Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

How to Analyze
Relationship Problems
(so you can solve them)

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/keys/analyze.htm

Updated 01-31-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This YouTube clip offers perspective on what you'll read here. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. These articles build on Lessons 1 - 3, and prepare you for Lesson 5 (evolve a nourishing family) and Lesson 6 (practice effective parenting).

      The first step in solving problems is to admit "I have a problem" (an unfilled need). The second step is deciding "What IS my problem?" ("What do I need now?") This article proposes a flexible framework for answering that question accurately. Few adults have been trained to do this. Were you?

      The article offers..

  • Why most adults don't know how to analyze relationship problems, tho they think they do

  • Options for analyzing significant internal and interpersonal problems

  • An example of these options in action

  • A summary checklist of problem-analysis options, and...

  • A status check to see where you stand with them.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • this perspective on human needs,

  • these premises about relationship problems,

  • the several levels of most relationship problems, and...

  • this overview of primary relationship barriers

      If you have a significant relationship problem with some adult or child now, try saying out loud what the problem is. Then see if you still believe that by the end of this article.

  What's the Problem?

      A "relationship problem" occurs when the existence or behavior of person "A" causes "significant" discomfort in person "B" and/or hinders "B" from filling their current needs. This can be one way or mutual (each person bothers or hinders the other). Relationship discomforts are normal and inevitable. They range from trivial (I can live with it) to annoying to highly stressful; and from one-time to chronic

      For perspective, scan this menu of common surface relationship problems and return. Don't follow any links in it yet.

      You began to analyze relationship problems (discomforts) in infancy, before you had any language. Over decades, you have evolved ways to analyze interpersonal problems by observation, trial, and error. You probably feel "I already know how to identify my interpersonal problems."

      That's true. But you probably don't know...

  • that most relationship problems are caused by unawareness and personality subselves; or...

  • how to learn which subselves need what; or...

  • how and why to distinguish primary needs from surface needs; or...

  • nine core relationship barriers, or...

  • how to think and communicate effectively; and you don't know...

  • how your life would feel if you did know these things.

      If this is true, it means that (a) you're probably not analyzing your problems accurately, so (b) you're used to trying to solve the wrong problem/s. That's like hoping to get rid of weeds by painting them green instead of killing their roots.

      Because of the unseen [wounds + unawareness] cycle, most people (like you?) are like someone who's been blind since birth. Trying to describe the sights and colors of the world to blind people can have no meaning unless they gain clear vision. Similarly, you'll be unable to imagine or experience the value of the analysis-options in this article until you (a) master Lessons 1 thru 4 here, and then (b) try the options.     

How to Analyze Relationship Problems

      You can't solve a problem until you admit (vs. deny) it, and consciously define it. Most people (like you?) aren't practiced at identifying their primary needs. Doing so is a learnable skill.

Prepare to Analyze

  Assess yourself for false self wounds, and commit to reducing any you find. (Lesson 1). Practice judging whether your true Self is guiding you in key situations.

  Accept that as an adult, you are responsible for identifying and filling your own needs, unless you're disabled.

Accept that all your emotions (a) are natural and useful, vs. "negative," and (b) are caused by ancient survival reflexes and/or active personality subselves. Use your emotions as signposts pointing to unfilled needs (problems).

Practice breathing well, and intentionally developing your personal and social awarenesses.

Grow the habit of identifying who owns the problem - you, or someone else. If they do, they are responsible for solving it, unless they're young or disabled. Note that someone else's problem may cause you a problem!

Review and edit your key attitudes and expectations about people, relationships, and "problems;"

Practice digging down to discover your primary needs in important situations and relationships;

 Practice assessing whether other people are controlled by their true Self or ''someone else''; (a false self). When they are, your problem-resolution options are limited.

      The more you practice these preparations, the more automatic they'll become. As you practice, you'll become increasingly able to...

Analyze Your Relationship Problems

      Start by deciding if your problem is internal (among your subselves), an interpersonal one, or both. Then analyze internal problems first!

