According to John Gottman in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, all relationship conflicts fall into two groups: resolvable and perpetual. If you're experiencing conflict with your partner, it's useful to identify which of these two categories it belongs to, so that you can use the most effective method for dealing with the issue.
The real key to all conflict resolution is the same, however: before you ask your partner to change anything, it is important that they feel understood and accepted. If either (or both) of you feels judged, misunderstood, or rejected by the other, it will be very hard to deal with your problems. In fact, the gulf between you is likely to get wider. People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated, they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.
How to Distinguish between Resolvable and Perpetual Conflicts
We all encounter relationship conflicts that will never be entirely resolved, and the reason is that they symbolize some profound difference between ourselves and our partner. As a result, they frequently lead to a state of gridlock. The tell-tale signs of such a conflict are as follows:
- It makes you feel rejected by your partner
- You keep talking about it but make no headway
- You become entrenched in your positions and are unwilling to budge
- When you discuss the subject, you end up feeling more frustrated and hurt
- Your conversations about the subject are devoid of humour, amusement or affection
- You become even more unbudgeable over time, which leads you to vilify each other during these conversations
- This vilification makes you even more rooted in your position, extreme in your view, and less willing to compromise
- Eventually you disengage from each other emotionally.
What to do about Perpetual Conflicts
Perpetual conflicts are an inevitable part of any relationship, much as chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. By definition, these conflicts cannot be resolved. Fortunately, you don't have to resolve them in order for your relationship to thrive. They do, however, need to be addressed, so that you can both cope with them, avoid situations that worsen them, and develop strategies and routines that lessen their impact.
According to Gottman, unrequited dreams are at the core of every gridlocked conflict. Our deeply personal dreams frequently go unspoken or underground when we commit to a long-term romantic relationship, because we assume they must in order to make that relationship work (especially when kids come along). But when you bury a dream, it just resurfaces in a disguised form, as a gridlocked conflict. Don't give up on your dreams! Research shows that couples who are demanding of their marriage are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations. Happy couples understand that helping each other realize their dreams is one of the goals of marriage.
The dream is unlikely to emerge until you feel that your marriage is a safe place to talk about it, so building safety is the first step. The following steps are:
- Be a dream detective: identify your unfulfilled dreams. They might not be earth-shattering. And what Gottman labels as dreams could often be just as easily described as values or aspirations. Your dream might be to travel around the world. Your partner's dream might be to pay off the mortgage and live debt-free. It's easy to see how these dreams might lead to conflict. But nobody is wrong, and the sooner you stop seeing the other person as the enemy the better.
- Arrange a time and place to talk about your dreams with your partner. Agree that each person will have a certain amount of time (15 minutes perhaps) as speaker, then the same time as listener. Do not try to solve the problem. Your goal at this stage is simply to explore and understand why each of you feels so strongly about this issue.
- When talking, make “I” statements and talk only about your feelings and your needs. When listening, suspend judgement and listen with empathy, the way a friend would. Do not argue or criticize.
- Tell your partner that you support their dream, even if you don't believe the dream can or should be realized. There are 3 beneficial ways of honouring your partner's dream. By expressing understanding and being interested in learning more about it, even if you don't share it. By offering financial support. And by becoming part of the dream.
- Soothe each other.
- End the gridlock by making peace with the issue: accept your differences, and establish some kind of initial compromise. The purpose is not to resolve the conflict: it will probably never go away completely. The goal is to de-claw the issue, removing the hurt so that the issue stops being a source of great pain. Hopefully you'll come to see each others dreams not as threats, but as deep desires held by someone you love.
- Say thank you.
What to do about Resolvable Conflicts
Dealing with your solvable conflicts often comes down to good manners: treating your partner with the same respect you'd offer to a guest. Here are some tips:
- Soften your 'start-up':
Complain but don't blame
Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you”
Describe what is happening, don't evaluate or judge
Don't store things up
- Learn to make, recognize and and respond to 'repair attempts'
- Soothe yourself and each other
- Be tolerant of each others faults
- Find common ground
An Exercise for Finding Common Ground
- Decide together which solvable problem you want to tackle
- Sit separately and think about the problem
- On a piece of paper, draw two circles, a smaller one inside a larger one
- In the inner circle, list the aspects of the problem that you absolutely cannot give in on
- In the larger circle, list all the aspects of the problem that are important enough to mention, but that ultimately you can compromise about. The principle to remember here is 'yield to win': the more you can compromise, the better able you'll be to persuade your partner to compromise on the issues that are really important to you
- Share your circles and begin negotiations. First, find a way for both of you to honour your inner circles. If you cannot do this, either one of you has to shift that sticky issue to the outer circle and compromise, or you have to redefine the problem as perpetual
- Make a list of the items in your outer circles that you are both happy to agree to, and remove those from the circle
- Those that remain will require compromise. Don't be afraid of a tit-for-tat discussion. 'If you do this for me, I'll do that for you.' Again, the key is to be fair and reasonable. Try to remember that you're dealing with a person you love, not an adversary; and that you are an adult, not a child
- Stick to your end of the deal.