How many times in your intimate relationships have your best problem-solving skills failed? Your problem may not be poor implementation as much as it might be implementing the wrong strategy for managing certain types of conflicts.

Relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman discovered that 69 percent of the problems about which couples argue are NOT solvable. They are perpetual problems that will live in your relationship for as long as you both shall live. The other 31 percent are solvable problems.

You know you have slammed into a perpetual problem when you and your significant other have had the same fight for years. At the heart of perpetual problems are unfulfilled hopes and dreams. The Gottmans claim than when you ask your partner to give up their significant dreams, it is as if you are asking him or her to give over to you the bones in his or her body. When perpetual problems remain unmanaged, you end up in gridlock. However, when they are managed well, you build intimacy. Wise couples recognize when a perpetual problem is present and then they lean into curiosity and understanding instead of engaging in a perpetual power struggle.

How do you manage perpetual problems? Here are five recommendations from the Gottmans:

  1. Recognize that a perpetual problem is present. Name it as such instead of harboring blame for your partner being so hard-headed or stubborn.
  2. Bravely search for your partner’s hidden dream.  In perpetual problems, there is often a hidden dream or unfulfilled hope that is hidden within the conflict. The Gottmans recommend that partners become “dream catchers” for one another through a form of the “speaker/listener” dialogue. Information for this kind of conversation is found in the resources below.
  3. Honor your own dream and your partner’s dream. You can honor your partner’s dream by accepting your partner’s influence. Often when dreams are given voice, when you allow your partner to express their dreams or hopes, the tension between partners is reduced. Remember that you are not enemies but intimate partners. Seek to understand instead of win.
  4. Recognize that decisions still need to be made in real time in real situations. Once dreams are named, moving into problem solving becomes less burdensome. You will still need to make decisions, but hopefully now you can do so in a way that honors each other’s hopes and dreams.
  5. Identify what you are willing and not willing to change. If you are now in the problem-solving phase of managing perpetual problems, identify the things that you are not willing to change and those things that you are willing to change. Then work with the areas of “willingness to change” to develop your solution.

To learn more about solvable vs. perpetual problems, see the following Gottman Institute Resources:

  1. John and Julie discuss “Dreams within Conflict.”
  2. Learn about gridlock in this blog.
  3. Learn more about perpetual problems.
  4. Sign up for the Gottmans’ electronic newsletter, The Marriage Minute.

Emotional contributor: Dr. Toddy Holeman, chair, Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care at Asbury Theological Seminary 
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle