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Understand How The Process Works And It's Limitations.

Our mental and emotional problem management process is a more or less straightforward, natural, and rational decision-making process. It's a seven-step process that happens within our conscious and subconscious mind, which looks something like this:

Initial awareness.

We become aware of an issue or a set of issues. For instance, after several disputes over household finances, a couple develops a vague awareness of dissatisfaction with the relationship itself.


A sense of urgency develops, especially as the underlying problem situation- the dissatisfaction with the relationship itself-becomes more distressing. Even minor annoyances are now seen in the light of overall dissatisfaction.

Initial search for remedies.

We begin to look for remedies. However, implicitly or perfunctorily, we explore different strategies for managing the problem situation. For instance, Couples in difficult marriages start thinking about complaining openly to their partners or friends, separating, getting a divorce, instituting subtle acts of revenge, having an affair, going to a marriage counselor, seeing a minister, unilaterally withdrawing from the relationship in one way or another, and so forth. The parties may try out one or more of these remedies without evaluating their cost or consequences.

Estimation of costs.

The costs of pursuing different remedies begin to become apparent. Someone in a troubled relationship might say to herself: "Being open and honest hasn't worked. If I continue to put my cards on the table, I'll have to go through the agony of confrontation, denial, argument, counteraccusations, and who knows what else." Or he might say, "Simply withdrawing from the relationship in small ways has been painful. What would I do if I were to go out on my own?" Or, "What would happen to the kids?" At this point, we often back away from dealing with the problem situation directly because there is no cost-free or painless way of dealing with it.


Because the problem situation does not go away, it is impossible to retreat completely, and so a more severe weighing of choices occurs. For instance, the costs of confronting the situation are weighed against the costs of merely withdrawing. Often, a kind of dialogue goes on in our mind between steps 4 and 5: "I might have to go through the agony of separation for the kids' sake. Maybe time apart is what we need."

Rational decision.

An intelligent decision is made to accept some choice and pursue a specific course of action. "I'm going to bring all of this up to my partner and suggest we see a marriage counselor." Or, "I'm going to get on with my life, find other things to do, and let the marriage go where it will."

Rational-emotional decision.

However, a merely intellectual decision is often not enough to drive action. So the heart joins the head, as it were, in the decision. One partner might finally say, "I've had enough of this! I'm leaving. It won't be comfortable, but it's better than living like this." The other might say, "It is unfair to both of us to go on like this, and it's certainly not good for the kids," and this drives the decision to seek help, even if it means going alone.

Decisions driven by emotion and convictions are more likely to be translated into action.

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