What is the difference between a married couple that bickers regularly but seem to really like each and the perfect-looking couple who never argues but is suddenly headed for divorce?
A very different skill set.
The difference between happy couples and unhappy couples is in how they manage the inevitable conflict within any marriage. There are actually far more recurring problems in both happy and unhappy marriages than we want to admit. The Gottman Marital Research scientifically reveals that two-thirds (69%) of all marriage problems are things that cannot be fixed once and for all but need continuous, skilful managing. (Gottman Marriage Research—Julie and John Gottman).
The source of these inevitable problems, referred to as Perpetual Problems, was also surprising: simply two different people having two different enduring points of preference—no matter how compatible the couple is. For example, you like the room warmer, and I like it cooler. This is a situation that won’t go away after we make a choice of room temperature – one of us is going to have to adjust to the other’s wants sometimes and vice versa. Somebody might need to wear a sweater while the other is in a tee shirt. Somebody might need to sit under a fan while the other doesn’t. Other Perpetual Problems could include: You like the mountains, and I like the beach. My childhood family displayed loud fighting, yours hid the fighting. I like sex in the morning, you like sex at night. You like the sunshine, and I like the fog. You like meat, and I like vegetables. The list goes on and on and on. These type of things make up 2/3 of your marriage, no matter who you marry.
Happy couples have developed a skill set that includes the ability to cultivate the best friendship possible away from conflicting preferences, while allowing the conflict that is present to be addressed openly and gently. The key is to stay flexible and respectful of both preferences without creating resentment or at least working your way through it when it is present. The skill set of fixing a resolvable problem (You like green. I like green. Let’s paint it green.) differs dramatically from the skill set of managing a Perpetual Problem (I want children. You don’t.) Marriage happiness is not the absence of conflict or pretending that there is no conflict, but in treating each other as friends and choosing to handle openly the inevitable perpetual problems. Because, research shows that where there are two people in a relationship, two-thirds of the time they will face perpetual problems.
Perpetual Problems: Two Kinds.
First, are the Work-In-Progress Perpetual Problems. They come with a mix of annoyance, arguments, anger, hurt, laughter, pleasure, and pain. Happy couples have learned how to have Recovery Conversations, where the hurts are repaired by offering care and understanding for each other’s point of view. They seek to find value in differing points of views without giving up a sense of their selves through appeasing. Attention is given to building a positive friendship and a positive emotional bank account, so that when perpetual differences are in play, each person remembers the reasons for being in the relationship. The couples that were deemed happy in their marriages demonstrated greater closeness when they allowed themselves to be influenced by their partners in reasonable ways. Genuine, non-appeasing compromises helped cultivate a sense of worthiness and cooperation that kept resentment and hurt low or absent.
The second kind is the GRIDLOCK Perpetual Problems. These occur in marriage when discussions or negotiations get mired down in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling (Gottman). GRIDLOCK Perpetual Problem discussions eventually end badly all the time. When not skilfully addressed, one GRIDLOCK PROBLEM’s resentment can spread to other problems until most or all close interaction is avoided or becomes limited to the business of daily life. Each person begins tuning out or stonewalling the other about ongoing difficulties. Arguments erupt over the smallest things, such as a crumb on the floor or a joke that goes badly. The Horseman of Contempt (Resentment) is the result of not making the Perpetual Problem a Work-in-Progress and becomes a very painful Thorn-in-the-Side. Strong contempt in a marriage is a warning sign of impending divorce. GRIDLOCK breeds contempt and eventually spreads out, negatively affecting the areas where couples do agree and ultimately destroys closeness of all kinds.
Any Perpetual Problem can become a GRIDLOCK problem: sexual preferences, money preferences, child-rearing preferences, or food preferences are common GRIDLOCK areas. The positive feeling that each partner wants to have around these issues gets buried deep inside. Eventually, each person starts viewing the other as the obstacle to that valued positive feeling. Negative, inner, imaginary conversations with the partner replace real constructive dialogue. They complain to their best friends but no longer to each other, except when the resentment spills out over little things or in public in front of friends or strangers.
Happy couples learned to slow down, calm down, pause and carefully work on a GRIDLOCK issue before the relationship became damaged beyond repair. They regularly made time to work with the GRIDLOCK until it opened up and they returned to feeling close. No matter how long it took, they didn’t let the conflict slide away into denial and stonewalling. They take many small steps, often to understand and look for ways to loosen the GRIDLOCK, to stay true to their selves while trying to see the other’s point of view and finding points of agreement to emphasize.
GRIDLOCK problems are often a motivator for couples to enter marriage counselling. Unhappy couples either don’t know the skill set needed, don’t seek the right help, or don’t know how to find the needed kind of marriage counselling to learn to Manage the GRIDLOCK problems differently. Research shows that many couples wait an average of six years too long before addressing a Perpetual Problem that has become GRIDLOCKED. By that time the Thorn-in-the-Side issue is often seriously threatening the continuation of the marriage. The sooner a couple in serious GRIDLOCK can get productive help, the less time and pain it takes to unlock the GRIDLOCK. Whether a couple has just hit a GRIDLOCK issue or it has been going on for a long time, a renewed friendship with a new skill set informed by the Gottman Marriage Therapy can help turn bad endings into closer, happier ones.
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This article was first published by Don Elium on donelium.com