How can you solve perpetual problems that seem unsolvable?
Well, sometimes, you can’t.
But some other times, you can.
Or you can work around them.
This article helps you address perpetual relationship problems.
Note: this article is based on John Gottman‘s research.
Gottman uses alternatively “unsolvable problems” and “perpetual problems”, and I will also use them interchangeably.
- What Are Perpetual Problems
- Gridlock: When Problems Get Problematic
- How to Solve Unsolvable Problems
- Unsolvable Problems Checklist
What Are Perpetual Problems
This is a definition of “perpetual problem:
Perpetual problems cover the areas of friction, disagreements or problems that a couple finds difficult to solve once and for all and that keep re-occuring over and over again.
The reasons why fixing perpetual problems is difficult vary, and it includes personality traits, deep beliefs, irreconcilable habits, or a difficulty or unwillingness to change.
Types of Relationship Problems
To help understand relationship problems it’s helpful to put them into contest.
Relationship researcher John Gottman says there are three types of relationship problems:
- Solvable problems are topic related and situational. It can be about a disagreement on where to go for dinner, or on where to spend Christmas. They have no deeper meaning behind the issue and you can solve them with a compromise or an ad-hoc solution.
- Perpetual problems cannot be solved because they center around completely different ways of seeing the world, different or contrasting values or different personality traits and preferences. For example deciding where to spend to Christmas could be a perpetual problem if she wants to spend lots of time with her family together with him while he prefers alone time with her
- Gridlocked perpetual problems are perpetual problems that the couple has not handled well and that have become chronic and painful issues in the relationship. For example if every Thursday it’s an argument on spending the weekend with her family and he is passive aggressive every time he goes, that’s a gridlocked perpetual problem.
Relationship Perpetual Problems Examples
Here are some examples of unsolvable problems:
- Frequency of sex (one wants or needs it more often)
- Spending habits (savers VS spender)
- Family ties (spends lots of times with family of origin VS highly independent)
- Socializing (wants to go out a lot VS stay at home partner)
- Organizational requirements (tidy VS disorganized)
- Time management (advance planner VS last minute planner or no planner)
- Family planning (wants children VS doesn’t want children)
- Relationship status (marriage / just sex)
You will notice that lots of these problems relate to deeply entrenched personality traits.
It can even be as simple as being on time VS not being on time.
And since people rarely change, most of these issue will not find a permanent solution most of the times.
And that’s OK, for some types of problems.
But it can get more complex when the differences relate to the relationship itself.
Ted and Robin in the series “How I Met Your Mother” were fighting against those types of unsolvable problems that doom a relationship.
See here an example:
Ted made the mistake of trying to solve one of those unsolvable problems that doom relationships.
Some women have done the same with yours truly, and that didn’t end up well:
However, there are also plenty of perpetual problems that are totally OK.
The skill is in knowing which is which.
Gridlock: When Problems Get Problematic
John Gottman says that some perpetual problems can turn the whole relationship sour.
This can happen when the problem is too big and important to both.
However, it can also happen when the problem is not really huge.
How can that be the case?
Small perpetual problems can become huge problems when one or both partners have a poor attitude towards it.
Indeed, says Gottman, most of the times it’s not about the origin or cause of the problem but it’s about attitude.
It’s when partners refuse influence from each other and adopt a negative view of each other that unsolvable problems ruin the relationship.
One partner cannot accept that their partner is different than they are and start seeing their whole partner’s personality in a negative light.
They either dig their heels refusing to budge or “go underground” by refusing to discuss the issue and silently build resentment.
Each partner starts believing they are “right” and “good” while the other is “wrong” and “the villain of the relationship”.
Example of Gridlocked Problem
The movie Blue Valentine has an example of unsolvable problem which has become a gridlocked problem:
You will notice she is ambitious while he is not.
She has not accepted how he is, and she is also not dealing with the issue openly. She comes across as judgmental and unhappy with him. While he feels under fire and becomes highly defensive.
How to Solve Unsolvable Problems
Before I started delving into relationship literature, I thought that any successful couple had no unsolvable problems, by definition.
I was terribly wrong.
John Gottman says that every couple has unsolvable problems. And it just makes sense if you think about it: unsolvable problems relate to being different.
And since the chances of being exactly the same are quite slim, we will all have some unsolvable problem to deal with.
But here is the point:
Unsolvable problem will not ruin the relationship if we deal with them well.
Here is how to do it:
1. Prevent It By Finding A Compatible Partner
Somebody once said that when you marry someone you also marry a set of problems.
