A few months ago, heeding the advice of several of our married friends, my fiancé and I signed on to do a few sessions of premarital counseling with our wedding officiant. A lot of it ended up covering things we’d already talked about between the two of us, which meant that one of the biggest things we both ended up getting out of the experience was a smug we got this sense of preparedness.
That’s not to say I’m not glad we did it. I really am — if I’m being truthful, smugness is one of my favorite things to feel, even if it’s not exactly a useful takeaway. And we got one of those, too, in the form of a piece of advice that’s already proven its usefulness multiple times over: “Always be on the same side of the problem.”
Initially, I was fairly skeptical at these particular words of wisdom. Always is a strong word, and asking for universal agreement from any two people, for life, seemed more than a little fanciful. But being on the same side of the problem didn’t have to mean seeing eye to eye, our officiant explained; it just meant identifying something as a shared goal within a disagreement.
It’s probably fair to assume that this only works if the relationship in question is a solid one — if you know and trust the other person well enough to assume by default that you do, in fact, have that point of commonality. But if you’re there, then no matter how gridlocked the conflict seems, no matter how at odds your viewpoints appear to be, there’s always, somewhere deep down, some mutual desire. At the very least, that desire is to stop arguing and resolve things — if you both want that, then hey, you’re both on the same side of the problem. And voilà, you’re now starting from a place of agreement.
I’ve been thinking about this advice lot, especially over the past couple weeks, as a perfect storm of stressful life events has left me snippier than usual with the people closest to me. Ordinarily, I like to consider myself pretty hard to ruffle; wrap me up in a few layers of stress, though, and I can find an opportunity to bicker in even the most innocent of exchanges. When all you have is a surplus of angst, everything looks like a fight.
Which means that these days, I often find myself reaching for it like a mantra: same side of the problem. And more than let it go or this isn’t a big deal or any of those other keep-the-peace platitudes, this one really works — not just in my relationship with my fiancé, but with family members, friends, really anyone I feel close enough to lash out at. It soothes me when I feel some unearned irritation threatening to bubble over; it helps me stop myself from turning silly proto-fights into silly real ones. It reminds me that I’m reflexively pushing back against a conflict that doesn’t loom as large as I think it does, because, well, big picture, we want the same things out of this moment. With that framing, the details start to matter less. It’s one less thing to stress about.