Resolving Perpetual Problems in Relationships
One of the most common reasons couples attend counselling is for conflict resolution. In many cases, these couples are stuck because despite many attempts at finding resolution some of their problems just don’t seem to go away. They come in because they are fed up of the lack of change, stuck in a vicious cycle, and are now considering separating. This is what couples therapy experts, John and Julie Gottman, call a perpetual problem. By definition, a perpetual problem is one that is recurring and difficult to resolve. Interestingly, the Gottmans’ research has found that 69% of problems that couples face are perpetual problems. This means that the majority of relationship conflicts are not actually resolvable. Understandably, it is frustrating to have the same arguments over and over again, and surely there must be some remedy.
Perpetual problems are typically those related to fundamental differences between partners as a result of stable factors such as personality, past experiences, and familial relationships. These factors are what make each of us unique. These unique factors shape how we view the world and influence our perspectives. These factors are strongly rooted in who we are, and are therefore hard to change. Having different perspectives can lead to having different opinions about important matters. Here is one example of a perpetual problem.
Perpetual Conflict: Every Sunday Jack and Jane would argue over how they were going to spend their day off. Jack would get upset because Jane wouldn’t help him clean. Jane wanted nothing more than to have the day to herself for self-care.
Background: Jack comes from a family that values tidiness and bonding through shared experiences. Him and his family would spend Sunday mornings cleaning the house and would bond over their shared responsibilities. Jack and his siblings would compete over who finished their chores first and would then be rewarded with ice cream and a day at their favorite park. The act of cleaning and bonding grew to become very important to him, therefore he expected to share the same experience with his partner, Jane. Jane comes from a family that valued engagement in extracurricular activities. They often hired cleaning services to take care of chores around the house so that there was more time for activities. A typical Sunday for Jane and her family involved each member doing separate activities. Jane would attend ballet classes in the morning and swimming lessons in the afternoon, while her mom played golf and her dad played hockey.
If you have experienced something similar with your partner, you may understand the frustration of being stuck in a never-ending cycle of who is right and who is wrong.
In this example, it is clear that both Jack and Jane have strong convictions about their needs and neither of them is “wrong.” They were raised differently, and unfortunately, their needs and the values behind them happen to clash. How does one manage such a conflict?
- Attempt to understand that neither one of you is wrong. In fact, you are right in your own perspectives. Jane should want to spend her day doing what is important to her, and Jack should also want to pursue what is important to him. Accept that it is okay to want different things.
- Understand the dreams and values behind your and your partner’s needs. If you’re having the same argument over and over again it is probably because both of you feel strongly about your position. Try to understand what the underlying needs are behind your perspective. Is it a dream you hold on to? Is it a memory? Is it a need that’s important to fulfill? Or is it a personality trait? In order to understand the dream beneath the need, explore the background for each.
- Assume the positive perspective. Look for the good in your partner. In the above example, Jane might feel that Jack doesn’t care about her because he is unwilling to see how important her alone time is. She might feel suffocated by Jack’s continuous need to spend time with her. On the other hand, Jack might also feel uncared for by Jane and as if she isn’t interested in bonding with him. He might crave her affection, and her unwillingness to show affection how he needs it might make him feel abandoned. In looking for the positive perspective, Jane could try to see that Jack’s intentions aren’t hurtful. He is simply expressing his need to feel close to Jane. Jack could try to understand that Jane’s wish to practice self-care is an attempt to be happier and healthier, not to push him away.
- Explore the positive parts of each other’s different personality traits. Perhaps Jane could appreciate that Jack is someone who values spending quality time with loved ones to nurture relationships. She might even think back to the beginning of their relationship where Jane found it endearing that Jack would prioritize her on his days off. Jack might recognize that Jane’s determination towards living a healthy lifestyle is admirable. Think about that one thing your partner does, or that one trait that really irks you. Can you see the positive parts of it?
- Love your partner anyway. This is similar to unconditional love. Every human being is worthy of love in their own right – especially your partner. Is it possible for you to acknowledge that there are imperfect parts of them and love them anyway? If the issues your partner presents with are not deal-breakers, you may want to consider if they are worth fighting over. Perhaps Jack might say, “It bothers be that I don’t get to spend the day connecting with you. I acknowledge that your alone time is important to you because that is when you connect with yourself and do what is good for your mental health. I admire your determination towards living a healthy lifestyle. Can we talk about other ways that I can connect with you?”
Following these tips could be a good first step in resolving your perpetual problems. If you notice that you’re having a hard time communicating or understanding each other’s perspectives, it may be worthwhile to consult with a couples counsellor.