That is so true.
But the solution is simple: when deciding who to partner with, make sure must make sure that the problems between you two are problems you can live with.
Therefore a great and often underappreciated relationship skill is learning how to date and prospect.
2. Approach With Open Mind
You can approach the conflict with an open mind and a negotiator mindset.
That means looking for solutions instead seeking “victory”.
Talking about problems with an open mind will also get you into a mindset that you can talk about anything with your partner and that together you can solve any problem.
Now that’s a great mindset to possess.
And if you learn some basics of negotiation and “pie-enlarging” strategies, that will surely help (check out the best negotiation books).
3. Don’t Try to Change Your Partner
It’s almost common knowledge that trying to change people doesn’t work.
And John Gottman found out in his laboratory experiments that couple trying to change each other rarely improved their relationship.
The same related issue is trying to solve the problem in a way that you benefit the most. That’s a bit like expecting and forcing your partner to change.
In the long run these “solutions” either don’t hold or build resentment.
Again, think win-win instead and try to meet around the middle.
4. Understand Your Partner
Talking your issues is a great opportunity to better understand your partner and build emotional intimacy.
What to they like best, why, where can they compromise, what are they going to be happy with?
That’s the mindset of turning obstacles into opportunities.
5. Pick Your Battles
Let’s be practical here.
Maybe you want to spend every weekend with your partner, throw the trash out every single day, clean the dishes the second you finish eating and never watch an action movie/football match with him.
But instead of going for every single item on your list, how about prioritizing and asking what’s most important to you?
Pick your battle and differentiate what you need from what you really want and what would be nice to have.
6. Argue Well
We have talked a lot here about arguing well.
We introduced the four horsemen of the apocalypse and we explained what they are and how to avoid them.
For a deeper review check:
Here suffice to say that the basic of arguing well is to approach the conflict with an open mind and wanting to understand your partner first.
Only after seeking to understand seek to be understood and then address the issue with a win-win mindset.
If the conflict is highly emotional, it can help to prepare your approach in advance.
Here are some very good resources for dealing with difficult conversations:
7. Communicate Directly
Unsolvable problems often fester because we don’t feel like we can be fully honest with our partner.
The example from Blue Valentine is a good example of a gridlocked issue where neither partner is owning up to their side of the problem.
Her side of the problem is:
- I wish we could be more well off
- I sometimes wish you were more driven
- I would like to see you leverage and use your talent
His side of the problem is:
- I feel like you are judging me
- I want you to communicate your thoughts freely
- I am happy with my life the way it is, are you happy with yours
If the two of them had discussed their position in full honesty, they would have gone to the heart of that issue. And they’d have had a chance to fix it.
8. Accept Some Problems Will Take Time
If you are already gridlocked, have some realistic expectations.
It’s possible you will make strides, but it’s also possible that it will take some time to bring the situation to a point where you both can be happy.
The first immediate goal should be to first stop resenting your partner.
It can help to lay out a plan of the “bare minimum” you can tolerate:
- The bare minimum you require
- Your areas of flexibility
- A first draft of resolution
From then on, you can slowly move towards positive territory.
Unsolvable Problems Checklist
So far we reviewed that:
- Problems are unavodable
- Some problems are unsolvable, and they’re also unavoidable
- Unavoidable problems don’t (necessarily) undermine a relationship
- When unavoidable problems become gridlocked they ruin the relationship
The question then is: are your unsolvable problems gridlocked?
Here is a checklist to find out:
- You don’t talk about the problem (anymore), and yet it still pains you
- It feels like a war is about to break up when you broach the topic
- You talk about it, but nothing ever moves forward
- Both of you are entrenched in your position
- You are both more intent on getting your way than meeting middle ground
- Nobody has ever tried to put themselves in the other partner’s shoes
- When you talk about it, it can get mean and nasty
- The issue gets bigger with time
- You are disengaging from each other
- When you think about your partner, you think of gridlocked relationship problems
- You start resenting your partner
If that’s your case, don’t worry, it’s never to late to start an open, honest communication.
It can help if your partner as well reads this article. Two of you are much more powerful than one.
Every relationship has unsolvable problems because they simply stem from the differences in our personalities, values and background.
Worry not, unsolvable problems do not have to be a threat to the relationship.
If you can tackle them with humor and understanding, they can even spice up the relationship.
It’s when the unsolvable problems undermine your team-spirit that they risk starting a vicious circle that unhinge your relationship.
This article explained how to address and solve unsolvable relationship problems.