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  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • January 2018
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Partnering with a perpetual set of problems

According to Dan Wile, in his book, “After the Honeymoon,” “There is value, when choosing a long-term partner, in realizing that you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems, with which you’ll be grappling, for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.” There is wisdom in selecting a set of problems with which you can live. If you were not in a relationship with your current partner, you might not have the problems you have now, however, you would have a different set of problems. Sadly, our partners are just not as perfect as we are, and we must learn to coexist and dialogue our way through the inevitable conflict that arises. 

According to John Gottman’s research, there are two different kinds of problems: solvable problems and perpetual problems. Solvable problems are “solvable” because they are situational; 39 percent of problems, about which couples argue, fall into this solvable category. The dishes don’t get put into the dishwasher because your partner didn’t think to load them, didn’t know the dishwasher had dirty dishes or they don’t “see” the dirty dishes in the sink. If you say to your partner, using your best softened startup, “I feel frustrated that there are dirty dishes in the sink. Would you be willing to load them into the dishwasher?” Your partner may respond, “Sure, I can do that” (problem solved) or “I didn’t know if the dishes were clean or dirty.” If the response is, “I didn’t know if the dishes were clean or dirty,” a sign can be created that reads, “Clean dishes or dirty dishes.” Again, problem solved. 

Sixty nine percent of problems, about which couples argue, are perpetual problems. These problems are not solvable because they are not situational problems. Let’s go back to the dirty dishes. You use your best softened startup, “I feel frustrated that there are dirty dishes in the sink, would you be willing to load them into the dishwasher?” Your partner may respond, “Sure, I can do that”; however, the next day, the dirty dishes remain in the sink. When you ask your partner for clarification, “I just forgot” or “Why do I have to do everything around here?” may be the reply. Welcome to the land of perpetual problems. 

Though it appears that the conflict is about the dishes; it is not. The conflict is about wanting things to be fair, ideas about which chores should be performed by whom, autonomy and control or any number of other reasons. Efforts to fix perpetual problems only lead to frustration and anger; both partners feel disrespected and unloved, and, eventually, gridlock occurs. When a couple becomes gridlocked, they stop talking about the problem or trying to solve it. Each time the perpetual problem occurs the partners have thoughts such as, “I’m not going to waste my breath. It does no good to even try to talk him (or her).” One gridlocked issue tends to lead to more gridlocked issues, which lead to resentment and the two of you beginning to live parallel lives. 

For many couples, the following issues become perpetual problems: chores, finances, raising and disciplining children, sex and spirituality. There are many right ways to navigate these issues; you are both right and you disagree. Trying to convince your partner that you are right and they are wrong will only create greater conflict and hurt. The two of you will polarize one another; you will both become more extreme in your positions because you will try to balance your partner’s “unreasonable” position. For example, if one of you is strict when disciplining the children, the other will become more lenient to “protect” the children from the stricter parent. You are both right; children need limits and they need to be heard and loved. The differences in your parenting styles can lead to both of you becoming better parents if you don’t try to “win.” The solution is to create a respectful dialogue.

If the two of you can learn to ask one another open-ended questions and listen closely to the answers, then your relationship can escape the anger and resentment that comes with trying to win the fight. There is no such thing as “winning a fight” — if one of you loses, you both lose. It is not a zero sum game. Developing a deeper understanding of one another’s beliefs, values, experiences and life dreams makes it easier to create space for one another’s opinions and actions. You will begin to see that your partner is not “unreasonable.” Their emotions, thoughts and actions make complete sense. Their behavior is based on reason, and if you want to know their reasons, ask questions. Using the phrase, “Help me to understand… (…what dirty dishes in the sink mean to you)” is a great conversation opener. Do not ask “Why?” because “why” really means, “Explain your idiotic logic to me” and creates a felt sense of criticism. Instead, ask questions that begin with “who, what, when and how.” Develop a curiosity about your partner’s inner world; when those perpetual problems arise (and they will), you can work with your partner to create a temporary compromise, or a partial solution, based on mutual love, respect and grace. 


Reference: “After the honeymoon.” Wile D.B. 1988.

 

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