You want a baby soon; your partner does not. You always want to stay out late; your partner just wants to go home and go to bed. You want to spend less and save more; your partner wants to buy a new car or a new wardrobe. According to John Gottman (1999), professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington and longtime researcher on the characteristics of successful couples, 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual problems. In other words, they are conflicts that are not going away.
Before you think about replacing your partner over perpetual problems, think again. For instance, your partner agrees to spend only Thanksgiving or Christmas with your family. You want more holidays with your family. However, another partner might refuse to spend any holidays with your family. Yet another partner may agree but instigates an argument with your family at every opportunity. A third partner may agree, but only if your family comes to your house. After they leave, this partner obsessively cleans for hours and complains about them not taking their shoes off at the door. Knowing the options, would you have worked harder to compromise with the partner you picked?
In Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he advises couples to accept the fact all couples have ongoing differences. The key is to keep working on them from a win-win position so you both feel you matter to each other. Successful couples find ways to manage ongoing disagreements with humor and affection. Couples who fail to accommodate perpetual differences can find themselves in a gridlock (Gottman, 1999).
Differences between partners may stem from a variety of sources. Some differences are rooted in beliefs or values taught by the family while growing up. For example, you may prefer a tidy home because you found comfort growing up in one. But your partner does not find it important to put dirty socks in a laundry hamper because that is how they grew up. Other differences may be styles like being a night owl or a morning person. How you got there matters less than how you come together to handle your perpetual problems.
Couples who accept each other’s styles with empathy tend to fare better than couples who do not. They know the difficulty is like an irritating allergy. It won’t go away, but they do not allow it to become so important it becomes a gridlock. According to Gottman (1999), the following are characteristics of gridlock:
- The conflict leaves you feeling rejected by your partner.
- You continue talking about it without progress.
- Whenever you discuss the issue, you feel more frustrated and hurt afterward.
- Your discussion about the issue is devoid of humor or affection.
- You dig in your heels in your positions and refuse to budge.
- Over time, you become more rigid in your position. You vilify your partner during discussions.
- This vilification leads you both to become even more polarized in your positions.
- You emotionally disengage from each other.
Busting a gridlock begins with understanding each other’s dreams. A dream not shared is often at the core of unresolved conflict. Dreams are hopes or wishes that give meaning and purpose to your life. What are your partner’s dreams behind the issue? When is the last time you told your partner any of your aspirations behind an issue important to you (Gottman, 1999)?
Voice your dreams behind the issue, what they symbolize to you, and why they are important to you. Invite your partner to do the same. Many people believe they are not entitled to their dreams. Yet, the longing does not go away and may resurface in some form (Gottman, 1999).
Gridlocks do not have to signify the end of a relationship. Be flexible and open to compromises that don’t involve changing or fixing your partner.
In response to your partner sharing their dreams behind the perpetual problem, acknowledge them. You don’t necessarily have to be a part of them but respect them. Consider ways to compromise in ways that keep the door open to further conversation. The issue may never completely go away. Rather than try to solve it, focus on diffusing the amount of pain felt around it (Gottman, 1999).
Diffuse the hurt by separating the issue into nonnegotiable and flexible areas. Nonnegotiable are aspects you cannot conciliate on without violating your core values or needs. Flexible areas are those you can consider temporary or creative concessions for. Try to put as many aspects in the flexible area as possible. After you negotiate, say “thank you.” End the conversation on a positive note with loving words for each other (Gottman, 1999).
Gridlocks do not have to signify the end of a relationship. Be flexible and open to compromises that don’t involve changing or fixing your partner. Because perpetual problems have a lot of longevity, you may need to match your issue with patience. Remind yourself that your partner and you are on the same side and the problem is on the other. The problem is no match for the two of you.
Gottman, J. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
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