Truth! The truth is that all couples have perpetual problems that do not get solved. In fact, according to renowned researcher, John Gottman, PhD, nearly 2/3 of relationship problems are unsolvable(69%).
Dan Wile, PhD, developer of Collaborative Couple Therapy, noted that, “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” These unsolvable problems are also known as perpetual differences in the mental health world and all couples will have perpetual problems. These issues center on fundamental differences in personality or differences in your own backgrounds which is where your belief system is derived. For instance, one spouse might be more extroverted while the other is more introverted. One partner might be more careful with spending having endured tight financial circumstances while they grew up while the other has a more free spending attitude due to emotional experiences associated with gift giving. One partner might value cleanliness and order more and place a higher value on neatness than their spouse who grew up differently and feels suffocated by their partner’s insistence on the house looking pristine. These differences which lead to perpetual problems or where the mountains collide can become an effective tool to bring you closer together as a couple or the wedge that can lead to emotional distance and gridlock.
The key to managing unsolvable problems is to establish a dialogue about the perpetual problem. It is not the presence of the conflict that stresses the relationship, it is the manner in which the couple responds. Be willing to discuss issues and know that your job is not to solve the conflict but to understand where your spouse is coming from. Most conflicts are not about the issue itself but underneath are about “Where are you, Do I matter to you, Are you there for me- Can I count on you first to respond to me- to put me first? Not having a way of discussion often leads to what therapists deam dialogue gridlock. Unaddressed gridlock eventually leads to emotional disengagement. The one thing that love can’t survive is constant emotional disconnection. Conflict is often less dangerous for your relationship than distance. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving.
Seek to understand the meaning of your spouse’s positions. What is it that matters to them about that particular issue. For example, your partner’s fixation on not being late to an event can be easier for you to understand realizing that growing up being on time was emphasized as a way to show respect and that they feel upset that they are being disrespectful and feel shame and embarrassment when they walk in late. Instead of trying to change how they feel and that they shouldn’t feel shame, or embarrassment, seek to understand and accept that it matters to them and you can make it matter to you as well because you love them. Seeking to accept and appreciate your spouses differences rather than impose your beliefs (no matter how right we feel!) on how they should act, strengthens your bond in a way that nothing else can. To love someone is to accept that person exactly the way he or she is right now, knowing you both have weaknesses but working together, you become stronger.
Developing a shared meaning is a crucial step in creating the marriage that you really want. All of us come into marriage with preconceived notions and definitions for how we view things. We are meant to be different and these differences when combined often can lead to happier endings. Even now if you were to ask your spouse to define “home” or “love” you would find that you do not have the exact same definition. Shared meaning is where building on your unique views, you build something together. Rituals–daily, weekly or monthly is the avenue that helps to build this new shared life that the two of you are creating. Rituals around leaving and returning with a kiss or the special way you end a phone conversation to weekly dates that show that your partner values spending time with you or a monthly puzzle you put together. The rituals you create together will be as unique to your relationship as you are unique and will create the shared meaning which can alleviate the frustrations of merging ideas and focus on building the life you want together.
Beware what you are focusing on: Small things have a way of growing large when we dwell on them. There is a great story published in a magazine that I refer to as the parable of the toothpaste. One of the wife’s complaints was that her husband splashed toothpaste on the mirror when he would brush his teeth and never washed it off. It drove her absolutely crazy and she couldn’t let it go. The husband ended up passing away and the wife realized as the days past that even though her husband was no longer there, the toothpaste on the mirror remained. She realized that she contributed to the toothpaste on the mirror for years and the anger she felt towards her husband hurt her much more than it ever affected her husband. Choose to dwell on the positive qualities and attributes of your spouse instead of the “toothpaste on the mirror”. Overlook small things, be less critical and more forgiving.
This lesson about the great debate as to how the toilet paper should be hung was a lesson that I was taught a little over 25 years ago while I was visiting the house of one of my older brother’s friends. This couple was one that in my teenage view, was one of the ideal couples–you know the ones that seemed to dance around and make you wonder if they ever raised their voices because they seemed to talk in a sweet whisper at all times. This visit obviously left an impression on me as I can still remember it to this day. I had walked in on a discussion that was dire. I can remember being absolutely shocked to find out that there was a flaw in the fairytale that I had conjured in my mind. What could possibly cause so much duress to my real life couple version of Ken and Barbie? I quickly learned that the major disagreement I had walked into was about the way the toilet paper roll should be hung and they both had fierce arguments for their differing point of views. Could a roll of toilet paper really have such a huge impact? How was this conflict going to be solved? It turns out that for my Ken and Barbie couple they came up with the solution that it would be hung one way for the first 25 years of their marriage and the other for the next 25 years. I have been meaning to check back in with them and see if they really did switch after 25 years, but knowing that they realized their relationship is more important and how their spouse feels mattered more than the direction of the toilet paper gave me hope and meaning for the perpetual, unsolveable conflicts we all face in relationships.
Looking for more ways to deal with conflict? See the 7 Proven Tips to Handle Conflict.