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Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual

Continuing on the 5th floor of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House, we are still focusing on managing conflict. A major part of that is identifying whether problems are solvable or perpetual; and regardless of that, it is still important to have a conversation about any of the problems you are having. It is said that about “69% of couples experiencing relationship conflict is regarding perpetual problems” (Gottman). All couples have them, and they are typically ongoing issues that stem from fundamental differences in personalities, values, life goals, etc. Understanding the differences between these types of conflicts and how to address them can significantly impact the health and longevity of a relationship.

Let’s take a look at first how to identify a solvable problem vs a perpetual one. Solvable problems are defined as issues that can be resolved through effective communication, compromise, and problem-solving strategies. These problems typically revolve around specific situations and behaviors and are not deeply rooted in the fundamental differences between partners, like perpetual problems can be. Along with these types of problems being situational, some other characteristics you can look for to help identify them are that they are negotiable, behavioral, and temporary. They often involve behaviors that can be adjusted or problems that do not resurface frequently. Household chores, planning a vacation, managing finances for a specific event, and deciding on daily routines and schedules are all examples of some of the solvable problems that couples may face.

As mentioned above, perpetual problems are recurring issues that arise from those fundamental differences between those people within the relationship. These problems are often deeply ingrained and may never fully be resolved. Instead of aiming for complete resolution, the goal is to manage these problems in a way that minimizes conflict and allows the relationship to thrive despite these differences. We can identify these problems by looking at a few different factors. We can notice how chronic these issues are and recognize how frequently they continue to get brought up. We can identify what issues are deep-rooted and can be tied to core differences in personalities, beliefs, and/or values. These problems may involve aspects of each partner’s identity that are difficult to change or should not necessarily have to be changed. They also persist over time and may need continuous management. Differences in religious beliefs or cultural backgrounds, divergent life goals (having kids vs not), variations in spending and saving habits, and contrasting communication styles are all examples of some perpetual problems. 

Now that we’ve identified some ways to work through identifying what are solvable vs perpetual problems, let’s talk through some ways to approach solving and managing them. 

When focusing on resolving the solvable problems, effective communication can be one of the most important factors. It’s important to discuss the issue openly and listen to each other’s perspectives. Utilize communication strategies and really focus on accepting one another’s influence throughout. It’s also important to focus on compromising and finding a solution that satisfies both partners if you are able to. While not always possible, solvable problems typically can lead to somewhat of a compromise if you both are open to it. It can then be important to develop a plan to address the issue and start actually implementing changes. Once we’ve done that, make sure to follow-up and find a time to revisit the solution to ensure it’s working and make adjustments if necessary. All of this is easier said than done but it is important to focus on managing conflict and resolving issues if the situation allows for it.

When we try and manage perpetual problems, it can be slightly more challenging due to these issues being less solvable; but it is still possible to manage them in a healthy way. Acceptance is the first step; recognizing and accepting the differences in your partner without trying to change them. If you both know the other accepts you for who you are, it can be easier to work through some of those issues. Just like with solvable problems, communication is a key factor here as well. Engage in open and respectful conversations about the issue, and focus on understanding rather than convincing. 

While communicating and navigating through these problems, make sure to be an emotional support for your partner, as you would want them to be for you. Provide empathy and support to each other despite your differences. Again, similar to working through solvable problems, it can be beneficial to have some communication strategies on hand to help manage any conflict that may arise while working through these perpetual issues. Take a break if things get too heated, work on listening to understand rather than listening to respond, and agree on how to disagree at times when that is necessary. There may feel like a lot of negatives when these perpetual problems pop up, which is what makes it extra important to focus on the positives. Emphasize the positive aspects of the relationship together and focus on your shared values to help continue to strengthen your bond. 

When we focus on understanding and becoming aware of a problem being solvable vs perpetual, we can focus on better ways to approach these issues with the appropriate and most productive strategies. Not all issues are able to be resolved, and that is okay. By recognizing and appropriately handling these different types of problems, couples can maintain a healthy and resilient relationship. 

Written By,

Emily Blair, ALMFT



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