it up.  That’s usually me, and as a result I feel like I’m doing larger than my share of cleaning and taking care of chores. We both provide for the family, and I’d like us to both chip in on taking care of the less glamorous cleaning work that needs to happen to create a nice peaceful environment at home.
  • Ask Partner for input and solutions. I know that we have talked about us splitting the household chores, but I think we have to review the list of things that need to be done, agree on how often they need to be done, and then split the responsibility in ways that make sense for us. Do you have any initial ideas of how to split this work?
  • Negotiate an Experimental Solution: I’m thinking that we could take a list of chores, look at how much time they take, and then what things we are good at doing, and then allocate this so it’s more evenly split.
  • Declare your agreement: Let’s just try this out for a month and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, then we can change it.  Ok?

Jonathan Robinson and CJ role play and offer ideas on how you can handle a squabble about who does what on the home front, and how to handle when your partner doesn’t live up to their agreements.