Internal Problems

      Internal problems are usually characterized by significant anger, anxiety, guilt, confusion, frustration, and/or shame. Emotions and some physical sensations signal that one or more of your subselves needs something (has a problem) - often because they (a) are living in the past and/or (b) don't trust your true Self and other Manager subselves to fill their needs.

      Learn how to apply parts work to solve internal problems in self-improvement Lesson 1. The more your true Self guides your inner family, the fewer internal problems you'll have. Use internal dialogs to learn which subself is causing each emotion and what they need - specifically - from whom. Ask questions like these:

"Who is giving me the feeling of  ____________ now?" Then note the first thought, image, hunch, memory, or sensation you get without analyzing it.

"Why are you feeling that way? What do you need?" / "What would help you feel better?" Trust the first thing that comes to you, no matter how odd.

"What year is it?" Subselves struck in the past may keep experiencing old needs until they trust your Self to lead them, and you bring them safely into the present.

      Stay aware that when Inner Kids (who often cause strong emotions) activate, so do one or more Guardian subselves. When Guardians activate, they often have their own needs, and will add their own emotions.

Interpersonal problems are usually caused by some mix of these:

you and/or the other person are controlled by a false self.

ineffective communication - ignorance of Lesson-2 concepts or not using them

_  not being aware of yourself and/or your communication process  

_  unrealistic expectations of yourself and/or the other person, including wrong assumptions (usually a sign of false-self reality distortion)

_  not taking full responsibility for filling your own needs

_  not maintaining balanced self-respect and mutual respect

_  not seeking to identify current mental, physical, and/or spiritual needs

_  not focusing, and/or focusing on surface needs vs. primary needs (not digging down)

_  focusing on the past or the future vs. on present needs

_  not maintaining a mutual 2-person awareness bubble

_  not admitting or knowing how to resolve one or more of these barriers;

_  not recognizing or _ knowing how to manage loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles

_  choosing these lose-lose strategies instead of win-win problem-solving.

_  (add your reasons)


      Do you know how to recognize each of these problems? Do you know what to do about each of them? Lessons 1, 2, and 4 in this Web site explain each of them. Note that most of these stressors apply to subself and human dynamics equally.

Reality check: Go back over this list and ask "Did I already know this before reading this article?"

      Edit this checklist if needed, and then try using it to identify your interpersonal problems. Try it now: think of a current relationship problem with a child or adult, and analyze it using the options above. Then compare your findings with how you've been analyzing this problem. What do you notice?

        When you've analyzed an internal or interpersonal problem, use these ideas to resolve it - and enjoy the results!

Example - Analyzing a Parenting Problem

      Monica is troubled by her 13-year-old daughter Jessica's reluctance to talk to her about some friends, feelings, and activities. She tries not to pry, and remains frustrated at Jess's vagueness, shrugs, and silences. Monica is aware of her chronic discomfort, but doesn't label it as a "relationship problem."  Monica isn't aware of how to identify relationship problems or how she tries to solve them.

The Old Way

Like most parents, Monica is used to...

  • not focusing on her and Jessica's needs

  • not checking to see if her true Self is in charge;

  • seeing her daughter as "the problem," rather than herself + their communication process; and...

  • not using hearing checks and "I"-messages.

      She tries the direct approach to filling her surface need for information by asking Jess "What are you feeling?" and "What did you do with your friends yesterday?" Typical responses are "Nothin'," "I dunno," and "Oh, you know - stuff." Repeated questioning yields little more information, and a growing frustration and irritation in Jess for her mother "bugging" her.

      Paradoxically, Jess needs to vent about her friends and experience, but doesn't feel safe doing so because her mother lectures, interrogates, and criticizes her and her friends too much, instead of listening empathically. Monica does this unconsciously - partly because her own mother had been intrusive and overcritical at times, and didn't model empathic listening, appropriate boundaries, or respectful guidance.

      Young Jessica doesn't know how to describe what she's feeling or needs (i.e. to (a) trust her mom to accept, trust, and respect her; and to (b) provide empathic guidance], so she unconsciously stays guarded - and feels vaguely guilty about that. Eventually, Monica stops asking Jess for information, other than superficial "Did you have a nice time, dear?"

