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Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems

Knowing the difference between the types of problems all couples have is the key to avoiding gridlock.

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When thinking about conflict in a relationship, it is important to ascertain whether a problem is solvable or perpetual. Sixty-nine percent of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. All couples have them. These problems are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face. They are either fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs.

Instead of solving perpetual problems, what seems to be important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue about them. If they cannot establish such a dialogue, the conflict becomes gridlocked, and gridlocked conflict eventually leads to emotional disengagement. In today’s post, we want to take the opportunity to explain the difference between a solvable problem, a perpetual problem, and a gridlocked perpetual problem.

  • Solvable problems can be about housecleaning, disciplining children, sex, and in-laws. Solvable problems for one couple can be about the exact same topics that could be perpetual problems for a different couple. A solvable problem within a relationship is about something situational. The conflict is simply about that topic, and there may not be a deeper meaning behind each partner’s position. A solution can be found and maintained.
  • Perpetual problems are problems that center on either fundamental differences in your personalities, or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. All couples have perpetual problems. These issues can seemingly be about the exact same topics as what for another couple might be solvable; however, unlike a solvable problem, these are the problems that a couple will return to over and over and over again.
  • Gridlocked perpetual problems are perpetual problems that have been mishandled and have essentially calcified into something “uncomfortable.” When a couple tries to discuss a gridlocked issue, it can feel like they are “spinning their wheels” and getting nowhere. The nature of gridlock is that hidden agendas underlie the issue.

The Gottman Method focuses on building emotional intelligence and developing skills for managing conflict and enhancing friendship to help couples create a system of shared meaning in your relationship. What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but rather the affect with which they are discussed. The goal should be to establish a dialogue about the perpetual problem that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem, rather than allowing it to fall into the condition of gridlock. Gridlocked discussions only lead to painful exchanges or icy silence, and almost always involve the Four Horsemen (criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness).

Learn how to recognize if a perpetual problem in your relationship has become gridlocked in our next blog post, which you can read here.


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Michael Fulwiler is the former Chief Marketing Officer of The Gottman Institute. He has a B.A. with Honors in English from the University of Washington. Outside of work, Michael is a baseball coach and cautiously optimistic Seattle Mariners fan.

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