Sometimes you just feel stuck. You’v have had the same fight with your partner a hundred times before, and it still goes nowhere. No one communicates their view effectively, you both get frustrated, and then you both say or do stuff you regret later. Sound familiar? I hope so, because these kinds of fights are really common. And even though they feel terrible at the time and you both walk away feeling angry these kinds of fights are absolutely okay. Relationship expert, John Gottman divides problems into two categories, Perpetual Problems and Solvable Problems. Those are exactly what they sound like. Perpetual Problems are not going anywhere. While Solvable Problems can be worked through. If you’re having fights that you just can’t solve, you might not need to. Here’s why.
Know if Your Arguments Solvable or Perpetual
First, you need to be able to tell which problems are which. Dr. Gottman says that 69% of relationship problems are Perpetual Problems. So what makes a perpetual problem? Perpetual problems arise when they are related to personality, identity, or personal attributes.
For instance, I have a slow, somewhat monotone voice. Think slow Southern draw. If my partner thinks that I am uninterested or disengaged because of my tone, that is going to be a Perpetual Problem. I can not change my accent, so that problem is not going anywhere.
Perpetual problems are often also related to each other’s personal values, worldview, morals, or philosophy. The easiest example I have of this is a couple who has differing religious beliefs. For some couples, this would not really matter at all. But others end up spinning their wheels because their values end up pulling them in different directions.
What Can I Do?
First is to accept your partner the way that they are. At some point, you have to make the conscious decision that your partner is worth it to you. Remove any contingency. No more “I can love them if they…” Make the conscious decision that you are committed to loving your partner even if nothing about them changes.
Second, use the problem as a way to build empathy. Try to take your partner’s perspective. We end up on the opposite side of issues for all kinds of reasons. Upbringing, past relationships, experiences, you name it. Spend some time talking about how you landed on the opposite side of things. One bit of advice, make it clear when you are talking about your differences that you do not want to change anything about each other. This keeps either of you from getting defensive.
Third, talk about your feelings instead of trying to fix the problem. You might already know why the two of you are on opposite ends of this Perpetual Problem. Trying to come to an agreement or resolution on a Perpetual Problem is just going to lead to more heartache.
Defensiveness is your sign to shift from the Perpetual Problem itself to talking about emotions. If you catch yourself feeling defensive, ask yourself, “What nerve is this hitting?” When you see defensiveness in your partner, ask yourself “Where does this hurt for them?” The more that we attend to each other’s hurts in these moments, the less we feel the urgent need to try to solve these Perpetual Problems.
If you are looking for help in navigating these sticking points in your relationship, give The Marriage & Family Clinic a call.
About the Author
Ryan Hicks is a licensed therapist and marriage counselor at The Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver, Colorado. He specializes in working with couples in high conflict and working with couples in the LGBTQ community. When he’s not working with couples, you’ll find him rock climbing or taking in the great outdoors of Colorado.