Always fight about the same things? Find out what’s really at the root of your problem.
After decades of being relationship experts who help guide others through their challenges, my husband and I decided to treat ourselves to a workshop for couples, created by the Gottman Institute. We figured that everyone could use a “relationship tune-up” from time to time — even those of us who are seasoned relationship healers.
The Gottmans conducted 40 years of research to clarify the indicators of future divorce and they offer trainings to couples for improving their chances of success. It’s based on their rich scientific documentation of watching couples in action and seeing first-hand what damages the trust and love between two people. Why not prevent the negative impact in the first place with information and guidelines for conflict resolution?
We took the training in a spirit of curiosity, wondering what else we could learn to master love and heal some of our own blind spots. Like everyone else, our own past conditioning impacts our ability to love. We pass onto our clients the best of what we’ve learned in our own relationship. We believe everyone can create a healthy, secure and passionate partnership if they want to learn how.
We had a huge, unexpected epiphany during the workshop: All couples, even the most secure and functional ones, have perpetual problems they cannot resolve.
This realization allowed much of our unspoken stress to melt away. We realized that we don’t have to have complete alignment on all of our most precious issues! Whew! The fact is some of our problems will last our entire lifetime together. And there are ways we could create harmony and intimate love out of those differences — even the big ones.
Gottman’s research reveals that 69% of the time, when a couple was asked to talk about an area of continuing disagreement, they discussed one of their perpetual issues. These are ongoing differences between them that can re-emerge. The remaining 31% of the time, the problems discussed by the couple were solvable, meaning the topic was situational and an actual solution could be found and sustained. These are usually one-time issues, and they don’t reflect the fundamental differences between the partner’s personalities or lifestyle needs.
All couples have perpetual problems. So we can give up the idea and expectation that we have to change who we are or what we need. We can feel positive about the other person and the relationship as a whole while having perpetual problems. If a couple expects significant challenges to arise and they have tools to handle them, there won’t be a sense of constant disappointment or failure within the relationship. Conflicts that arise are seen as normal, and the focus is on a peaceful resolution rather than resistance to the reality of differences between you.
What matters most is that both partners commit to a generous spirit of compromise to resolve important concerns together. Without the proper communication tools and without caring for each other’s unique needs, perpetual problems can become “gridlock problems,” which often send a couple into disconnection, discontent or a crisis. If this happens too often, they can become perpetually dissatisfied with the other, and their estrangement will erode their trust and commitment. Healthy love can’t grow in this toxic environment.
Here is one example of a perpetual problem that was solved with compromise and care:
The Challenge: Jake is a night owl and he goes to bed after midnight. Laura wakes up at dawn and goes to bed shortly after dinner. They’re having difficulty keeping sexual intimacy alive because of their incompatible sleep schedules.
The Compromise: With compassion for the other’s biorhythms, they accept that this difference will last a lifetime. They agree to not take it personally, and they acknowledge that they can’t change to be like their partner. Jake agrees to go to bed with Laura three or four nights a week so they can have sex before she falls asleep, and he gets up after she’s asleep to continue his late night work and entertainment. Other times, they agree that Jake will lovingly text Laura to come back into bed in the mornings so they can have sex before he goes to work. They agree that they’ll sleep in together on Sunday mornings for some sweet and sacred connection time.
Such a practical solution might seem obvious, yet it is crucial for a couple to thrive. When a couple respects and honors each other’s different personalities and needs , they can delight in each other instead of being disappointed in them. A healthy couple accepts that there will always be essential differences between them and they know that some problems can be resolved easily while others will be perpetual and require a caring approach. Learning to constructively dialogue about the “big issues” allows for continual growth and connection, rather than the fear of rejection or judgment.
So how can you and your partner understand each other? These are the guidelines I proposed to my partner, which he readily accepted:
1. Be Accepting: We accept there are some problems that will never go away or be fully resolved. We will find a peaceful way to manage them without expecting our partner to change. We do expect our partner to respectfully care for our concerns and do their best to compromise while remaining authentic.
2. Be Discerning: We will clarify the difficult issues by talking respectfully and learning what the other person values. We will seek to support our partnership wherever possible. We will see our problems as an opportunity for further growth and learning together.
3. Be Committed: We are committed to the long-term success of our partnership and will do whatever it takes to make us both feel safe and happy. We commit to love each other and to honor the other person’s true self. We trust our partner to do their best to make changes when they can.
4. Be Generous: We choose to be generous in caring about the other’s needs and satisfying them — even if they are not fulfilling our needs at the moment. Many conflicts arise from asking whose needs are more important. We consider our needs to be equally important, and when we can’t be generous, we focus on finding a compromise. Overall, though, we do expect this flow of generosity to be fairly balanced.
5. Be Truthful: We commit to speaking our truth in a kind and caring way and to continue to develop skills that enable us to manage repetitive conflicts. Our primary goal is to deepen our secure, loving connection by expanding our capacity to care and to keep learning so we can dive even deeper into love.
Your relationship is a tapestry woven of both similarities and differences in personality and lifestyle choices.You can make requests of your partner to change. If they want to do so, you are blessed. If they can’t or won’t, then the next step is to mutually care for each other’s needs with love and respect. Many different species of plants can live in the same garden in harmony.
Explore how you can best honor and care for each other’s concerns and be as generous as you can authentically be. Learn the skills of loving compromise and manage perpetual problems without making them major issues in your life. They’ll be there, accompanying you, during your long journey together so accept them as part of loving someone. That’s what healthy love is and that’s what healthy love does.
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