      She sees no options, and endures degrees of frustration and anxiety which subtly degrade their relationship. At times, Jess's subselves interpret this behavior as her mom not caring much about her, tho she doesn't say so. This increases the wall that is developing silently between them.

      Monica's husband has no suggestions, and has his own frustrations with their daughter (and his wife). No one knows how to identify and assert some of their relationship needs, which hinders problem-solving and family harmony.

      Bottom line - these three average family members aren't getting some important relationship needs met because they're unaware and uninformed. The adults don't see this, and have no clear strategy for analyzing and solving their role and relationship problems.

A New Way

      Monica's sister Karen tells her of the ideas in these Break the Cycle! Lessons. She says they're helping her define and fill some key needs with her husband and father. Monica studies Lessons 1 and 2, and makes progress with them over some weeks. The idea of being governed by a "false self" upsets her, and she determines to free her true Self for many reasons. Karen is doing the same, and they encourage and coach each other.

      As Monica learns who her subselves are and how to recognize when they disable her Self (capital "S"), she tries out Lesson-2 problem-solving skills with her family. They feel awkward at first, but she perseveres. She learns that chronically withholding information suggests that the other person doesn't feel safe to disclose. She wonders if her daughter feels unsafe with her.

      She discusses this with her sister Karen, and asks for help in digging down to better understand her needs.

Karen - "So what do you need from Jessica?"

Monica - "I want her to... no, I need her to feel safe to disclose her feelings, needs, and experiences to me."

Karen - "Well, why do you need her to feel safe to self-disclose?" (digging down)

Monica - (struggles a little) - "Uh... I really need to know that she's OK."

Karen - "Yeah, so why do you need to feel she's OK?" (more digging)

Monica -  "I love her, Karen, and I'm afraid she'll get hurt. There's so much she doesn't know!"

Karen - "You don't trust her judgment to keep herself safe, so when she won't disclose you feel anxious..." (empathic listening, not digging down)

Monica - "Oh Karen, I never thought of it that way. You're right - I need to learn to trust Jessica's judgment so I can feel calm!"

Karen summarizes - "So it sounds like you need Jess to feel safe with you and to want to trust you and self-disclose so you can gauge her self-judgment and safety, and feel secure about her."

Monica nods - "Yes, that sounds right on."  The sisters have defined the real (level 3) problems causing Monica's frustration, confusion, and anxiety. Option - the sisters could choose to explore level 4 (below) by learning which of Monica's personality subselves were causing these emotions and whether they trusted her true Self and other regular subselves. Instead...

Karen switches to problem solving - "Well, why might Jess not trust you with what's going on with her and her friends?"

      They discuss this using their learnings about communication skills and primary needs. The sisters conclude that Jess doesn't trust her mother to...

  • hear her empathically and accept her, or to...

  • help her identify and articulate her needs, or to...

  • make suggestions, rather than automatic criticisms, limits, and lectures.

      They agree that if Monica changes her communication style with Jess, it will take some time for the girl to begin to trust that self-disclosure with her Mom is becoming safe. They also agree that Monica's husband Vance needs to understand what they're discovering, and to join Monica in listening empathically and helping to make self-disclosure safe in their home.    

      Monica recognizes that if she asks Jess "Do I ever make you feel unsafe to talk to?" her daughter may not feel safe to reply honestly - until Monica demonstrates that it's consistently safe to dis-close. The ideas of using assertive I-messages to express her needs to Jess appeals to her. So do the concepts of expecting normal "resistances" and responding to them with respectful empathic listening before reasserting her needs.

      One day she feels "ready," and that her true Self is guiding her. She startles Jess by saying calmly "You know, Hon, I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job of listening to you. From now on, I'll try to do better." Her daughter doesn't know how to respond, and says "Yeh, well, um... whatever, Mom..."

      Monica watches for chances to try new responses. When Jess looks and sounds frustrated, her Mom says "Looks like you feel upset about something." (a nonjudgmental observation, instead of asking "What's wrong, Honey?" She also experiments with brief new statements like these:

"Looks like you don't need to say what's bothering you now."

"You look sad (angry / worried / happy / tired /...) right now."

"When you're silent and I'm not sure how you are, I feel anxious." and...

"Jess, I sure hope that if I'm doing anything that makes it hard to talk to me, you'll tell me. I won't get upset or mad if you do."

      Monica also tries to model disclosing her own feelings and needs (within limits) to Jess, guarding against her daughter feeling responsible for filling her adult needs. She does so to teach by example, not to get sympathy or solutions.

      One day, Jess says "I cannot believe how stuck up Nadia is. I can't stand her!" Instead of probing or chiding as she usually would, Monica listens empathically: "She really irritates you." She bites her tongue, and waits to see if her daughter will add more. To her surprise, the girl starts to describe an irritating incident with Nadia at school that day.

      Monica's Self rejects her impulse to "fix" (lecture, instruct, moralize) her daughter, and instead waits patiently for Jess to finish venting. Then she asks "What d'you feel is the best way to react to people who think they're extra special?"

      Her respectful question leads to a satisfying two-way discussion, rather than Jess looking sullen, bored, and guarded. Her daughter even asks "So what did you do with stuck-up kids in your school?"

      Let's look more closely at this example to see the problem-analysis steps at work. See if you can summarize what relationship problem the exasperated mother (Monica) is trying to solve with her early-teen daughter Jessica.

Dig Down Several Levels

      The surface (level 1) problem-definition might be "Monica needs her daughter to be more open and communicative with her." Digging down reveals level 2: Monica needs her daughter to want to disclose her activities, thoughts, and feelings to her to fill her need to know her daughter is safe and is making wise social and school decisions .

      Further digging (to level 3) discloses Monica really needs to learn whether she's unintentionally doing (or not doing) something that makes it unsafe for Jess to confide in her. Discussion with her sister Karen (new knowledge), reflection, and study reveals a deeper need (level 4) - to learn whether Monica has subselves who are too critical, controlling, and interruptive (i.e. too unaware of communication basics and typical early-teen traits and needs) in their zeal to protect Jess and be "a good Mom.".

      If she does admit this need, then Monica's primary need (dig-down level 5, in this case) is to learn how to retrain those subselves to...

  • communicate with Jess more respectfully, and to...

  • trust the wise guidance of Monica's Nurturer and true Self and not need to disable them.

      This Mom's overall needs are to (a) relate and communicate in a new way allowing her daughter to...

  • feel consistently safe, respected, and motivated to self-disclose, so Monica can...

  • reduce her anxiety and gradually raise her trust of Jess's judgment ("let go"), and...

  • maintain her integrity and self-respect as a competent mother.

      Monica realizes she needs to change two things with her daughter (and maybe other people) for better outcomes. She needs to train her subselves to maintain a steady attitude of mutual respect, and a two-person awareness bubble in important interactions. Before this, Monica hadn't been aware of either of these vital relationship factors.

Identify Key Personality Subselves

      Next, Monica asks her husband Vance to study Lesson 1 with her to learn about their subselves. With his supportive feedback, she makes an initial inventory of her subselves on paper.

      With input from her sister Karen and husband Vance, she uses this list to identify which of her subselves are likely to care about (a) Jess's welfare, growth, and health; and (b) how Monica behaves as a Mom and daughter to her own parents. She (her Self) decides these are the key ones: her...

  • true Self (CEO, leader, or guide) - coordinates and wisely directs other subselves when they trust her;

  • Nurturer, (Good Mom) - who specializes in caring unselfishly for Jess and others; and her...

  • Adult Woman ("common sense"), who excels at practical every-day decisions, her tireless...

  • Inner Critic, who steadily harps on Monica's failures and shortcomings, her...

  • Perfectionist, who insists she must be "the best Mom ever," and her imaginative...

  • Catastrophizer, who ceaselessly generates disaster scenarios about Jess, and her...

  • Good Girl subself, who wants Monica's parents to approve of her, and her...

