Monday, July 2, 2012

Managing Conflict: Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems


Brace yourselves, because over the course of the next two weeks, we are going to be talking about relationship conflict. All of us have conflicts in our relationships. Sometimes they’re just simple disagreements, while other times they’re awful battles. The Managing Conflict Series, which will kick off today, has been developed by The Gottman Institute to teach you six specific skills that will help you to manage your conflicts with your partner and transform them into opportunities for greater understanding, compromise, and compassion. As described by Dr. Gottman in his research, the six skills for Managing Conflict are: 

  1. Practice Physiological Self-Soothing
  2. Use Softened Startup 
  3. Repair and De-Escalate 
  4. Listen to Your Partner’s Underlying Feelings and Dreams 
  5. Accept Influence 
  6. Compromise 
When thinking about conflict in a relationship, it is important to ascertain whether a problem is solvable or perpetual. Our research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. All couples have them – these problems are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face. They are either 1) fundamental differences in your personalities that repeatedly create conflict, or 2) fundamental differences in your lifestyle needs. In our research, we concluded that instead of solving their perpetual problems, what seems to be important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue about them. If they cannot establish such a dialogue, the conflict becomes gridlocked, and gridlocked conflict eventually leads to emotional disengagement.

In today’s posting, we want to take the opportunity to explain the difference between a solvable problem, a perpetual problem, and a gridlocked perpetual problem. 

  • Solvable problems can be about housecleaning, disciplining children, sex, and in-laws. Solvable problems for one couple can be about the exact same topics that could be perpetual problems for a different couple. A solvable problem within a relationship is about something situational. The conflict is simply about that topic, and there may not be a deeper meaning behind the each partner's position. A solution can be found and maintained. 
  • Perpetual problems are problems that center on either fundamental differences in your personalities, or fundamental differences in your life style needs. All couples have perpetual problems. These issues can seemingly be about the exact same topics as what for another couple might be solvable; however, unlike a solvable problem, these are the problems that a couple will return to over and over and over again. 
  • Gridlocked perpetual problems are perpetual problems that have been mishandled and have essentially calcified into something "uncomfortable." When a couple tries to discuss a gridlocked issue, it can feel like they are “spinning their wheels” and getting nowhere. The nature of gridlock is that hidden agendas underlie the issue.

The Gottman Method focuses on building emotional intelligence and developing skills for managing conflict and enhancing friendship to help couples (like you!) create a system of shared meaning in your relationship. What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but rather the affect with which they are discussed. The goal should be to establish a dialogue about the perpetual problem that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem rather than allowing it to fall into the condition of gridlock. Gridlocked discussions only lead to painful exchanges or icy silence, and almost always involve the Four Horsemen (criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness). In Thursday's blog posting, we will explain how to recognize if a perpetual problem in your relationship has become gridlocked and begin conversations about it.

All for now,
M. Fulwiler
TGI Staff 

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