“You don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive” – Dr. Gottman
After observing thousands of different relationship conflicts, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues noticed that every relationship has two kinds of problems: Solvable and unsolvable.
Solvable problems can be resolved with healthy communication, understanding and commitment to changes. Essentially, once the problem is discussed in a mature way and an adjustment is made, the problem is no longer a problem.
Unsolvable problems are those pestering challenges that, despite the partners’ best efforts to resolve them, never go away.
Perpetual relationship conflict
It may be surprising to learn that 69% of relationship conflict is unsolvable. 1 Only 31% of problems within a relationship are actually solvable, according to Dr. Gottman’s research.
The great news is you can have an excellent relationship even when challenges are present between you and your partner.
The key to a satisfying relationship for both partners depends on three things:
- What the unsolvable problems are
- How partners discuss and manage these problems
- Whether both partners can live with the unsolvable issues
What are some examples of perpetual relationship conflict?
- Finances: One partner is a spender, the other is a saver 2
- Socialness: One partner is more extroverted, the other more introverted
- Cleanliness and organisation: One partner is neater, the other partner is messier
Other typical perpetual issues include:
- Time together: One partner wants more we-time, the other wants more me-time
- Extended family: One partner wants to be closer to extended family, the other wants more independence from extended family
- Parenting: One partner has a more authoritarian style, the other has a more permissive style 3
- Sex: One partner wants it more frequently than the other
These perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in the personality or lifestyle needs of each romantic partner. Inevitably these differences collide and create conflict.
It’s important to note that a problem that is solvable for one couple may be unsolvable for another couple. The key is to realise that when an issue keeps coming up, it is time to look beyond it, and learn how to accept the differences, so the problem doesn’t become a barrier to your emotional connection and relationship satisfaction.
The telltale signs a problem is harming your relationship
Here are nine destructive signs that an unsolvable problem is harming your relationship, according to Dr. Gottman: 4
- You feel rejected by your partner
- You keep attempting to talk about the issue but make no headway
- You become entrenched in your positions and are unwilling to budge or be flexible
- When you discuss the subject, you feel more frustrated and hurt
- Your conversations about the problem lack humour, amusement or affection
- You do not accept your partner’s influence; you do not allow their needs or perspective to influence your position on the issue
- You vilify each other during these conversations and in your thoughts, even when alone
- This vilification makes you all the more rooted in your positions, and you and your partner become polarised, more extreme in your views, and even less willing to compromise
- You are emotionally disengaged from each other
“The goal of marriage is not to think alike, but to think together.” – R. Dodd
When these signs are present, it’s easy to see how you’re locked in your position. You and your partner are creating a traffic jam in your relationship, each trying to pull off the highway but blocking each other, hence Dr. Gottman calling this stuck feeling “gridlock”.
Your roadmap out of gridlocked conflict
It’s important to know whether you are struggling with a solvable or unsolvable problem. Below are some steps to determine if your relationship challenge is solvable or unsolvable, and how to manage it if it is unsolvable.
Step 1: Identify the core issue
The first job is to become crystal clear on what the issue actually is. Too often when couples have conflicts, they fight about multiple topics at once and, as a result, none are resolved or become easier to manage. Or they think they are fighting about the same topic, but because they haven’t clearly understood their partner’s perspective, they fight about two different topics.
Step 2: Explore how you discuss issues and manage differences
As psychologist Dan Wile says, every relationship is two problems: the actual problem and how partners address the problem.
Both emotionally connected, happy couples and emotionally disengaged, unhappy couples struggle with similar challenges.
Often the difference in satisfaction in a relationship is not related to the actual issue, but rather how partners discuss the issue (or don’t) and how they work together to make things better for both partners.
When you and your significant other attack what makes each partner unique in the relationship, then you know you’re struggling with an unsolvable problem in a destructive way.
In fact, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson were able to predict divorce with an 88% accuracy if a couple had more destructive moments in conflict than constructive5. In comparison, couples who had a stable relationship years later had five positive and constructive moments for every negative one, and the negatives were less harsh.
The key to managing differences starts with honouring the differences
“When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next one, 20, or 50 years.” – Psychologist Dan Wile, After the Honeymoon.
When you commit to someone, you are committing to a relationship with both their good and annoying parts. As Stan Tatkin, PsyD. likes to remind us, all people – including you and me – are annoying and difficult.
Like an annoying dairy intolerance, we have to learn to live with this knowledge about ourselves and our relationship.
Every couple has a set of unsolvable problems that they have to learn to manage if the relationship is to be satisfactory and work well for both partners.
If you don’t learn how to manage it well, you become gridlocked and the satisfaction of your relationship will be low. This is because the nasty way your differences are handled spill into even the positive aspects of your relationship, such as your emotional connection, playfulness and sexuality.
Relationships fail mostly because partners do not want to accept their lover wholeheartedly. Rather they accept their partner on condition that they’ll change over time. That’s a recipe for failure.
“If we did an autopsy on all failed relationships, the number of couples where at least one of the partners was ambivalent – either not all in or waiting for their partner to change – would be very high… If you don’t or can’t accept your partner as they are right now, without cherry-picking the parts you like, you’re in trouble already. Nobody signs up for marriage because they want to be changed by their partner. It doesn’t work. Ever. Go all in or go home. Marriage and commitment can only work if we accept each other wholeheartedly.” – Stan Tatkin, We Do
Step 3: Decide if you can live with the issue
The final step is determining whether your relationship problem is something you can live with. This is different for each person.
When it comes to committing to a relationship, researchers discovered that happier, more committed couples clearly and deliberately decide their relationship path rather than slide into it 8.
“Too many [couples] slide through major transitions or life experiences rather than deciding who they are and where they intend to go.” – Fighting for Your Marriage
Often, couples make life-altering decisions with positive intent but without fully thinking them through.
Before fully committing to a relationship, you need to talk about the core issues of love relationships and decide which are deal-breakers.
Marriage and commitment can only work if we accept each other wholeheartedly
Sometimes unsolvable problems are deal-breakers
“A deal-breaker is any matter that would disqualify a partner from a committed relationship despite other wonderful conditions.” – Stan Tatkin, We Do
Couples all over the world wrestle with problems that can be deal-breakers in a long-term relationship. These could be issues of trust, commitment, fidelity, family values, etcetera.
As you get to know your partner, work on accepting your differences and be honest when you struggle. Sometimes being honest with each other and deciding to end things, saves you the drama and emotional pain of sliding into a relationship with the unrealistic hope that things will change. Sometimes things do change, but most often they don’t.
Love requires hard choices and when you face those choices honestly and don’t abandon yourself, it’s easier to find or create a relationship that is deeply fulfilling and meaningful in the long term.
This article was first published on Kylebenson.net, read the full article , with references, here.