The other morning, my husband saw the pancakes on the counter and asked me where the maple syrup was. The refrigerator, of course. That is where I’ve always kept it. He went on to tell me that you are not supposed to refrigerate maple syrup, but rather, that it is supposed to live in the pantry. Yikes. There is nothing worse than sticky pantry cabinets. Can you tell I’m bitter? I love pancakes. Here’s my point: I grew up in a home where my mother refrigerated maple syrup. That’s all I’ve ever known. And my husband grew up with the syrup in the pantry. So here we are, almost 4 years into marriage, having a discussion about where the maple syrup is supposed to reside: refrigerator or pantry? While this is a comical example, it illustrates how even the smallest conversations in our marriage stem from a personal narrative. It sounds crazy to ask, “What’s the story of maple syrup in your life?” but, as evidenced here, there is one.
Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems in Marriage
When thinking about conflict and conversations, John Gottman employs the language of “Solvable vs. Perpetual” problems in a marital relationship.
A Solvable problem is simple to define. A solvable problem has an answer. It is usually logistic or event based. “Who is going to pick up Jack from soccer practice?” or “Can you go to Trader Joe’s, or do you want me to?” It can be about anything, from housecleaning, parenting tactics, to who is unloading the dishwasher. Now, those are just examples, so let me be clear: what is solvable for one couple may not be solvable for another couple. What makes it solvable stems from the reaction and feelings that arise from each partner. Solvable problems do not distress us on an emotional level. We make the decision and move on, with little thought afterward.
A perpetual problem has no answers. These are the conversations we have over and over again with our spouse. They cannot be solved. They just are. It’s when our narratives meet up and go in different directions. I use narrative here, because we are story based creatures. God created us within his story, and through our lives, he is creating ours. We have been born and placed into history, in a specific time and place, married to another human being who also has a narrative. Perpetual problems are perpetual because they show up, again and again. They are rooted not in a circumstance, but in a person. You. Your spouse. Your personalities and life styles. These are the conversations that define our marriage.
And here’s the data: According to Gottman, 69% of martial problems fall into this category .
69%? That sounds dark and fatalistic, right? If they cannot be solved, then where is the hope? Why keep trying? The idea of there being perpetual problems in a marriage sounds exhausting. Well, here’s the secret: Kick out the word, “problem.” I like to think of them not as problems, but as “perpetual realities.”
So before you duck and run, this is actually a great thing, and here’s why…
Our Goal: Keep the Conversation Going
What if the goal of marriage is not to solve our perpetual problems, but rather to figure out a way to keep talking to our partner in a way that is safe and not so distressing. If I had to pick one phrase to define life in marriage, it would be: KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING. Because as John Gottman and many researchers have discovered, the moment we emotionally disengage from our partner, it is the beginning of the end.
Our Challenge: Creating Safety
So, how do we “keep the conversation going” when we feel hurt, misunderstood, unsafe, or betrayed by our partner? That sounds idealistic, and it sort of is. It takes time and grace. This is where the hard work of learning to dialogue comes in. We either learn to talk about it, or we spin our wheels. Safety is the key. What do you need to feel safe? What does your spouse need to feel safe? Dwell on this. You know them better than anyone else. If your spouse gets overwhelmed when talking about finances, maybe don’t blind side them with a text message in the middle of the day about their most recent Target run.
Our Options : Dialogue or Gridlock
The goal: dialogue in a way that is safe and fun. Below are John’s Gottman’s 4 steps toward getting out of gridlock patterns.
STEP ONE: Try to identify your spoken and unspoken expectations about your life together, because this is what fuels gridlock. Often, we have opinions or expectations about things that we had no idea were there. Get curious about what you believe about holiday travel or if the kids should go to public or private school. Where did those expectations or beliefs come from? Usually, they come from your childhood story (i.e. maple syrup). What are your hidden dreams? Are you and your spouse on different pages here? Usually, you are, and you do not realize you are until you find yourselves upset, in different rooms.
STEP TWO: Often, we want someone to be right, and someone to be wrong. Get beyond this part. Your expectations or dreams are not opposed, they are just different. They are your subjective reality. It isn’t a moral issue. Be patient and move past the events.
STEP THREE: Get curious about yourself and about your spouse. Use the knowledge you already have about your spouse and ask them questions. Gottman calls this being a “Dream Detective.” You both have dreams. Figure out what they are.
STEP FOUR: Stop talking about the “event.” Stay on your side of the street, meaning, use “I” statements. Talk about your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Don’t use you language. Don’t attack your spouse. Go deeper. What is the fundamental need being expressed here? Often, we simply want to be seen, heard, and understood. (Which is not the same as agreeing with our spouse-it is merely about seeing them in their own thoughts and feelings and saying, “What I hear you saying is….” and “I see how you could feel that way. Is there more? Tell me more about that…”
A Gridlocked, perpetual problem: these are not only perpetual problems, but the ones that make your heart beat fast. They feel scary because you remember what happened the last time you talked about (fill in the blank). The track record isn’t good, so the thought of having this conversation again just feels too much.
Signs of a gridlocked, perpetual problem:
The discussion leaves you feeling sad, rejected, hurt, betrayed
There is no forward movement or progress
Neither partner plans to budge: you hold your ground relentlessly
There is no affection or humor happening
You vilify each other
Total emotional disengagement
If you find yourself in gridlock perpetual often, there is hope. Your homework is to work on creating safety around conversations. Consider a soft start up, which simply means, coming into a conversation with a calm, curious, respectful tone. A soft start up could look like: “Hey, is now a good time to talk about the budget?” or “When would be a good time to talk about our upcoming holiday expectations?” When you come in soft, that helps your partner feel safe and know that you want to connect with them.
Know, too, that the amount of self-compassion (see Kristin Neff’s TEDTalk Here), playfulness, and grace you have toward yourself will flow out of you and toward your partner. If you have a critical spirit toward your spouse, it’s often because you are mean and hard on yourself, too. Be gracious! You (both) are a work in progress.
And that is where I will end: a wise therapist once told me to treat your marital relationship as a 3rd party entity. There is you. There is your partner. And then there is your marriage. It’s another being, like a baby. This 3rd party exists outside of you. So, if you have been married for 3 years, you are a toddler, so you might be potty trained, but most likely, you’re acting like a bull in a china shop. If you have been married for 10 years and see some acne emerging, it’s because your marriage is a pre-teen. And if you have been married for 20 years, you have a clearer sense of what your perpetual problems are and you’re wondering, like many 20-something’s in Meg Jay’s language of “the defining decade,” who you are as a couple. Do not expect to be further along in your marriage than you are. Do not treat a 3 year old as if they ought to be 20.
Stay the course. Be kind. Get curious. You have made a covenant to this person, who you love. So settle in and keep the conversation going. God has a stunning story to tell through your two lives, joined together, and He is with you. Maybe it’s time you have some pancakes.