In the ‘80s, Dr. John Gottman built the Love Lab, a bed-and-breakfast-looking lab where he would study couple’s dynamics. The results were outstanding, and they established Dr. Gottman as the world expert in predictions of divorce. After spending just a weekend observing the couple, Dr. Gottman could assess if they were heading to divorce, but perhaps more importantly, he could assess what the cause of the divorce would be. That is the hopeful bit, as it gave each couple a greater awareness of their strengths and shortcomings and allowed them to make the necessary changes if they wanted to stay together and thrive in their marriage.
Dr. Gottman argued that some relationship problems are solvable through proper dialogue, but others simply aren’t. He called those “perpetual problems.” These problems are usually caused by personality differences, needs, and expectations that don’t fully match up.
Given that so much of our emotional and even physiological conditions are a result of life experiences that can never identically match up with someone else’s, there is no way we can encounter a partner with whom we don’t face differences. For example, you grew up in a family of savers who taught you that money was always carefully preserved as a means of safety. Then you marry someone who was taught to constantly invest and risk for the sake of growing your family fortune. Opposites attract, so perhaps in the dating stage, you were both excited to learn from the other’s perspective and attitude toward money, but now that you’re a few years into your marriage and trying to make big decisions about home-purchasing, your attitudes toward money have become a point of contention and perhaps even a perpetual problem.
It’s how the couple deals with the perpetual problem that determines if it’s a relationship ender or not.
Gottman presents an interesting point about perpetual problems: It’s how the couple deals with the perpetual problem that determines if it’s a relationship ender or not. If they can talk about it with mutual respect, humor, and clear boundaries, the problem is not a deal-breaker, even if it’s acknowledged that the problem itself will not be resolved.
Most couples attribute the cause of their divorce to “irreconcilable differences.” That usually means that the perpetual problem has overcome them and become more important than their marriage. That is why the element of friendship is so important in marriage. If you care deeply for the other person and their overall well-being, you’re more likely to minimize the perpetual problem. Not in the sense of the problem not having importance, but in the sense that your marriage and the person you took vows with are always more important.
How To Face Your Perpetual Problems
For starters, you both need to be able to articulate the other’s point of view. If you’re unable to do this, then there is no constructive conversation at all. You may not agree with your husband’s spending habits, but you need to be able to state his position in a way that he (this is key!) can feel understood by you.
Next, you need to accept influence from each other. Here is where you let the other person change your mind. You don’t have to fully change your mind, but if you understand the other’s point of view, and you have grown in knowledge about it, whether it’s through conversation with your spouse or your own research on the subject, then you can gain appreciation and find truth in something about it. Now you can let that something create a change in you. If you think about it, we do this as humans all the time. We may read about politics, culture, history, etc. and our attitudes toward certain topics start to evolve as we expand our knowledge.
Lastly, don’t take offense easily. Be clear on the fact that disagreeing is not a matter of lack of love. You can agree to disagree without putting the other party down for their beliefs, and don’t feel as if anyone must be in the right in order to feel fully loved and supported. It’s important to make room for disagreements in relationships. After all, there is no way you will always see eye to eye. I would even add, be cautious if you do, because as one of my high school teachers used to say, “Where two think too alike, one is simply not thinking.”
Be clear on the fact that disagreeing is not a matter of lack of love.
Taking these three points into consideration will help you avoid what Gottman calls Gridlock. That is the stage in which you each stand strong in your stance and become unable to move past it. Moving past it doesn’t mean it’s solved, but that you can discuss it, agree to disagree, and even make light of it without disrespecting each other. This is what matters. This is what makes perpetual problems just that, and not an absolute deal-breaker in your relationship.
Get to the Root of What the Problem Truly Means
Money is one of the most common points of contention in marriages, so let’s go back to the money example. What you may not realize while discussing money with your spouse is that money represents different things for each of you, so as you discuss the subject, some important motivations and meanings are lost in the conversation. It’s almost as if you were each speaking a different language.
Let’s say you value saving because it gives you a sense of security and stability. Seeing your spouse saving makes you feel protected and cared for. Therefore, when he decides to spend money on trips or even investments that you consider risky, this doesn’t sit well with you. On the other hand, your spouse may firmly believe in spending money on experiences and putting money away in the form of investments so it can grow with time, instead of simply sitting in a savings account. The feelings around money are very different in this situation, and it would be more helpful to talk about these perspectives than about money itself. Maybe there is something making you feel unsafe, or there is something more making your spouse feel stagnant. That is the important matter at hand, and the conversation about money will become a lot easier once that is addressed.
Taking marriage vows and believing in life-long love is one of the most beautiful and courageous things you can do. All good fairy tales include adventures and struggles: For Cinderella, it was making it to the ball and gathering the confidence to face the prince with full authenticity. For Rapunzel, it was escaping from the tower and facing the real world. For you, it might be that perpetual problem that requires grit and curiosity in order to navigate it as a couple so it won’t sour your own love story.
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