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4 tips for dealing with perpetual problems

Do you ever feel like you and your partner have the same argument over and over again? You have maybe even said something like, “I’m so sick of arguing about this!” during one of these conflicts. Of course, you are not alone. All relationships have their problems, and some are more difficult to resolve than others. At times, it’s a matter of finding a suitable compromise to solve the problem, and with a little time and patience, you and your partner figure it out. Other times, you and your partner feel stuck, unable to get any traction. You know these problems. You argued about this topic 3 years ago, it came up in a conflict yesterday, and you expect to deal with it again in the future.

Would it surprise you to know that John Gottman, a well-regarded researcher who studies why and how people have successful (or not so successful) couple relationships, has found that just about 2/3 of all couples’ problems are these types of issues – the ones that keep popping up? We refer to these kinds of problems as perpetual, meaning they will most likely not go away and tend to relate to fundamental differences between the partners in the relationship. This means that a majority of what you and your partner argue about are things about which you will not likely find a solution.

For some, this fact is a little unsettling. It is easy to feel defeated when you consider that many of your issues will not necessarily be solved. On the other hand, knowing this gives you and your partner permission to try something new. You have a choice. When you’re dealing with a perpetual problem in your relationship, you can keep trying to fix it (knowing that that would mean fundamentally changing who you are as people, which is a very tall order) or you can try to redirect your energy into something more useful.

Here are some tips to help you and your partner deal with the perpetual problems in your relationship:

  1. Shift your perspective. It’s probably not worth your time and energy to keep hashing things out, so shift your focus to the things that you can change. Can you find greater empathy for your partner’s viewpoint? Can you have more compassion for one another? How about more curiosity about why your partner thinks the way he or she does? You will have much more success when you work on these aspects of your conflict, so make this your goal.
  2. Externalize. Think of your perpetual problem(s) as a third entity in your relationship. It is something that can come into your relationship that tries to put you and your partner at odds. Team up against the perpetual problem. Talk about it as such: “This is one of our perpetual problems again. Let’s get together and get past it.” Take pride as a couple when you can have a smooth conversation about your perpetual issues.
  3. Communicate with curiosity. When you get stuck in one of these problem areas, rather than plead your case and try to convince your partner that your perspective is the correct one, try to get curious instead. Where does your viewpoint come from? Where does your partner’s come from? Curiosity is often the antidote to gridlock when you have a conflict with your partner. It increases your understanding of one another, and when you have a greater understanding of one another, you feel more connected and less at odds.
  4. Laugh. Or at least find some humor in the situation. Rather than getting upset and annoyed by your perpetual problems, find a way to see the ridiculousness of it all. Often partners fight about nothing at all. You know that you are not really fighting about how to fold the laundry or put the toilet seat down, and yet that is the kind of conversation that arises with perpetual problems. If you and your partner can find a way to take a step back and share a laugh about how seemingly trite the content of the argument is, or even about how much you both are struggling to get it right, you are on your way to getting through a tough moment with much less struggle than before.
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