COVID-19 has created an unusual situation for our marriages and close love relationships. Suddenly many couples were forced to live and work in close quarters, often struggling with financial hardships and worried about their health, about educating and entertaining their children at home and about the future in general. For some couples, having the forced time together has rekindled their love and refocused them and their families on what is truly important: their relationships with each other. For other couples, the close and constant proximity has highlighted their differences and accentuated their conflicts and doubts to a point where the pressure has become unbearably painful.
When World War II started, there was a sudden increase in marriages. Unsure of what the future held and perhaps trying to give their lives some normalcy, hope, and joy, many more couples found their way to the altar. These life and death situations seem to force us to make hard decisions one way or another. They bring up our vulnerability and make us realize that life is short and that everything is transient. These moments might push us into getting married or, the opposite, into giving up on our marriage. Perhaps we are also desperately struggling to find something that we are in control of when life is so unpredictable.
Several times over the last few months I have heard from clients, “I am so tired of the same arguments and frustrations. We just don’t seem to see eye to eye. Now it is worse than ever before. All we seem to do is argue. Maybe we would be happier apart.”
Living on top of each other for months is bound to bring to the surface what has always been smoldering underneath. No matter how good a fit we seem to be with our partner at the beginning, no two people are ever perfectly alike in their values, needs, life goals and how they handle crisis situations. It is completely normal for every couple to have similar but also different values and needs. When we are stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, these clashes of values and needs are unavoidable.
Relationship therapists Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottman have always empathized that in each partnership, there are perpetual problems. In his research, John Gottman found that 69% of problems couples have are repetitive issues because they are based on fundamental differences in personality, lifestyle, or needs. Daniel B. Wile, the late founder and developer of Collaborative Couple Therapy, phrased it well by stating, “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems” (Dan Wile). That means, no matter which partner we choose, there will always be some issues which are easier to solve and others that turn out to be perpetual problems.
If we invest our energy into changing our partner, we are exhausting ourselves with a hopeless mission and we have completely missed the point. If we are identified with opposite energies in a partnership and entrenched in our position, opening up to the other person and their experience is exactly what we need.
Let’s take Stephanie and Chris and one of their perpetual disagreements. Now more than ever, she wants to be consistent with the bedtime for the kids, while he is more generous and willing to let them stay up later. This creates weekly tensions and discussions between them. Each of them feels unheard and misunderstood.
Underneath our conflicts is a hidden dream, fear, need, or value. To find out the dream or the fear underneath our conflict, we need to ask our partner the question, “What makes this so important to you?” We might also want to be curious if there is an experience behind this situation for our partner, maybe during childhood or in a past relationship. Being curious about the story goes beyond understanding just their thoughts and feelings. We want to find out what our partner values, believes and holds dear.
An important key to a happy relationship is to learn to listen without judgement, to acknowledge the other person’s experience and feelings, and to share our own feelings and experiences with as much openness. Without active listening and true dialogue, we end up in gridlock conflict.
According to Gottman, gridlocked conflict does not simply happen. Dr. John Gottman names the steps on the way to this gridlock situation as:
- The partners have opposing dreams or values.
- They get entrenched in their opposing positions.
- Their fears of accepting influence from their partner increases.
- The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt) are progressively more present in their interactions.
- The partners emotionally disengage from each other.
All couples will face some forms of perpetual conflict. But those recurring issues do not need to become gridlocked. What a couple needs is the willingness to explore the other person’s side of the conflict and what dreams are beneath their position.
Stephanie and Chris have different needs. Stephanie feels strongly about sticking to the bedtime for the kids. What this is not about is her being controlling, inflexible or not enjoying her kids, as Chris assumes. By 7:30 p.m., she feels overwhelmed and has the need for quiet time to recharge and for alone time with Chris to connect with him. What this is about is her being able to step out of the role as a mother and feeling like a woman. It is also about her needing and valuing a deep connection with her husband, independent of their roles as parents. She is able to communicate to Chris that her parents dutifully stayed together until her dad passed but were always distant and quite cold with each other. They had different interests, were judgmental of each other and did not share their feelings. As a young girl, Stephanie promised herself to have a different marriage.
And what about Chris being more laid back about the bedtime? What this is not about is him being irresponsible, just wanting to be the fun dad and avoiding time with Stephanie alone, as she suspects. As Stephanie asks why being flexible is so important for Chris, they uncover that family time is about comfort, nurturing and belonging for Chris. He grew up as an only child without brothers, sisters or cousins his age. He has always longed to have a big loud happy family. His parents never seemed to struggle connecting with each other. They were going out three or four nights a week, to the theatre, a concert or to meet with their circle of friends. As Chris contemplates his parents’ relationship, he realizes that the quality time they spend together, and their common interests, were probably one reason why they had a good connection.
After both feel heard and their needs and values were acknowledged by their spouse, Stephanie and Chris arrive at a compromise: From Monday to Thursday the kids bedtime is strict, Friday and Saturday their bedtime is more flexible, and on Sunday evenings Chris and Stephanie plan to spend time together as a couple. As we are going into phase two of the pandemic right now, they are able to expand the group of people they get in contact with and they are able to ask Stephanie’s mother to babysit every Sunday. They also have set the intention to tackle their other perpetual problems with the same open curiosity to arrive at compromises that meet both their needs.
With awareness and adaptability, perpetual problems do not need to mean the death sentence for a relationship. We can move from judgment to being understanding and accepting, to a dialogue about what values and needs are not met and how to negotiate compromises.
What are your perpetual problems? What opposing views are you and your partner entrenched in? Have you noticed how criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, or even contempt, play a role in your interactions?
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