Moving from Gridlock to Dialogue

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Do you feel hopelessly stuck over a problem that you and your spouse just can't solve? If so, learning to cope with the conflict may seem impossible, and you might fear your relationship is doomed. But don't despair. Many couples learn to deal with their gridlocked problems and build happy, successful relationships.

A key to dealing with a gridlocked problem is to remember that you don't have to solve the problem. It might never go away completely. Your goal, according to researcher John Gottman, is to move "from gridlock to dialogue." He says couples need to "declaw" a gridlocked problem-to take the pain out of the issue so you can talk about it without hurting each other. Once you're able to do that, you can learn to live with almost any perpetual problem.1

Hopes and Dreams: The Root Cause of Gridlocked Problems

The first step in overcoming gridlock is to find the root cause of your conflict. Generally, gridlocked conflicts are a sign that one or both of you have deep dreams that aren't being respected or realized. Dreams, by Gottman's definition, are "the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life."1 Dreams can be practical or profound, or a combination of both. For example, underlying the practical dream of owning a home may be the profound dream of personal independence.

Happy couples realize it's important to support and join each other's dreams. Neither partner should be expected to bury dreams or insist that the other give up his or hers. Instead, they both share their desires and goals, then work out together how to fulfill them. The challenge comes when dreams conflict with one another: She wants their children to grow up near her family, but he wants to work for an international firm and travel the world. She wants to attend an expensive college, but he wants to quit his high-paying management job and open a restaurant.

Below are four detailed examples of perpetual marital conflicts. In three of the examples, you're ask to identify the deeper dream underlying the couple's conflict. This exercise will help you learn to look for the dreams behind your own gridlocked conflicts.

Case No. 1

Conflict: Rita loves children and has always looked forward to having a big family. But Dave doesn't feel ready for children and doesn't know if he ever will. This difference is a source of major tension and hurt feelings between them.

Dreams: Rita feels that children represent joy. She grew up in a large family and her siblings are some of her best friends. Her dream is to have many children and give them the same wonderful growing up experience she had.

Dave feels that children represent responsibility. His parents were always struggling to make ends meet for him and his brothers. His dream is to feel secure, and he fears that the expense and stress of children would threaten the comfort and security he and Rita enjoy.

Case No. 2

Conflict: Cheri enjoys being at home. She doesn't feel comfortable going out to parties and thinks socializing is often superficial and unfulfilling. She would rather relax in the comfort of her own house. Jared likes to go out on the town. He enjoys meeting new people and feels suffocated and trapped when Cheri wants to stay home every weekend.

Dreams: Identify Cheri and Jared's dreams behind their conflict.

Case No. 3

Conflict: Lisa needs her home to be neat and tidy, but she gets tired of doing all the housework and feels like no one helps her or appreciates what she does. Greg doesn't mind a little clutter and doesn't see why Lisa is always nagging him to clean up.

Dreams: Identify Lisa and Greg's dreams behind their conflict.

Case No. 4

Conflict: Amy thinks her husband is too stingy with their money. She thinks they have more than enough for their needs and wants them to have more fun. John thinks Amy is short-sighted and impractical about spending money. He thinks they should save and invest, not blow their money on frivolous things.

Dreams: Identify Amy and John's dreams behind their conflict.

Dialogue: The Key to Unlocking Gridlock

Now that you've practiced looking for the dreams behind conflicts, here are steps to help you overcome gridlock:

  1. Together, choose a gridlocked issue to work on.
  2. Separately write down an explanation of your position. Write how you feel and what you want and need. Don't criticize your spouse or blame him or her for the problem.
  3. Write about the hidden dreams that underlie your position. Why is this issue so important to you? Is there anything in your past or your childhood that explains why you feel so strongly? What is the deeper meaning of this issue for you?
  4. Now it's time to talk-to dialogue with one another. Each of you should talk for fifteen minutes about what you've written. When it's your turn to talk, don't try to solve the problem. Don't even talk about the conflict, if possible. Talk only about your feelings and your dreams behind the conflict. Help your spouse understand why this issue is so meaningful to you and what it symbolizes for you. Be clear and honest. Talk softly and gently-no insults or name-calling.
  5. When it's your turn to listen, don't interrupt, don't judge, and don't think about how to refute your spouse's position. Listen as a friend listens. Your spouse is telling you one of his or her dreams. Listen and help him or her explore it more deeply.
  6. Express understanding and support of your partner's dream, even if you don't share it or believe it can be realized. The important thing is to support each other and honor one another's dreams.
  7. Now that you each understand the significance of the issue to the other person, is there something you can do to deal with it more effectively? How can you both change your behavior to improve the situation, be flexible? How can you show support for your spouse's dream, even though it is different from your own? If possible, come up with a compromise that you can try out and modify as needed.

Gottman provides an example of a couple tackling an ongoing problem over housecleaning. The gridlocked issue is: She wants an immaculate house and he wants her to relax and enjoy the clutter. They hold conflicting dreams about their home environment: for her, its order and security; for him, freedom to be himself at home. As they discuss their dreams, non-negotiable areas emerge: She's unwilling to tolerate dirty dishes or messy bathrooms and he can't tolerate having to clean up his papers right after completing some work at home. Next it's time to identify areas of flexibility. She's willing to tolerate clutter so long as it isn't dirty, and he's willing to help keep the bathrooms and kitchen clean so long as he isn't nagged about his clutter. Ultimately they strike a compromise to try out: They both agree to take responsibility for keeping the kitchen and bathrooms. She agrees to leave him alone about his clutter save once a week. If he doesn't clean up, she'll pile up his stuff and set it aside in the home office.1

Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage workNew York: Crown.