Bad News and Good News
The bad news is that unless you’re partner is your clone, conflict is inevitable. In fact, John Gottman’s research has found that 69% of marital disagreement is unresolvable. The good news is that your perpetual problems don’t have to divide you, if you can learn to move from gridlock to dialogue.
Resolve NOT to Solve It!
The most basic skill to develop in this effort is to resolve not to solve the problem. Yes, that’s right. Agree not to solve the problem, but only to discuss it. If it’s unresolvable, trying to solve it is like trying to make a cat bark. Don’t waste your time and energy, and don’t sacrifice the good will between you and your partner in an effort to do something that’s impossible anyway.
This is an opportunity to get to know your partner better, not to get what you want. With intentionality, you can develop the competencies needed to not solve problems so that you can talk about the differences between you without hurting each other. You can do it!
Common Perpetual Problems
Perpetual problems often have to do with conflicting dreams (hopes, aspirations, wishes, expectations), temperamental differences, and epistemological disparities (how people experience the world and come to know things). (For a list of relational problems that are often perpetual, see The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.)
One of the most common perpetual problems my partner and I have is that Brad makes swift evaluations with new information. He has a grid through which he filters the world and uses it to make speedy judgments. I make my evaluations much more slowly, deliberately collecting all the evidence I can before making an evaluation. This is my grid. This single temperamental difference makes for significant conflict between us, when we’re not careful.
Neither way of seeing the world is right or wrong; they’re simply different…and, at least in part, based on biology—which isn’t going to change. When we can treat differences as just that, different, we can actually have meaningful conversations about issues on which we disagree. When we know that one isn’t trying to convert the other to a point of view that feels wrong, we can simply have a dialogue, rather than a debate.
Look for Hidden Values
When you talk about a perpetual problem, practice the competencies we discussed in the last two posts: talk without criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling. Of course, you may need to intentionally slow down so that you can use the six skills we discussed in yesterday’s post: softened start-up, repair and de-escalation, accepting the influence of your partner, compromise, accepting one another, and soothing.
And remember that the idea isn’t to solve the problem, but to identify the core perpetual issue for each of you. Look for those hidden values that are in conflict.
Identify Non-Negotiables & Areas of Flexibility. Repeat.
Then identify the non-negotiables for each of you, and don’t sacrifice them. At the same time, look for areas of flexibility, so that you can reach a temporary compromise. Remember, this isn’t a problem that you’re going to solve, so you’ll probably have to come back to it over and over again, reaching new temporary compromises. You simply have to accept that this conflict will be on-going. Don’t try to solve it; just purpose to learn about your partner.
Respect Your Powerful Role
Another skill to develop is respect for the powerful role you play in helping your partner achieve his or her dreams. What an honor! No one on this earth can be more influential than you in supporting those dreams, and sacrificing yourself to do so. And by the way, if you feel like you’re the only one making sacrifices, ask your partner about it. He or she will be able to remind you of the sacrifices he or she’s making on your behalf.
Stay in the Present
Sometimes our differences represent damage we’ve incurred in life or the projections we’re making from history onto the present. In our legitimate attempts to prevent our future from being like our past, our fears get in the way of what’s actually happening right now.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss a formula that you can use to open and maintain dialogue about perpetual issues. If you practice this method exactly as described for a while, you can then modify it to make it your own. The important thing to remember is to use it!