This post continues my series drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” Today’s installment is:

Principle #6: Overcome Gridlock

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):


(Chapter 9 of Dr. Gottman’s book includes practical tips for very specific solvable problems that couples often face, such problems dealing with stress, in-laws, money and sex. This post continues with the content from chapter 10.)

Gridlock can happen when partners desire mutually exclusive things. One wants kids, one doesn’t. One is a homebody and one is a party animal. One is a person of faith, the other an atheist. The trick with gridlock issues it to treat them as sort of a relational “bum knee.” They may always be there but they don’t have to suck the joy and energy out of the relationship.

Regarding how to deal with gridlock, writes Dr. Gottman:

The goal in ending gridlock is not to solve the problem, but rather to move from gridlock to dialogue. (p. 217)

Dr. Gottman says the trick is understanding what’s behind these gridlock issues:

To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand its cause. Whether the issue is momentous, like which of your religions to pass on to your children, or ridiculous, like which way to fold dinner napkins, gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life. (pp. 217-218)

In happy couples, each partner wants to help the other fulfill his or her dreams. These can be concrete, such as a certain size house in a certain type of neighborhood, or more intangible, such as a sense of safety or living life as an adventure.

The trick here is (no surprise!) learning to talk. Instead of negotiating or manipulating to move toward or hold onto your dreams and aspirations, talk about them. Talk about what’s underneath them. Perhaps the house and neighborhood aspiration is really a desire to feel successful? Perhaps a sense of adventure is more a reaction to his parents’ fearful attitude toward life.

Move forward by talking not just about your goals and aspirations, but about what they mean to you. Each person should let the other talk for a while about what the partner’s goals and aspirations mean or symbolize to him. No judgment. No interruption (except for occasional questions for clarification).

Here’s an important tip from Dr. Gottman for identifying unfilled dreams that might be fueling gridlock:

One good indicator that you’re wrestling with a hidden dream is that you see your spouse as being the sole source of the marital problem. (p. 224)

How to move past gridlock:

  1. Listen to yourself and your spouse to identify unfulfilled dreams.
  2. Speak and listen compassionately to each other (and to yourself) about what those dreams mean and why they are important.
  3. Soothe each other. These can be tender emotional places.
  4. End the gridlock. Support each other’s dreams.

As with every post in this series, there’s much more in Dr. Gottman’s book, including inventories and exercises to help you grasp the seven principles and put them into action.

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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