Lion Goodman, PCC and Carista Luminare, PhD
Do you and your partner always fight about the same things?
All couples, even those who are the most secure and high functioning, have perpetual problems they cannot resolve.
This was a great revelation to us. We heard it said during a Gottman Institute workshop for couples. (Every couple can use a “relationship tune-up” from time to time — even those of us who are seasoned relationship healers!)
We had been trying to achieve complete alignment on all of our issues, and this news gave us a lot of relief! We recognized that some of our problems were perpetual ones, and that they would likely last for the rest of our lives together. We also learned that we could still create harmony and greater intimacy out of facing those perpetual differences together— even the big ones.
Gottman’s research reveals that almost 70% of the time, when couples were asked to discuss an area of continuing disagreement, they discussed one of their perpetual issues. The remaining 30% of the time, the problems described were solvable, meaning the topic was situational, and could be sustainably solved. Those are typically one-time issues. They don’t reflect fundamental differences between the partner’s personalities or lifestyle needs.
So what’s really at the root of perpetual problems?
Every couple needs to have compatibility in most areas, and compassion and understanding in the other areas. When we counsel singles who are dating, we tell them to list what they want in a partner: MUST haves, NICE to haves, and MUST NOT haves. The must-nots are the bottom-line important areas where there’s too much conflict built into the difference: One person smokes, and the other hates smoking. One person wants monogamy, and the other wants polyamory. One wants sex five times a day, and the other is good with once a week. These are bottom-line incompatibilities – ones that will never resolve with understanding and compassion.
Unfortunately, most couples find out about their conflicts and incompatibilities long AFTER they’ve made a commitment to each other, and by then, they have become perpetual problems.
It’s also important to note that people change over time. A particular habit or preference may be fine during the honeymoon period of dating, when you’re flushed with excitement and anticipation, and the incompatibility looks like something you can handle. “He’s otherwise so great, it doesn’t matter that he hasn’t held a job longer than six months. I’m sure he’ll find the right thing to do and he’ll be very successful!” Oops. Not likely. The only real predictor of a person’s future is their past. It’s not a great predictor – we can change – but most people repeat the same patterns over and over in their lives.
The other kind of perpetual problem is based on having different values. We value what’s important to us, and our values are the way we prioritize those important things. What’s the most important thing to you in a relationship? That’s your highest value.
As an example, most people value these qualities highly in a partner. These particular qualities are also known as Virtues:
Virtues are qualities that produce goodness and happiness in oneself, one’s family, community, and society. Aristotle used the word “arete,” which means excellence, or moral virtue. He said that acting virtuously is the fulfillment of our purpose and potential as human beings. When we do so, we produce eudaimonia, which can be translated as “human flourishing,” or “happiness.”
When a couple has big differences in what they each value, this can create perpetual conflict and problems for a couple. For example, Mark has a very high value on arriving to meetings on time. He values timeliness over comfort, and will push others in order to avoid being late. Sue values beauty, comfort and ease over timeliness. She prefers to take her time and make herself feel beautiful before they go out, no matter how long it takes. This provides endless conflict whenever they get ready for an event. Because they haven’t compared their values and priorities, they just get angry at what they consider their partner’s obstinance and lack of respect.
If partners face directly into their differences, and explore their differing values and priorities, they can use a generous spirit of compromise to resolve important concerns together. They need good communication skills, and care for each other’s unique needs. Otherwise, perpetual problems become gridlock problems, sending the couple into disconnection, discontent or a crisis. If this happens too often, they can become perpetually dissatisfied with the other person, and eventually, their estrangement will erode trust and commitment.
When conflicts are seen as normal, and they are welcomed as opportunities for greater understanding and intimacy, the focus can be on learning, and a peaceful resolution, rather than resistance to the reality.
Here is one example of a perpetual problem that was solved with compromise and care:
The Challenge: Jake is a night owl, and he goes to bed after midnight. Laura wakes up at dawn and goes to bed shortly after dinner. They’re having difficulty keeping sexual intimacy alive because of their incompatible sleep schedules.
The Compromise: With compassion for the other’s biorhythms, they accept that this difference will last a lifetime. They agree to not take it personally, and they acknowledge that they can’t change themselves in order to match their partner’s schedule. Jake agrees to go to bed with Laura three or four nights a week so they can be intimate before she falls asleep. He gets up after she’s asleep so he can continue his late night work and entertainment. They also agree that sometimes Jake will lovingly text Laura to come back into bed in the mornings so they can have some play time before he goes to work. They further agree that they’ll sleep in together on Sunday mornings for some sweet and sacred connection time.
Such a practical solution might seem obvious, yet it is crucial for a couple to thrive. When a couple respects and honors each other’s different personalities, needs, and values they can delight in each other instead of being disappointed in each other.
A healthy couple accepts that there will always be some differences between them. They know that some problems can be resolved easily, while others will be perpetual and require a generous, caring approach. Learning to dialogue in a positive way about the “big issues” allows for continual growth and connection, rather than judgment, rejection, or disconnection.
How can you and your partner find your way through the minefield? Here are some guidelines that worked for us:
- Be Accepting: We accept there are some problems that will never go away or be fully resolved. We will find a peaceful way to manage them without expecting our partner to change. We expect our partner to respectfully care for our concerns, and do their best to compromise, while remaining authentic.
- Be Discerning: We will clarify the difficult issues by talking respectfully and learning what the other person values. We will seek to support our partnership wherever possible. We will see our problems as opportunities for further growth and learning together.
- Be Committed: We are committed to the long-term success of our partnership and will do whatever it takes to make us both feel safe and happy. We commit to love each other and to honor the other’s truth. We trust our partner to do their best to make changes when they can.
- Be Generous: We choose to be generous in caring about the other’s needs and satisfying them whenever possible – even if our own needs are not fulfilled at that moment (knowing our turn will come). Conflicts often arise from asking whose needs are more important. We consider our needs to be equally important, and when we can’t be generous, we focus on finding a compromise. Overall, we expect this flow of generosity to be fairly balanced.
- Be Truthful: We commit to speaking our truth in a kind and caring way and to continue to develop skills that enable us to manage repetitive conflicts. Our primary goal is to deepen our secure, loving connection by expanding our capacity to care and to keep learning so we can dive even deeper into love.
Your relationship is a tapestry woven of both similarities and differences in your personalities, values, and lifestyle choices. You can request that your partner change, and if they want to do so, you are blessed. If they can’t or won’t, then the next step is to mutually care for each other’s needs with love and respect. In a garden, many different species of plants can live in harmony.
Explore how you can best honor and care for each other’s concerns and be as generous as you can be. Learn the skills of loving compromise, and manage your perpetual problems so they don’t become major issues that harm your relationship. They’ll be there, accompanying you, during your long journey together, so accept them as one part of loving another person. That’s what healthy love is and that’s what healthy love does.
Are you compatible? Take our free 5-minute LoveStyle Profile Quiz and discover your own unique LoveStyle in a customized 10-page report instantly. Have your partner take it separately, and then compare your results! Click here to get free access.