Dick and Pat were struggling in their relationship. It seemed to them that they had different opinions on almost everything. What bothered Pat even more than these differences was that she and Dick couldn’t seem to talk about them. He often felt attacked and would withdraw; she felt that she wasn’t able to talk about the issues without Dick becoming defensive. It seemed that even the simplest issues were becoming impossible. So, how do we explain why two intelligent people with really good problem-solving skills, can’t figure out who is going to take out the garbage or how much money to spend on a couch?
John Gottman’s research on conflict uncovers the mystery. Gottman discovered that 69% of the problems that couples identify as problems are ongoing, perpetual problems. This is normal, even in the best of marriages differences in personality, preferences, temperament, beliefs, etc. lead to a particular set of disagreements that aren’t going to change, because our basic beliefs, personalities and preferences aren’t going to change. When couples can laugh about these differences, or lovingly laugh at themselves or partners, then they have figured out that these issues just aren’t going to go away. They have also figured out, for the most part, how to manage those differences. When couples – like Dick and Pat – aren’t able to laugh about the differences and has escalated to pain and withdrawal, then the issue has moved from being a normal perpetual conflict issue, to being a perpetual, gridlocked.
Gottman found that about 16% of perpetual issues are gridlocked. These are the issues that are the most painful and problematic for couples. For example, when Dick and Pat fight about how much money to spend on a couch it is because underneath the conflict is a symbolic meaning that they have not talked about. If they were to start to approach the issue differently and find out what makes this issue important, they would find out that one of Dick’s greatest fears is losing financial security. Growing up he remembers his family as always struggling financially. Dick would describe his father as careless with money, having bad judgment, and putting their family in ongoing financial distress. Pat would say that her family experience was exactly the opposite. Her parents continually complained about not wanting to spend money and they would yell at her and her sister about being “spoiled, selfish and expecting too much.” She remembers one Christmas getting a cheap bag of plastic farm animal figures; this memory still brings tears to her eyes.When couples get stuck over issues that you would normally think shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out, the odds are really good that the issue is a perpetual gridlocked conflict. What should you do? Here is a very helpful game plan:
Have a different type of conversation, one that doesn’t focus on problem solving
Make an agreement to try to understand what makes the issue so important to the other person. Ask questions and try to listen
Make the goal to have dialogue, remember avoid problem-solving, convincing, or arguing for your position
Dick and Pat will need to deal with their differences on spending their entire marriage, but the goal is to remember that differences are normal and that it is important to continue to talk about these differences by first focusing on what the issue actually means to the both of them. This helps move the problem from gridlock to dialogue. Don’t fall into silence, at least not for very long.