There are two kinds of problems in a marriage, those that can be solved and those that cannot. It is critical that we learn to distinguish between the two. Why? Because when couples spend exorbitant energy trying to “solve” an unsolvable problem they generally end up feeling exhausted, frustrated, and defeated. They futilely spin their wheels round and round trying to bury the problem, and it keeps pushing through to the surface.
Marital expert John Gottman, says that 69% of problems within a marriage are unsolvable. Whoa! That is an awfully high number. He labels these as perpetual problems because they never find complete resolution and continually arise in one form or another throughout the course of the relationship.
It is important that we realize early on in our relationships that we cannot change our spouse. The fact of the matter is that they are different people and think differently to some degree. A couple may be very similar, but there are always differences in how people see the world, what they enjoy, what is important to them, and how they think. We also know that temperament is pretty consistent across the lifespan and does not change. It should seem obvious that if you cannot change your personality to a large degree it is impossible to change someone else’s.
Some of these gridlocked problems we sign ourselves up for. Such as the woman who wants to marry the “strong silent type” and then spends the rest of her marriage agitated because he doesn’t talk to her, or the man who wants an outgoing girl and then gripes because she never wants to stay home on Friday nights. They then spend the rest of their marriage trying to change the other person, forgetting that they willingly signed themselves up for what they got!
So what are some examples of gridlocked or unsolvable problems? It might be that one spouse wants kids and the other does not. One wants to travel and the other is content to enjoy local activities. One wants to save considerable amounts of money and the other enjoys being more of a free spirit. One partner might be a clean freak and the other is a bit of a slob. Problems like these are likely to continually crop up throughout the relationship. There is no simple fix.
So what do you do with unsolvable problems, whether it is differences in temperament, personality, values, goals, and interests? A couple must do two things when it comes to their perpetual problems. First, they must learn to live with the problem to a certain degree, understanding that it will always be there. It is the same in when it comes to our physical health. Colds and broken bones can be healed and corrected, but bad backs and trick knees generally persist. You simply learn to live with them. As Psychologist Dan Wiles puts it, “When choosing a long-term partner…you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you will be grappling with for the next 10, 20, or 50 years.” When it comes to unsolvable problems in our marriages we have to stop trying to change the other person or eradicate the problem, instead we must learn to live with it, adjust to it, and work around it.
Second, the couple must continually dialogue about the gridlocked problems. Gottman states that generally beneath these perpetual problems are larger issues, such as life dreams, goals, or core values that each partner holds. Majority of the time, our spouses are not being unreasonable for the sake of making our lives miserable, there is something important to them that they are fighting for and hanging on to. We must discover what the problem underneath the problem actually is.
What may seem like an argument over how to celebrate Christmas could really be tied to important traditions that one or both spouses hold dear. What seems like a simple argument over finances could actually represent security and stability for one and freedom and fun for the other. What is the conflict underneath the surface conflict?
The couple must learn to dialogue about the problem, unearth what the core conflicts are, and then seek to respect the other person’s dreams and values. Often, after this is done certain compromises can be made that make the unsolvable problems easier to leave with. While the problems will still remain, each partner feels respected, heard, and understood, and some middle ground can be found.
Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.