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November 12, 2015

Some Problems Can't Be Solved

Surprisingly, happy couples who are highly satisfied with their marriages still have these perpetual problems. In the meantime, other couples become increasingly unhappy and are torn apart by the same kinds of unresolvable issues.

The difference seems to be whether a couple can cope with a perpetual problem, or whether they become gridlocked.

Perpetual problems are usually based on what Gottman calls dreams. These dreams represent important aspects of each person's identity, the underlying hopes and values that contribute to their sense of purpose in life. Dreams are often based on childhood memories and significant life experiences. They are likely to be about what a person needs to feel loved and secure. Because they are deeply meaningful and important, people do not let go of them.

When a couple becomes gridlocked over a problem, they find themselves becoming increasingly distressed. Discussions about the problem make each person feel rejected and disrespected. They make no progress in trying to solve the problem. In fact, they tend to become more stubborn as time goes on, so that the possibility of a solution grows smaller. More and more, they see the problem as the other person's fault, and become even more determined not to compromise. Their arguments become vicious -- or they stop talking about the problem altogether. As time goes by, they become emotionally disconnected from each other.

When a couple copes with a perpetual problem, they look for the deeper meanings behind their disagreement. The underlying dream is not always obvious, but allowing each person to talk about their feelings and how the issue affects them can make it more clear. Each partner finds a way to respect the other's dream. They make an effort to accommodate each other or to compromise. If their dreams are truly in opposition, they may never be able to resolve the issue, but they will look for ways for each person to get some satisfaction. They do not expect one person to just give up in favor of the other; both have to be flexible. They are able to discuss the problem with kindness and humor.

Some things change. We learn new skills, develop new preferences, and replace old habits with new ones. But people rarely change their core values or give up the hopes and dreams that define them. What we can change, instead, is the way we cope with our fundamental differences. By applying empathy and being willing to adjust, we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other.

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