According to researcher John Gottman, marital conflicts fall into just two categories: solvable and perpetual. Perpetual conflicts show up over and over again. They probably will never disappear from your relationship because they come from fundamental differences in personality: She wants to have a baby but he doesn't want children; he hates clutter but she is a pack-rat; she wants a religious home but he is an atheist.
Every marriage has conflicts like these. As one psychologist said, when you choose a life partner "you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you'll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years."
Fortunately, you don't have to solve perpetual problems to have a happy marriage. You just have to learn to handle them with humor and understanding and not let them overwhelm the relationship. While no relationship is perfect, every relationship can be successful if partners find ways to cope with conflicts and keep moving forward. For help in dealing with perpetual conflicts, see Handling Conflict in Marriage on this website.
Gottman recommends six steps to solving your solvable problems:
Identify solvable problems. The first step is to figure out if a particular problem is perpetual or solvable. Perpetual problems tend to represent deeper issues within a marriage. Characteristics of a perpetual problem include:
If this sounds familiar, you are probably dealing with a gridlocked perpetual problem. For ways to deal with the problem, see Moving from Gridlock to Dialogue on this website.
If your conflict is less painful and less intense than the situation described above, it is probably solvable. Solvable conflicts tend to focus on a particular problematic situation. They are fueled by events rather than by underlying conflicts of belief or personality.
Think about the conflicts in your marriage and which ones may be solvable. For example, imagine one of your conflicts is that your spouse always leaves dirty dishes in the sink when it's his night to do the dishes and you can't stand it. You get upset at him for leaving a mess and he gets upset at you for throwing a fit. You argue until your spouse stomps off to another room or gives you the silent treatment.
If just washing the dishes would keep you from having a big fight, this problem is solvable-it's situational and occurs only because the dishes are dirty.
If, when you argue, you call your spouse lazy and accuse him of not doing his fair share around the house, and he calls you a drill sergeant and accuses you of nagging, the problem may be perpetual-you turn each other into villains. You aren't really arguing over the dishes; you're arguing over deeper values about work, order, and responsibilities in the home.
For more lengthy and detailed exercises on solvable versus perpetual problems, see Gottman's book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Soften your startup. According to Gottman's research, 96% of arguments end on the same note they begin. So if you start an argument with harsh accusations and verbal attacks, you're likely to end it that way. But if you have a softened startup-you begin the discussion without criticizing or attacking your spouse-you're more likely to end the discussion productively.
Here are ways to soften your startup:
Make and receive "repair attempts." A repair attempt is a statement or action aimed at cooling down a heated argument. It's an effort to put the brakes on a negative situation before it spins out of control. Repair attempts are a happy couple's secret weapon. If you're using them successfully, your marriage is probably thriving.
Repair attempts can be subtle or blunt, funny or serious-anything that works to diffuse tension. For example, in the middle of conflict you might say something like "That really hurt my feelings," or "Can we talk about this later?" or "Okay, maybe you're right." You might make a funny face in response to a particularly outrageous comment. These small acts can powerfully decrease tension and ease negativity.
When your spouse makes a repair attempt, what they're saying is that they don't enjoy fighting with you, and they want to stop before things get out of hand. A repair attempt is a way of saying, "Our friendship is more important than this argument."
Learning to make repair attempts and accept your partner's repair attempts will increase your ability to solve problems together. So next time you have a tense discussion, listen carefully. When your spouse says, "Would you please just calm down!" don't shout back "No, I will not calm down! How can I calm down?" Instead, take a deep breath and say, "All right, I'll try to be calm."
Soothe yourself and each other. When an argument gets particularly heated, stop talking, take a break, and relax. Often marital arguments can get so stressful that both people need to stop and let their body and mind calm down.
Gottman uses soothing breaks in every conflict-resolution workshop he runs. At first, he says, couples are annoyed and don't see the point of being forced to stop and relax. But after they do they are calmer, their voices are softer, and they talk and laugh about the issue they had just been fighting over. When they begin talking again, their discussions are invariably more productive.
Here are ways to help you soothe yourself and each other when tensions run high:
Compromise. According to Gottman, "Like it or not, the only solution to marital problems is to find a compromise" (p. 181). A compromise is a solution that both parties feel good about. A relationship where one person always gets his or her way won't work in the long run.
To reach a compromise, first make sure you're softening your startup, repairing your discussion, and staying calm. These steps will help your discussions be positive and productive and will allow you to reach a resolution together.
The key to any compromise is being willing to accept your spouse's influence. You can't compromise without being open to your spouse's opinions and beliefs. Whether you agree with your spouse or not, it's important to at least honestly consider his or her point of view. If you both refuse to budge an inch, you'll get nowhere. Talk about your differences in a calm, open-minded way and search for common ground you can both live with.
Here is an exercise Gottman uses to help couples find common ground:
Communicating basic acceptance of your partner's personality is vital to solving all marital problems. It's impossible for two people to solve their problems when each feels criticized, disliked, or unappreciated by the other.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.