After 12 years together, Alexander James and his wife have had their fair share of misunderstandings and arguments.
But a few years back, the Seattle-based couple stumbled upon what most marriage therapists would probably call conflict resolution gold.
“My wife and I got into the habit of asking each other, ‘Do you want comfort or solutions’ when the other was having a bad time,” James shared in a now-viral tweet recently. “That one sentence can save us from an argument 9/10 times.”
The tweet racked up 67,000 “likes” and a lot of appreciative feedback from people in relationships. “You are far smarter than the average couple and over-the-top smarter than me,” one man joked.
Of course, the clever marital hack didn’t come to James and his wife overnight. Prior to realizing that they could just explicitly ask what the other needed, they’d often rush to offer each other advice in stressful times.
Sometimes, one spouse would come home and complain about office drama and really need the other’s “perspective and lens” to sort through an issue with a coworker or their boss. Other times, “We just wanted to shout and yell and have the other be entirely on our side,” James told HuffPost.
“We’d go round and round in circles, treading and re-treading over the same points, tossing the same phrases around with more and more anger and defensiveness ― mostly, I think, because we weren’t sure what the other person wanted,” he explained.
James credits his impressively “emotionally aware” wife with coming up with the question.
“I think the beauty of the phrasing is it sets us on the same track together, right from the start,” he said. “I’m not brainstorming solutions while she’s trying to vent, or vice-versa. When you’re on the same page, arguments are few and far between.”
Psychologist Sarah Joy Park saw James’ suggestion and “instantly loved” it. No issue more often brings otherwise happy partners into couples therapy quite like misguided communication, said Park, whose office is in San Luis Obispo, California.
“Most of the time, it’s really a vulnerability issue,” she said. “Asking directly for what you need makes you feel vulnerable; what if you ask and the other person doesn’t deliver or what if they reject you?”
She added, “What I see is many people prefer the secret disappointment of not asking and not receiving because it can feel safer, but playing it safe often does not lead to a satisfying connection.”
The “comfort or solution” hack puts the onus on the non-distressed partner to do a little heavy lifting, but it’s worth it, she said. Why waste time crafting a fail-proof solution to a work squabble or power dispute when all your partner wants is to lay out all the specific ways their boss is the absolute worst and hear you say, “Damn, totally.”
“This premise sets the couple up for success,” Park said. “If everyone is clear on what is desired in the communication, then the chances are much higher that both people will feel good about their connection.”
Naturally, the Jameses aren’t the only couple to have stumbled upon this little argument-avoiding gem ― or something similar to it. After the tweet went viral, other solution-oriented folks offered variations on the theme.
“Another good question [is] ’Do you want me to leave you alone, give you some space, or would you need/want me to stay here with you?” said U.K. psychology professor Julie Castronovo.
Romance novelist Elise St. George said she prefers: “Do you want my actual advice or do you want me to make you feel better?”
St. George told HuffPost she can jump into problem-solving mode very quickly, but time has taught her that her friends and romantic partners oftentimes just need a sounding board.
“Just because I would prefer honesty and solutions doesn’t mean that someone else will want the same response,” she said. “If you don’t know, then ask. People are afraid to be upfront sometimes but you would be surprised how many times I’ve asked the question and it’s helped people figure out exactly what they need.”