Improved communication skills = improved fighting skills.
What is the *one* thing you and your partner always seem to fight about?
Is it who does the most chores around the house or cares for the kids more? That they have a friend or family member you don’t like? That they make jokes that irritate you or they don’t like to be very social?
Every couple has at least*one* thing that they fight about again and again, that they can never seem to resolve. These are called “perpetual” or “unsolvable” problems, and they’re perfectly normal in a relationship.
In fact, according to research done by the Gottman Institute, about 70% of all problems within your relationship will be “perpetual,” as in ongoing problems.
What are “perpetual” problems?
Perpetual problems often arise due to your personalities. You and your partner have fundamental differences that will make you disagree with one another on how to navigate them.
You’ll often get into “gridlock” whenever the problem is brought up because you both have set stances and don’t understand how the other can think the way they do.
Below are signs that you and your partner have encountered a “perpetual” problem (this is explored more here):
- Any conflict over the problem ends the same way.
- No compromise that feels good to both people is reached.
- You tend to feel not heard, frustrated, and hurt every time it’s discussed.
- You leave these discussions angry at your partner and like they’re the “enemy.”
What are “solvable” problems?
Just like it sounds, “solvable” problems are ones that you and your partner can solve. You don’t get stuck in gridlock. You come to some kind of agreement or compromise that works for the both of you, you accept it, and let it go.
It’s important to note that sometimes “solvable” problems become unsolvable because of communication issues or a lack of desire to compromise.
Also a problem that is “solvable” for one couple may be “unsolvable” for another. There are no hard and fast rules for what would be perpetual vs. solvable problems because every relationship is unique.
How to deal with perpetual problems
Often the reason why “unsolvable” problems aren’t able to be navigated is because we’re focusing on the more superficial aspect of the conflict.
For example, you’re angry that your partner doesn’t get to the dishes in a reasonable timeframe. You constantly fight over the dang dishes.
“The dishes” is the superficial aspect of the problem. The deeper aspect of the problem is that you don’t feel appreciated in the relationship. You regularly do all the cooking, and since you end up doing the dishes too, it takes you longer to complete meals.
A compromise for the dishes problem might be that you don’t do the laundry anymore, so you have the time and energy to be able to do the cooking AND cleaning dishes. Or you might prefer to just get more verbal affirmations, so you know they appreciate all of your efforts to keep your family fed. The compromise you and your partner decide will depend on what makes sense for the two of you.
1. Get clear about the problem
When you encounter an unsolvable or perpetual problem, here are some questions to ask yourself first:
- What do I feel when this problem occurs? (Unappreciated, unloved, sad, etc.)
- Would fixing the problem actually help you feel happy? )For example, your partner doing the dishes may not fix how you don’t feel appreciated.)
- What is the deeper need I would like met when this problem occurs? (“I need them to do the dishes” isn’t the kind of need I mean here. This would be more like, “I need to feel safe/secure/loved/appreciated,” etc.)
- What would be my ideal solution? What could I live with? What would be unacceptable?
2. Prepare for a discussion
Once you’ve answered those questions, it’s time to formulate how you’d approach the situation with your partner.
In McKay's book titled Couple Skills, he outlines a very specific way of negotiating with our partner:
I think (facts):
I feel (emotions):
I want (interests):
I need (intangibles):
Perhaps we could (tentative solutions):
Notice that every statement begins with I/we. This helps ensure our partner doesn’t respond defensively (this is also called a “soft startup” by Dr. Gottman).
Here’s an example of how this would play out. Remember this would be a conversation, not just a monologue.
I think (facts): “I want to discuss the dishes. They’re not getting done in a reasonable time for me to cook every day, so often when I go to cook a meal, I have to wash dishes first, which means I’m spending more time than I’d like to get meals out to our family.”
I feel (emotions): “I feel frustrated having to do the dishes before I cook when we agreed that you would get to them.”
I want (interests): “I want to come up with an arrangement for doing the dishes that works for both of us.”
I need (intangibles): “I need to feel appreciated for how much time and effort it takes for me to cook for our family. I spend a lot of time making sure we all eat healthy.”
Perhaps we could (tentative solutions): “I know you’re tired once you get home from work and hate doing housework. I feel the same way. What about if we hired a housekeeper to help take off some of the burden from the both of us?”
To set ourselves and our partner up for success, it’s often helpful to schedule a time to talk.
For example, you might say to your partner, “I’d really like to talk about the dishes situation. Can we do it tonight after the kids get to bed?”
That way: 1.) you both know what’s going to be discussed and 2.) it’ll happen at a time you’re both prepared for, thus no one feels blindsided and can prepare for accordingly.
Once you sit down to discuss, make sure to be clear that you don’t want to blame/accuse, etc. You want to focus on coming up with an outcome that works for both of you.
4. Stay focused.
If things start to get heated, take a break (of at least 30–60 minutes up to 24 hours) and come back to it. Once someone gets heated, nothing productive will come of that conversation, so it’s important to call a time-out once it does.
If other topics are getting brought up, like your partner retorts, “But I’m tired of doing all of the laundry!” then you can say, “I’d love to talk about that, but right now I’d like to focus on just this situation so we can resolve it before we move onto anything else.”
If you need to, keep repeating to yourself, “I can handle conflict calmly. I can accept compromises. My partner is my teammate, and we will work something out.”
5. Be flexible.
In an ideal world, we’d be told something once and just do it, but life doesn’t often work that way.
You might come up with an initial solution that actually doesn’t work in real life, so it’d be important to have another conversation with your partner and try to brainstorm alternatives.
Know that working things out with your partner often takes time and patience, but it's always worth it.
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