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Most Relational Conflict is Not Resolvable

Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT

Do you and your partner find yourselves arguing over the same issue(s) and you feel like you get nowhere on it(them)? Do you find that it is frustrating, it hurts, and that each of you starts to entrench in your own position and to see each other as adversaries rather than friends? Well, that is probably because you are struggling with a perpetual issue, and, perhaps, a gridlocked perpetual issue.

In 40 years of research with over 3,000 couples, Dr. John Gottman found that 69% of what couples fight about are not solvable problems. They are perpetual conflicts that have to do with fundamental differences between couples, differences in personality or needs that are fundamental to their core definition of self. These are issues without resolution that the couple has often been dealing with for many years. They may make some progress on the issue for a time, but the issue inevitably reemerges. Each time, the discussion is an attempt to establish a dialogue with the problem, which, admittedly, will never go away or be fully resolved.

Dan Wile, a marriage and family therapist, wrote in After the Honeymoon (1988) that “choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems” (p. 12). No matter who we partner with, we partner with a set of problems, because each of us brings into a relationship our own “enduring vulnerabilities.” Wile also wrote, “…there is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that 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” (p. 13). John Gottman maintains that, “Relationships will work to the extent that you have wound up with a set of perpetual problems you can learn to live with.”

When a problem is a perpetual problem, rather than solving it, a couple needs to learn how to dialogue well about their different subjective realities.  John Gottman observed that what he called the “Masters of Relationship,” the couples that stay together and are relatively happy, seem to be able to come to some acceptance of their problem. They are able to communicate simultaneously acceptance of the partner and the desire to improve this problem, often with amusement, respect, and affection.

However, if a couple cannot establish a dialogue, the conflict may become gridlocked, and gridlocked conflict eventually leads to emotional disengagement, which is the leading cause of divorce. John Gottman found that 16% of perpetual conflict becomes gridlocked. The research revealed that there is a very good reason most people cannot yield on gridlocked problems. Behind each person’s position lies something deep and meaningful—something core to that person’s belief system or personality. It might be a strongly held value or perhaps a dream not yet lived. There is probably a personal story behind their position.

Gridlock is the result of dreams in opposition and fear of accepting influence on the issue. When people get stuck in gridlock, they are usually not talking about the problem, rather about some core part of self, some aspect of what the problem means to them. For example, a conflict about money that is gridlocked is probably not about money. Instead, it could be about the experience of power, or competence, or security, or even about independence and freedom. Each person’s position has a very deep interior meaning for that person. For that reason, people cannot yield easily, unless they feel honored and understood.

Therefore, we have three suggestions to help you move from gridlock to dialogue on your perpetual conflict.

First, the relationship has to become safe enough so that each person’s dreams or values or histories (which have often gone ‘underground,’ hidden within each person’s entrenched positions), can come forth, be heard and accepted as valid.

Second, we suggest that you have a speaker-listener dialogue about the dreams, values, or histories behind each of your positions. As speaker, remember that you are not trying to persuade or convince your partner of your point of view. Rather, your goal is to help your partner understand the dream or story behind your position.

Third, remember that the goal is not solve the problem at this point. Instead, focus on truly understanding each other and your positions at a very deep level. Try to suspend your own judgment and agenda and be a good listener. As good listeners, we need to explore what our partner’s dream is really about; why it carries so much meaning for them; why it is so core to their sense of self.

You may be able to do this on your own, but you may need some help, particularly if you have gridlocked perpetual conflict. You may want to consider seeking the assistance of a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Gottman Therapist who has been trained in helping couples with these dynamics or attending an Art and Science of Love: A Weekend Workshop for Couples  [insert link to ASL Page] developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman to help couples improve their friendship and intimacy and better manage conflict in their relationship.

© 2024 Michael Brown, MSC, LMFT, dba Happy Couples Healthy Communities