Perpetual Problems

John Gottman, a leading researcher and therapist for couples, found that 69 percent of all problems in relationships are considered “perpetual problems.” These are problems couples face that often show up in conflict over and over again, leading each individual to feel as though progress is just impossible. Handling perpetual problems is important for a healthy relationship.

What happens when these perpetual problems are not managed? Gottman goes on to describe the result being “gridlock.” Gridlock is exactly as it sounds. Both partners have the same argument over and over again. Generally, they are left feeling unheard, overwhelmed, and stuck, as if both partners are just spinning their wheels. Generally, perpetual problems that result in gridlock often pertain to personality characteristics that do not have simple problem-solving solutions.

I recently met with a client in individual therapy who struggled for the past 18 years to feel appreciated by her partner. Her husband was someone who struggled with emotional vulnerability, never providing words of affirmation for the work she did to care for the family and home. This client and her partner were in a state of gridlock. They had the argument over and over again about her feeling unappreciated with no improvement.

For this client and any other individual facing gridlock in their relationship, the antidote is dialogue. Couples have to increase their emotional intelligence in their relationship to start to work towards empathy, compassion, and healthy communication. The goal is not to solve the problem because gridlocked problems are often unsolvable. Instead, dialoguing about the problem without judgment and instead curiousity, compassion, and even humor is most effective.

When you think about the problems that often show up in your relationship, can you identify gridlocked patterns? Do you find there being any problems that leave you feeling defeated and stuck?

Consider how you might move towards dialogue and away from gridlock. The key will be to uncover and share with each other the significant personal dreams you have for your life, also known as creating shared meaning. Unfulfilled dreams are at the core of every gridlocked conflict. For my client, it was having a relationship that feels emotionally rewarding. Address the dreams for your relationship that feel unfulfilled and communicate them openly with your partner.

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