Chapter 7 – The two kinds of marital conflict
There are two kinds of marital conflict: solvable and unsolvable. Therefore, one must customize the coping mechanism to whether the conflict is at hand is solvable or not. 69% of conflicts fall into the ‘perpetual problem’ category. Perpetual problems are underlying assumptions and issues which cannot be grounded and fixed situationally. Resolving major marital conflicts is not the essential component to happy marriages, many happy couples have not resolve their big issues. Since the perpetual issues are perpetual by definition, one must chose a partner whose differences you can live and cope with [i.e. strategies and routines to deal with unbridgeable differences). Otherwise, the perpetual problems become obstacles, as instead of coping with the differences in the couple, the couple gets into a gridlock situation. With the gridlock, the four horsemen become more present, while humor and affection is on the decrease, and the couple begin living in parallel lives [read: the decline and death of the relationship]. Signs of gridlock include:
- conflict makes you feel rejected by your partner;
- you keep on talking about it, but make no headway;
- you become entrenched in your positions and are unwilling to budge;
- when you discuss the topic, you feel more frustrated and hurt;
- your conversations about the problem are devoid of humor, amusement or affection;
- you become more unbudgeable over time, leading to mutual vilification during these conversations;
- the vilification leads to being further rooted in your position and polarized, more extreme in your views and less willing to compromise;
- eventually, you disengage from each other emotionally.
Gridlocks happen as the couple’s entrenchment at an unsolvable problem allows conflict to influence more areas of their lives.
Solvable problems: no underlying issues in the solvable dilemmas. They are situational! They are less gut-wrenching, and are less intense than the perpetual problems. Many couples, manuals and therapists do not know how to solve them either, as offered techniques are hard to implement and/or master. Validation is not enough, especially as it is hard to apply when distressed. Principle 5 will go into further detail about this. But the gist is:
- soft and not harsh start-up;
- effective use of repair attempts;
- monitor your physiology during discussions for warning signs of flooding;
- learn how to compromise;
- become more tolerant of each other’s imperfections.
Solvable problems, if not addressed or coped with, can lead to perpetual problems due to resentment kicking in, and thus entrenchment in their positions. If the conflict is about the entrenched resentment due to a situational/solvable issue, then it may be in the realm of perpetual/unsolvable conflict.
Gottman would give examples and ask the couple at hand to distinguish between perpetual and solvable issues.
- Assessing your marital conflicts questionnaire – asks about various marital issues, whether they are perpetual or solvable, and how the partners each enter to and deal with the conflict. Solvable issues are discussed in chapter 8. Perpetual issues are discussed in chapter 10.
- Exercise 1: ‘Your Last Argument’: answering the questions [and then the couple comparing their answers]:
- During this argument, I felt like _____ [list given]
- What triggered these feelings? _____ [list given]
- The recent argument was rooted in ______ [list given].
- After self-soothing [discussed next chapter], discuss one’s own stress-maintaining thoughts/actions [list given] – the point is to make the partner’s realize that it is not a unilateral situation where everything is merely the other’s fault, but at least circular if not more complex.
- My contribution to this mess was _____
- How can I make it better next time?
- What one thing can my partner do next time to avoid this argument?
*If this exercise does not work, do ‘fondness and admiration’ exercises first – [chapter 4].
The point of this chapter is to accept the quirks and oddities of the partner that will not likely change, let alone because a messy or chronic argument. The key to all conflict resolution is basic acceptance of the partner’s personality. Finding conciliatory comments within arguments are also important, when you know how to identify them. They are often more present than a partner may have realized – and could be discovered once one knows what to listen for. A judgmental/critical comment or even general great piece of advice will not be accepted before one feels fundamentally understood, liked and accepted. Just like in child development, acknowledging the other’s hard emotions as well builds self-image and effective social skills.
Forgiving past faults of your partner is also important – grudges/bitterness at the spouse may wear at the relationship. Fondness and admiration must account for each partner’s imperfections!