According to John Gottman, marital conflicts fall into just two categories: solvable and perpetual. Perpetual conflicts show up over and over. They probably will never disappear because they come from fundamental differences in personality: She wants to have a baby but he doesn’t want children; he hates clutter but she’s a pack-rat; she wants a religious home but he’s an atheist.
Every marriage has conflicts like these. As one psychologist said, when you choose a life partner “you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to solve perpetual problems to have a happy marriage. You just have to learn to handle them with humor and understanding and not let them overwhelm the relationship. While no relationship is perfect, every relationship can be successful if partners find ways to cope with conflicts and keep moving forward. For help in dealing with perpetual conflicts, see Handling Conflict in Marriage on this website.
Gottman recommends six steps to solving your solvable problems:
- Identify solvable problems. First, figure out if a particular problem is perpetual or solvable. Perpetual problems tend to represent deeper issues. Characteristics of a perpetual problem include:
- The conflict makes you feel rejected by your partner.
- You keep talking about it but make no headway.
- You both become entrenched in your positions and are unwilling to budge.
- When you discuss the issue, you end up feeling frustrated and hurt.
- Your conversations about the issue are completely lacking in humor, amusement, or affection.
- You feel determined not to budge, and you begin to vilify or belittle each other during conversations about this issue
- The belittling conversations make you even more stuck in your position, more extreme in your view, and less willing to budge.
- Eventually you disengage from each other emotionally.
If this sounds familiar, you are probably dealing with a gridlocked perpetual problem. For ways to deal with the problem, see Moving from Gridlock to Dialogue on this website.
If your conflict is less painful and intense than the situation above, it’s probably solvable. Solvable conflicts tend to focus on a particular problematic situation. They are fueled by events rather than by underlying conflicts of belief or personality.
Think about the conflicts in your marriage and which ones may be solvable. For example, imagine one of your conflicts is that your spouse always leaves dirty dishes in the sink when it’s his night to do the dishes and you can’t stand it. You get upset at him for leaving a mess and he gets upset at you for throwing a fit. You argue until your spouse stomps off to another room or gives you the silent treatment.
If just washing the dishes would keep you from having a big fight, this problem is solvable-it’s situational and occurs only because the dishes are dirty.
If, when you argue, you call your spouse lazy and accuse him of not doing his fair share around the house, and he calls you a drill sergeant and accuses you of nagging, the problem may be perpetual-you turn each other into villains. You aren’t really arguing over the dishes; you’re arguing over deeper values about work, order, and responsibilities.
For more lengthy and detailed exercises on solvable versus perpetual problems, see Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
2. Soften your startup. According to Gottman, 96% of arguments end on the same note they begin. So if you start an argument with harsh accusations, you’re likely to end that way. But if you have a softened startup-you begin the discussion without criticizing or attacking-you’re more likely to end the discussion productively.
Here are ways to soften your startup:
- Complain but don’t blame. Blaming leads to resentment, defensiveness and hostility. It’s okay to say, “The yard is a mess. I’m really upset that it didn’t get cleaned up.” It’s not okay to say, “The yard is a mess and it’s all your fault for not cleaning it up when I told you to!”
- Begin statements with “I” instead of “you.” “I” statements are generally less critical and contemptuous. They tend to express feelings rather than accusations. Compare: “You are so lazy. Can’t you do anything around here.” vs. “I would appreciate it if you’d help me around the house more.” And “You never listen to me.” vs. “I feel like I’m being ignored.”
- Describe what’s happening rather than judging. Instead of, “You never spend time with me anymore,” try, “We don’t seem to go out as much as we used to.”
- Be clear. Don’t expect your partner to know what you’re thinking. Instead of “Can you take the baby for once,” try “Please change Timmy’s clothes and get his bottle.”
- Be polite. Say “please,” and “I would appreciate . . . .”
- Don’t store up frustrations. Talk about what’s on your mind when the issue first comes up. It’s hard to start up gently when you’ve been stewing over an issue and letting yourself grow more and more upset until you’re ready to burst.
