Solvable Versus Perpetual Problems in Intimate Relationships

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Being in an intimate relationship for the long haul is a challenging and expanding experience. As you and your spouse encounter new experiences and grow through the process of life, the challenge of maintaining an intimate and rewarding relationship becomes very real. It’s so easy to get lost in the pressures and challenges of day to day life – dealing with kids, work demands and just keeping on top of the housework can often leave couples with no space for themselves or their relationship. In any long-term relationship problems and issues will inevitably arise. Couples may find themselves arguing more and communicating less or living separate emotional lives. How couples manage the problems in their relationships is a key aspect to long-term relationship success. Based on the work of renowned marriage experts John and Julie Gottman, this article explores some basic key understandings essential to managing problems in your intimate relationships.

The Gottman’s make a useful and liberating distinction between solvable problems in a relationship and what they call perpetual problems. While many of us started out our married lives with the assumption that as we “grow old together” our differences will melt away, the reality is very far from the truth. Research conducted by the Gottman Institute indicates that 69% of problems that couples have conflict about are actually perpetual or unsolvable problems. These kinds of problems are unique to each couple and are based on core differences between the couple, hinging on personality or lifestyle requirements. For instance, if your partner is very extroverted and enjoys socialising and you are more of an introvert and homebody these differences could repeatedly generate conflict. When these issues are mishandled, the conflict can become what Gottman terms “gridlocked” with a couple discussing these issues repeatedly but getting nowhere. This cycle of unsolvable perpetual conflict can ultimately lead to emotional disconnection.

The important awareness with these kinds of problems is that they are NOT solvable – you are no sooner going to turn your partner into a solitude seeker as you are going to become a party animal. The key to managing these kinds of problems is creating an emotionally connected space for actively coping with these issues. The aim should be to create opportunities for dialogue around the perpetual problem from a space of acceptance, understanding, affection and possibly even humor. A healthy dialogue around these issues may include your partner recognising your needs and quirks and allowing space for them and you similarly accepting his/hers. That might look like embracing your partner’s need to go out with friends and perhaps even joining him sometimes. What’s so exciting about this concept of perpetual problems is that it creates a space within relationships for accepting differences, and recognises the entirely normal reality that most of us will continue to butt heads with our partners over certain issues, for many years to come.

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On the other hand, the problems that are in our control are those that are simply situational. Solvable problems relate to issues such as managing housework, approaches to child rearing and extended family relationships. These kinds of issues are unique to the couple and can be resolved in a sustainable way.

From the perspective of Gottman, what is more significant than solving problems is ensuring that couples have a shared system of meaning underpinning their relationship. Developing a shared vision for the relationship, and the emotional intelligence and skills for managing conflict are far more significant than any resolution of conflict. When a partnership is characterised by this shared meaning any conflicts are inevitably less intense and partners will not enter into a gridlocked space. So when you find yourself bashing heads with your partner remember this basic wisdom and approach any conflict from a place of shared affection and commitment.


How To Keep Love Going Strong – Seven principles on the road to happily ever after.  John and Julie Gottman. Posted 3 Jan 2011

Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems – Michael Fulwiler. Posted 2 July 2012

Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise.