Four Steps to Coping with “Unsolvable” Marital Conflict

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Jamie C. WilliamsonBy Jamie C. Williamson, PhD

Most marital conflicts are unsolvable. In fact, according to renowned relationship researcher John Gottman, 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual problems that couples will never resolve. Only 31% of the problems in marriage are solvable. This is true for both happy couples and unhappy couples.

So, it is not the presence of on-going problems that makes couples unhappy. It is the way the couples talk about perpetual problems that distinguishes between happy and distressed couples. Happy couples learn to cope with perpetual problems rather than let the on-going issues infect their relationship. Distressed couples rehash the same issue over and over again and allow those conflicts to erode their relationship.

This does not mean that couples should ignore or avoid perpetual problems. Ignoring the issues will not make them go away. If the issue is important, pretending that it doesn’t matter will eventually create emotional distance between you and your partner, lead to resentment, and begin to negatively impact your entire relationship.

The good news is that most couples can learn to manage their perpetual problems once they recognize them as unresolvable on-going issues that they need to cope with rather than situational conflicts that can be resolved.

So, what’s the difference between Solvable Problems and unsolvable, Perpetual Problems?
Gottman explains that Solvable Problems are situational and tied to specific circumstances where a solution to the problem is possible. Once the problem is resolved, couples can move on and not have to address it again. In contrast, Perpetual Problems are on-going because they are rooted in differences in personality, beliefs, values, and hidden feelings.

Examples of perpetual, unsolvable problems include:
• One person is neat, the other is messy.
• One person is a spender, the other a saver
• One person is punctual, the other typically runs late
• One person wants to spend more time with friends, the other wants more couple time.

How do couples cope with Perpetual Problems?
First, accept the fact that problems, differences of opinion, and mismatched expectations are normal and inevitable in couple relationships. This realization helps couples keep the issue in perspective, rather than blow it out of proportion.

Second, look for the hidden feelings behind your partner’s behavior or point of view. For example, if Tyler routinely fails to help with the housework, Maria might feel abandon – left on her own to take care of their home, like her single Mother was. When Maria complains to Tyler about his laziness or lack of support, he might feel like she is trying to control him, which makes him feel like a scolded child instead of the man of the house.

Third, have a conversation (not a fight) about the issue. Pick the right time, the right place, and start with soft, respectful tone. Ask your partner to please listen because this is important to you. Speak honestly about your position and what it means to you. Describe your feelings and where they come from. Discuss your position and explanation for it, without criticizing your partner or blaming your partner for your feelings.

If you are the listener, seek to understand your partner rather than think about your rebuttal. Encourage your partner to explore his/her feelings and preferences. Do not evaluate your partners’ feelings and desires or mention any reason why they are impractical or unimportant. Show empathy and truly try to understand. Then, switch roles so that the listener now describes his/her position and the feelings behind it.

Fourth, use your new understanding to find ways to cope with the issue with respect, cooperation, and humor. In the Tyler-Maria example, this might include jointly making a list of the chores that need to be done over the weekend. Divide the chores and agree to do those allocated to you. Praise each other for what got done. Tease each other about what didn’t get done. And, set another deadline for what didn’t get done. Do not do each other’s chores unless the other sincerely requests help due to unexpected circumstances.
If you can follow this approach to coping with inevitable Perpetual Problems you will be much more likely to retain (or regain) and stable, happy marriage.

Jamie C. Williamson, PhD is a FL Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator and Gottman Methods Couples Counselor. She is an owner and partner at Amity Mediation Workshop, LLC, a mediation practice specializing in “friendly divorce” mediation and marriage revitalization sessions for couples. Dr. Jamie speaks frequently on relationship topics and authors the blog “Work it Out.” You can find her online at amitymediationworkshop.com.