  • Good Wife part, who wants to please her husband, her...

  • Guilty Girl, who activates when the Critic declares that Monica is an inept mother; and her...

  • Doubter, who feels that Jess's judgment is often faulty, which puts her at risk.  

Interview These Subselves

      Over the next several weeks, Monica chooses a long-range outlook, and invests undistracted time in introducing her true Self to each of these normal subselves individually and in small groups. She interviews each subself to learn...

  • what their job (personality role) is,

  • whether they trust her Self's wisdom or judgment - and if not, why; and...

  • how each subself feels Monica should guide and protect her daughter Jess.

      As she does this, Monica tells Jess what she's doing and why. Her daughter seems intrigued in spite of her skepticism. Monica also keeps Vance and Karen informed, and asks their comments as she progresses. They all learn some new things about themselves and each other as they do this "parts analysis."

      This earnest Mom has never conferred with her subselves before. She discovers that they have a lot to say to her and each other, once they trust that her Self is safe to talk to. Monica also finds that most of the Guardian and young subselves don't know how old (wise) she is, so they don't trust her Self's judgment. They all fear that if things among them change (like following the resident true Self), they'll lose their roles or power. She patiently reassures them that will never happen.

+ + +

      Step back from the details now and see the whole multi-level need-analysis process. Monica began with a surface relationship-need for her daughter to change (be more open). Patiently digging down four need-levels allowed her to discover her primary needs - to...

  • identify several of her key and subselves causing her attitudes and (communication) behaviors with Jess, and to...

  • teach these subselves...

    • some new attitudes,

    • effective-communication basics and skills, and to...

    • trust her Adult Woman's and her true Self's judgment about Jess's welfare.

These are the first parts of harmonizing all of Monica's dynamic personality subselves into a cohesive, cooperative team, led by her true Self, other Managers, and her Higher Power (Lesson 1).  

+ + +

      Notice your reaction to this example, You probably won't appreciate the power of these problem-analysis options until you experiment with them and see what happens. Think of the several most stressful relationship problems in your life now, including any between your subselves. and imagine applying your version of the analysis options above. Could that help you resolve the problems?

      Try it!

Status Check

      Take stock of what you believe now about relationship-problem analysis. Check to see if your Self is answering. T = "true," F = "false," and "?" = "I'm not sure."

I'm _ comfortable with the idea of normal personality subselves, and I'm _ motivated to identify mine now. T  F  ?

I _ understand the difference between a true Self and a false self, and _ I'm learning how to recognize which of these are controlling me or someone else.  T  F  ?

I accept that needs are mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual discomforts, and that being needy is healthy and normal, not weak.  T  F  ?

I believe that all emotions are useful pointers to current primary needs.  T  F  ?

I can define the difference between surface needs and primary needs. T  F  ?

I'm actively learning how to dig down to discover my current primary needs.  T  F  ?

I can clearly define what a "relationship problem" is to an average teen  T  F  ?

I see relationship problems as opportunities for self and mutual growth.  T  F  ?

I  have studied the suggested readings at the top of this article  T  F  ?

I _ can explain the difference between internal and interpersonal relationship-problems to a typical teen now, and _ I know how to identify problems between my subselves.  T  F ?

I understand how to analyze a major or chronic relationship problem now.  T  F  ?

I'm motivated to try my way of analyzing needs now with an open mind, to see what happens.  T  F  ?

I know how to judge if a relationship problem is resolved "well enough."  T  F  ?

      What did you just learn about yourself? Who responded to this status check - your wise true Self or other subselves?


      This Lesson-4 article proposes why most adults aren't trained to analyze typical internal and interpersonal relationship problems. It then proposes a framework for analyzing problems among your dynamic subselves and with other people. The article closes with an example of analyzing a common five-level Mother-daughter (family) relationship problem.

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise true Self or ''someone else''?  

 This article was very helpful   somewhat helpful   not helpful    

Share/Bookmark  Prior page  /  Lesson 4 guide  Print page 

Next - review these options for resolving relationship problems

 site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact