Are Your Relationship Conflicts Unsolvable? (b201)

Today’s relationship nugget for #marriagemondays is a break in the series of the seven principles, but is still drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.”

If you haven’t read them, you should read the previous four principles I’ve covered in my blog (click on the title to read the post):

Problems can be divided into all sorts of categories, but perhaps the most basic of all is this:

Solvable and Perpetual

Identifying which is which and dealing with each according to its kind is important. You will waste time, energy and emotion trying to solve a perpetual problem. You will continue fighting needlessly when you don’t move toward resolution on a solvable problem.

According to Dr. Gottman’s research, 69% of marital conflicts fall into the “perpetual” category. Couples he has studied come back years later and are still having the same conflicts. The difference for the satisfied couples is how they treat their perpetual conflicts. He writes:

These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them. (p. 131)

Perpetual conflicts arise out of personality traits such as desire, taste, thought and feelings. A person is the way a person it. For instance, hubby doesn’t really want to go to wife’s extended family dinner because he doesn’t enjoy her family’s company. This is a perpetual problem. He may never grow to enjoy her family’s company. If wife gets angry at husband every time for not wanting to go, this will fester because hubby likes what hubby likes. It’s not a problem to be solved. It is a situation to deal with.

While husband’s taste in company may be a perpetual problem, whether husband goes is a solvable problem. The way discussion plays out about husband’s attendance will reveal a great deal about the health of their marriage. Are he and she both willing to compromise? Can they creatively seek alternative solutions? Is he willing to go if it is very important to her? Etc. (The way this conflict plays out will betray the level of presence of the four horsemen of marriage apocalypse. CLICK HERE to see my blog post on the four horsemen.)

In couples that are functioning well, perpetual problems often result in good natured ribbing and jibes when they arise. In couples that are not functioning well, the perpetual difference between partners becomes a perpetual source of argument and negative emotion.

Here’s my tip (not from Dr. Gottman): Analyze your conflict. If you are arguing about a personality trait, a taste, a desire, etc., you are probably trying to solve a perpetual problem. In my case, I am never going to like asparagus. It would be foolish of my wife to get angry and argue with me about liking asparagus. She would waste her breath and add a great deal of negative emotion to the day if she tried to change my mind about my own tastes. However, if she and I can talk about it, we may find she has other concerns. Perhaps she wants me to eat a couple of sprigs of asparagus at dinner as an example to our children? That is something I can do and, in fact, would admire her for caring enough to look for ways to encourage vegetable consumption in my children.

When you have a conflict, try to tease out the solvable and perpetual parts. And practice principles 1-4 above. You will do yourself, your partner and your relationship a great service.

This chapter, like the others, includes inventories and exercises to help you learn to distinguish between perpetual and solvable problems. I encourage you to read “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.”


Thanks for reading my blog. I hope it is helpful to you.


1Gottman, John; Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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