Have you ever felt like you and your partner are having the same fight over and over? Turns out, you probably are. Based on research, 69% of marital conflict falls into the perpetual problem’s category. Psychologist Dan Wile states, “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 ten, twenty, or fifty years”. Happy marriages have both solvable and perpetual problems. What’s unique about a happy marriage vs. an unhappy marriage is that the happy couple has learned to accept the perpetual problems and don’t let the perpetual problems overwhelm the relationship.
Below are a few examples of common perpetual problems in happy couples’ relationships:
- Partners have different expectations on sex frequency.
- One partner likes to stay up on chores and to keep the house clean, while the other is more lax about housework and doesn’t mind the clutter around them.
- Partners differ on ideas for spending weekend time.
Accepting a perpetual problem in the relationship doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. However, happy couples are able to navigate these problems by developing strategies to ease the conflict. In unstable marriages, couples often get gridlocked. When this happens they are often having the same conversation over and over again, spinning their wheels, resolving nothing. Couples then turn away from each other in hurt and frustration, allowing the four horsemen to creep into the relationship.
Gottman identifies the following signs that conflict is gridlocked:
- The conflict makes you feel rejected by your partner.
- You keep talking about the problem but make no headway.
- You become entrenched in your positions and are unwilling to budge.
- When you discuss the subject, you end up feeling more frustrated and hurt.
- Conversations about the problem are devoid of humor, amusement, or affection.
- You become even more unmovable over time, which leads to angry comments in other conversations.
- You become more polarized, more extreme in your views, and all the less willing to compromise.
- Eventually you disengage from each other emotionally.
Solvable problems tend to focus on a particular situation or dilemma, whereas a perpetual problem is more deeply rooted and can effect many conversations. In the next segment, we will look at ways to solve your solvable problems and learn to overcome gridlock within conflict.