By Marni Feuerman
In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman’s research proves that 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable. These may be things like personality traits your partner has that rub you the wrong way, or long-standing issues around spending and saving money. Their research findings emphasize the idea that couples must learn to manage conflict rather than avoid or attempt to eliminate it.
Trying to solve unsolvable problems is counterproductive, and no couple will ever completely eliminate them. However, discussing them is constructive and provides a positive opportunity for understanding and growth. Let’s look at three “conflict blueprints” to help you and your partner constructively manage conflict around unsolvable problems.
This blueprint addresses current conflicts. Based on game theory, a mathematical model that describes how to manage conflict and improve cooperation with others, this blueprint stresses that both partners put off persuasion tactics until each one can state their position clearly and fully. This involves each speaker and listener taking turns.
Both partners must be emotionally calm when speaking. The listener should take notes on what the speaker says. The speaker should focus on using a softened start-up, stating feelings by using “I” statements, and asking for needs to be met in a positive and respectful way.
This blueprint focuses on discussing past emotional injuries, often known as triggers, that occurred prior to or during the relationship. Also called “attachment injuries” by Dr. Sue Johnson, these can create resentment from past events that have gone unresolved. These frequently involve breaches of trust.
It is crucial to avoid being negative when discussing triggers. You both need to speak calmly and understand that both of your viewpoints are valid, even if you disagree. The goals are to gain comprehension of each other’s perspective and to acknowledge that regrettable incidents are inevitable in long-term relationships.
There are five primary components to a discussion about an emotional injury. These five steps are from the Gottmans’ Aftermath of a Fight or Regrettable Incident booklet. A couple should focus on describing how they feel, expressing their individual personal realities, exploring any underlying triggers, taking responsibility and apologizing, and forming productive plans for healing.
Couples are often either “gridlocked” or “in dialogue” on their perpetual problems, and research suggests that these problems concern personality differences or core fundamental needs. Being in dialogue, the preferred status, is when the couple has learned to accept their differences on that topic even though minor arguments arise occasionally. Overall, the couple has made peace on the issue and they agree to disagree.
Moving from gridlock to dialogue involves examining the meaning and dreams that form the basis for each partner’s steadfast perspective. Each partner may be able to find a way to honor their partner’s dreams, which often amounts to fulfilling a core need regarding the issue at stake.
Those couples who successfully navigate a recurring problem in their relationship have learned to express acceptance of their partner’s personality, and they can talk about and appreciate the underlying meaning of each other’s position on the issue.
All relationships have perpetual problems that crop up throughout your lives as a couple. Psychologist Dan Wile once said that “when choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems.” No one escapes this fact. Fortunately, we have real science that helps couples learn how to manage such conflicts and keep their love alive and well.
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Dr. Marni Feuerman, LCSW, LMFT is in private practice in Boca Raton, Florida where she specializes in couples therapy. Dr. Marni is certified in Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) and Discernment Counseling. She also blogs on About.com, Huffington Post and Dr. Oz’s ShareCare. For more information, visit her website.
Originally published at www.gottman.com. Want to improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less? Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up for The Marriage Minute here.