Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems

Great relationships develop not from the absence of conflict, but from determining an agreeable pattern for how to resolve the dispute. Conf...

Great relationships develop not from the absence of conflict, but from determining an agreeable pattern for how to resolve the dispute. Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship. After all, two people can’t be expected to agree on everything, all the time. Learning how to deal with conflict—rather than avoiding it—is crucial. When conflict is mismanaged, it can cause great harm to a relationship, but when handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict provides an opportunity to strengthen the bond between two people.

Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems
All of us have conflicts in our relationships. Sometimes they’re just simple disagreements, while other times they’re awful battles. Here are six specific skills that will help you to manage your conflicts with your partner and transform them into opportunities for greater understanding, compromise, and compassion. 

The six skills for Managing Conflict are: 

  • Practice Physiological Self-Soothing
  • Use Softened Startup 
  • Repair and De-Escalate 
  • Listen to Your Partner’s Underlying Feelings and Dreams 
  • Accept Influence 
  • Compromise 

When thinking about conflict in a relationship, it is important to ascertain whether a problem is solvable or perpetual. Our research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about endless problems. All couples have them – these questions are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face. They are either 1) key differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict, or 2) significant differences in your lifestyle needs. In our research, we concluded that instead of solving their constant problems, what seems to be important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue with them. If they cannot create such a dialogue, the conflict becomes gridlocked, and gridlocked conflict eventually leads to emotional disengagement.

In today’s posting, we want to take the opportunity to explain the difference between a solvable problem, a perpetual problem, and a gridlocked constant 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 constant challenges for a different couple. A solvable problem within a relationship is about something situational. The conflict is simply about that subject, and there may not be a deeper meaning behind the each partner’s position. A solution can be found and maintained. 

Perpetual problems are problems that center on either significant differences in your personalities, or fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. All couples have persistent 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 constant problems that have been mishandled and have mainly 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 problem.

The Gottman Method focuses on building emotional intelligence and developing skills for managing conflict and enhancing friendship to help couples (like you!) create a system of shared meaning in your relationship. What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but rather the effect with which they are discussed. The goal should be to establish a dialogue about the constant 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 sharp exchanges or icy silence, and almost always involve the Four Horsemen (criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness). In Thursday’s blog posting, we will explain how to recognize if a perennial problem in your relationship has become gridlocked and begin conversations about it.

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