According to John Gottman, world-renowned marriage and couples researcher, the majority of relationship problems never get resolved. Over many decades of studying couples, he and fellow researcher, Robert Levenson, found that 69% of problems are “perpetual” based on personality differences between partners.
If you’re rethinking your vows, hang tight. There’s good news.
In his best-selling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman outlines two types of problems: solvable and unsolvable.
Solvable problems are ones that require you to actively look for a solution, which, more often than not, includes compromise. They’re problems that just need a little work. Your toolkit would include problem-solving, keeping an open mind, and flexibility.
Unsolvable problems require a different set of tools. You can’t throw solutions at an unsolvable problem because that only leads to one partner feeling slighted and ignored. Instead, you have to ask for what you need, hear what your partner is saying, and know where your sensitivities are coming from.
Here are five tools to add to your unsolvable problem toolkit:
1. Understand where the problem is coming from
The first step in dealing with an ongoing problem in your relationship is to understand your own position on the matter. What does the issue mean to you? What does it touch on in your past and bring up for you? What values is it attached to? Knowing yourself well is the key to being able to communicate well.
2. Get to know one another’s sensitivities and triggers
Once you know your own story around the issue, your task is to share it with your partner. When I’m working with a couple preparing for marriage, I tell them that the goal is to get to know themselves and each other better so they can communicate their needs and learn how to walk gently around one another’s sensitivities. Knowing what triggers you is just the beginning. You have to let your partner in on it too.
3. Create the right atmosphere for positive discussion
Attempting to start a conversation around difficult topics at the wrong time always ends in disaster — raised voices, heightened emotions, words spoken that you can’t take back, and a stronger urge to sweep the issue under the rug. To avoid such a catastrophe, you have to create the right atmosphere. Ask your partner if now’s a good time to talk. If it isn’t, set a date and time and stick to your commitment. Put away all distractions and devote enough time to tackle the topic at hand.
4. Learn to listen
Earlier I stressed the importance of communicating your story to your partner but the most important tool you can learn is listening. Most couples get gridlocked on an issue because one, or both, of them doesn’t feel heard by the other. As you learn to become a better listener, make sure you’re focusing on what your partner is saying without formulating your next argument in your head. Reflect back what you heard and track with what they’re saying to you. In every conversation, put the priority on listening over speaking.
5. Change your perspective
My graduate school supervisor would famously repeat, “Marriage is just the management of differences.” And while that may sound wholly unromantic, it’s true. Being in a long-term relationship requires you to work around your dissimilarities. After all, you come from different upbringings, have different personalities, show and accept love differently, and ultimately need different things from one another.
You can learn how to manage your differences by knowing each other and communicating well, but you can also do so by changing your perspective.
Instead of seeing your diversity as a stumbling block, learn to laugh at each other’s quirks, embrace how every piece contributes to the whole, and don’t be afraid to give yourselves a hard time when you start arguing over the same thing again.
If you can learn how to communicate your sensitivities and needs, listen to and make your partner feel heard, and embrace the ways your differences make your relationship unique, then your unsolvable problems simply become opportunities for growth. While they may never be fully resolved, they do become pathways to deeper understanding of one another which results in deeper intimacy and connection.
And that’s certainly good news.