Jane and Jack are a personable, well educated couple seeking couples counseling. They state they struggle with expectations around household chores. Their Sundays have begun to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day.”
Every Sunday they argue. Jane ends the day feeling disappointed, unimportant, unseen, and unheard, and let down in every way. Jack believes he’s never going to meet Jane’s expectations. To him, he is in no-win situation. He never seems to hit the mark.
John Gottman, a well known researcher of marriage and relationship, states that 69% of all relationship conflict is about perpetual, or unresolvable, problems- problems rooted in fundamental differences between partners. For example, he likes to go out and do things on weekends- a bike ride, a hike, a run with his partner. She likes to curl up on the couch and binge watch Ozark with him. For Jack and Jane, Jack wants to relax and recharge on the weekend. Jane wants to “get things done” around the house- only when everything is done can she truly relax. In times like a pandemic, Jane and Jack become “more so” about their ways of coping with the stresses of isolation. Jack tends to need more sleep and relaxation time, and Jane tends to need to be moving and doing.
Gottman puts relationship conflict into 3 categories:
- Solvable Problems: These can be about chores, sex, parenting or money, but they are conflict which is genuinely simply about the topic.
- Perpetual Problems: These can also be about domestic chores, sex, parenting, time together, time apart, or money. In other words, the content can be same as for solvable problems, but this is content the couple tends to return to over and over again, with no long lasting resolution
- Gridlocked Perpetual Problems: These typically grow from perpetual problems, and they are typically a firmly entrenched dialogue between partners. This is the conflict that feels to a couple like Groundhog Day. They feel like they do and say the same thing over and over, and they are spinning their wheels. They are like traffic gridlock on the interstate, no one is going anywhere fast.
As a couples therapist, the couples with the perpetual problems, and the gridlocked perpetual problems are the ones I tend to see in my office. Sometimes the conflicts are not so gridlocked, but both partners see it heading that way. Problems can become gridlocked because as humans we tend to focus on finding a solution, not finding a way to talk about the problem. Gottman’s research says that it is not the content of the problem (though it can certainly feel like the content is EVERYTHING), but the ability to establish a dialogue.
A well known marriage counselor, Dan Wile says in his book, “After the Honeymoon” that when choosing a partner you will be also choosing a particular set of unresolvable problems. Two or more people living in the same space simply will have conflict- one leaves the kitchen cabinet doors open; someone always forgets to put the top on the toothpaste; one spends, the other wants to save; one uses physical touch to connect, the other needs words of affirmation.
The thing about gridlocked conflict is that it is always about something other than the content. It is about the unspoken feeling or the hidden need underlying the issue. This is why it is so hard to solve. Every time you and your partner discuss the issue, you feel more and more polarized, and more and more rejected. Talking only makes things worse. You feel like losing or compromising means you will lose more than the argument. And you will- because there is some real need underlying this particular argument.
To return to Jane and Jack, their gridlock is not about chores. Fueling the endless Groundhog Day conversations are underlying beliefs and unspoken needs. When Jack hears Jane’s criticisms of him, he believes she thinks he is lazy and worthless to have around. This is painful so he tunes out. He goes away emotionally and sometimes even physically as he seeks to distance himself from the pain. Jane believes that her needs are unimportant to Jack, and that is painful. To deal with that, she metaphorically gives that pain back to Jack in the form of criticism.
There are ways out of the maze, and my next blog post will cover ways to establish dialogue with your partner about these gridlocked issues.