3. Make and receive “repair attempts.” A repair attempt is a statement or action aimed at cooling down a heated argument. It’s an effort to put the brakes on a negative situation before it spins out of control. Repair attempts are a happy couple’s secret weapon. If you’re using them successfully, your marriage is probably thriving.
Repair attempts can be subtle or blunt, funny or serious-anything that works to defuse tension. For example, in the middle of conflict you might say something like “That really hurt my feelings,” or “Can we talk about this later?” or “Okay, maybe you’re right.” You might make a funny face in response to a particularly outrageous comment. These small acts can powerfully decrease tension and ease negativity.
When your spouse makes a repair attempt, they’re saying they don’t enjoy fighting, and they want to stop before things get out of hand. A repair attempt is a way of saying, “Our friendship is more important than this argument.”
Learning to make and accept repair attempts will increase your ability to solve problems together. So next time you have a tense discussion, listen carefully. When your spouse says, “Would you please just calm down!” don’t shout back “No, I will not calm down! How can I calm down?” Instead, take a deep breath and say, “All right, I’ll try to be calm.”
4. Soothe yourself and each other. When an argument gets particularly heated, stop talking, take a break, and relax. Often marital arguments can get so stressful both people need to stop and let their body and mind calm down.
Gottman uses soothing breaks in every conflict-resolution workshop he runs. At first, he says, couples are annoyed and don’t see the point of being forced to stop and relax. But after they do they are calmer, their voices are softer, and they talk and laugh about the issue they had just been fighting over. When they begin talking again, their discussions are invariably more productive.
Here are ways to help you soothe yourself and each other when tensions run high:
- Stop talking. Agree to take a twenty-minute break.
- Lie down or sit in a comfortable position.
- Don’t dwell on your anger or on thoughts about the argument.
- Do something to keep your mind distracted, such as reading a magazine, listening to music, going for a walk..
- Meditate. Pray. Control your breathing and relax your muscles.
- Picture a beautiful, relaxing scene, and imagine yourself there (at the beach, in a forest, on a lake or a snowy mountain).
- Give your spouse a massage.
- Talk about things that soothe and ways you can help relieve each other’s stress.
5. Compromise. According to Gottman, “Like it or not, the only solution to marital problems is to find a compromise.” A compromise is a solution that both parties feel good about. A relationship where one person always gets his or her way won’t work in the long run.
To reach a compromise, first make sure you’re softening your startup, repairing your discussion, and staying calm. These steps will help your discussions be positive and productive and will allow you to reach a resolution together.
The key to any compromise is being willing to accept your spouse’s influence. You can’t compromise without being open to your spouse’s opinions and beliefs. Whether you agree with your spouse or not, it’s important to at least honestly consider his or her point of view. If you both refuse to budge an inch, you’ll get nowhere. Talk about your differences in a calm, open-minded way and search for common ground you can both live with.
Here’s an exercise Gottman uses to help couples find common ground:
- Decide on a problem you want to tackle. Sit down separately and think about the problem.
- On a piece of paper draw two circles-a big circle with a smaller circle inside. In the inner circle, write down things about the issue that you won’t give in on. In the outer circle, write down things you’re willing to compromise on. Remember the “yield to win” principle-the more you’re willing to compromise, the more you’ll be able to influence your spouse. As much as possible, make the inner circle small and the outer circle large.
- Share and discuss your circles. Look for things you have in common. Where do you agree? What is most important to each of you?
- Develop a solution that includes each of your needs and is a reasonable compromise for both of you.
6. Accept each other. An important part of being able to solve marital problems is being tolerant of each other’s faults. Your spouse is not perfect and neither are you. If you accept your spouse despite all imperfections, you will be much more able to compromise successfully.
Communicating basic acceptance of your partner’s personality is vital to solving all marital problems. It’s impossible for two people to solve their problems when each feels criticized, disliked, or unappreciated by the other.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Solving Your “Solvable Problems” is adapted from the website Forever Families