Know Thy Conflict

Have you ever met the “perfect couple?”  You know, the ones that always look happy and appear to be totally in-sync with one another.  You think they can’t possibly fight because they’re perfect together.  Well, guess what?  All couples have conflict.  Successful couples have just learned how to manage their conflicts with more effective strategies.

John Gottman, Ph.D. identified that couples’ disagreements fall into two main categories: those that are resolvable and those that are not.  Specifically, his research found that only 31% of major disagreement were about resolvable issues, which are typically focused on a particular dilemma or situation.  They are also not as intense or painful as unresolvable problems.

The other 69% of major disagreements are about the same things over and over again throughout the duration of the relationship, which is why we call these “perpetual problems.” 

Examples include:

  • Readiness to parent and parenting style 
  • Frequency of sex
  • Spending and saving money
  • Negotiating vacations and time spent with family

Whatever the issue, no headway is ever made on perpetual problems.  Fights can be complex and increasingly frustrating, leaving partners feeling excessively hurt and distrustful of one another.  Eventually, partners who remain gridlocked may “agree to disagree” and sweep their difference under the rug, but in reality they are most likely heading towards a future of loneliness, isolation, and eventual separation.

Perpetual problems occur because no two people are exactly alike and each partner brings his/her own unique personality and set of beliefs into the relationship.  In order for couples to move out of gridlocked fights and into productive conversations, they will need to focus their discussions on their underlying differences, symbolic meaning, and dreams that are fueling the conflict.

If you want to work through conflicts in your relationship, the first step is to identify what type of problem you’re dealing with.  Take some time in the coming weeks to observe the arguments you have with your partner.  See if you can identify which of your conflicts are resolvable and which are based in deeply seated issues.  Be gentle and non-judgmental during your exploration and remember that you are working together to find new solutions.  I’ll look forward to being back in touch with you next month.  Until then, keep loving one another!