Do you have the same argument with your partner over and over again? Are you fighting about the same issues in new and different ways? If you are entangled in a perpetual war with your partner then you need to realize that your relationship conflict is destructive for both of you.
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, on the other hand, are those pestering challenges that despite partners’ best efforts to resolve them, they never go away.
Dr. Gottman made this discovery by having couples come into his Love Lab every four years to discuss relationship challenges on camera. The footage from different years was then compared and assessed.
As Dr. Gottman and his colleagues compared each of the most recent recordings to the recording from four years prior, it was as if only four hours had passed. Despite both partners’ hair is a little grayer, their style a little funkier, the issue of concern to them hadn’t changed.
Perpetual Relationship Conflict
It may be surprising to find out 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 still 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 choose to discuss and manage these problems.
- Whether both partners can live with the unsolvable issues
“You don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to thrive.” – Dr. Gottman
So what are some examples of perpetual relationship conflict? I’ll share some from my relationship:
- [Punctuality] One partner is habitually running behind and the other wants to be early
- [Finances] One partner is more of a spender, while the other is a saver 2
- [Socialness] One partner is more extroverted, the other more introverted
- [Cleanliness & Organization] One partner is more organized and clean, the other partner is a little messier
Other typical perpetual issues include:
- [Time Together] One partner wants more we-time and the other wants more me-time
- [Extended Family] One partner wants to spend more time or be closer to extended family, while the other wants more independence from extended family
- [Parenting] One partner wants more of an authoritarian parenting style, the other wants more of a permissive parenting style 3
- [Relationship Style] One partner wants an ethically non-monogamous relationship, the other partner wants a monogamous relationship
- [Creating a Family] One partner wants to have a baby, the other isn’t ready or isn’t sure if they ever will be.
- [Religion] One partner prefers a more orthodox religious practice while the other wants to practice a more modern form of the religion.
- [Sex] One partner wants sex more frequently than the other partner
For a list of the 17 typical problems in romantic relationships, see pages 147–155 in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work to evaluate whether an issue of concern is a solvable or unsolvable problem in your relationship.
These perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in the personalities or lifestyle needs that are core to who each romantic partner is. 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 realizing that when the issue keeps coming up, it may be time to look beyond just the topic and learn how to accept your differences so the problem doesn’t become a barrier to your emotional connection and relationship satisfaction.
The Telltale Signs Your Problem is Harming Your Relationship
Here are the nine destructive signs 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 end up feeling more frustrated and hurt.
- Your conversations about the problem lack humor, amusement, or affection.
- You do not accept your partner’s influence, meaning 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 polarized, more extreme in your views, and all the less willing to compromise.
- You are disengaged from each other emotionally.
When these telltale signs are present in your relationship, it’s easy to see how you’re locked in your position. It’s almost like 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.”