Do you often find yourself in the same argument over and over again with your significant other? Are there certain topics you can’t seem to agree on, no matter how often you talk about them? Maybe you truly love your spouse and want what’s best for them, but you can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on finances, parenting, or household responsibilities.
You are not alone. Every couple faces these types of conflicts. But there’s some good news: these conflicts are the greatest opportunities you have for increasing intimacy and connection in your relationship.
John Gottman, a marriage researcher who has been studying what makes marriages healthy for over 40 years, has termed this type of conflict “gridlocked.” He defines gridlock as conflict that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution. And surprisingly enough, he has found through his research that 69% of all conflicts are gridlocked. That means over two-thirds of all conflict doesn’t have a right or wrong solution!
But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. Rather, these conflicts you experience in your relationship can be approached with a heart of compromise and understanding in order to pave the way for more closeness in relationship.
Where do these arguments go wrong?
When you’re in gridlocked conflict, you may find yourself trying to convince your significant other that you are right and they are wrong. You may not be wiling to see their perspective because you’ve already dug in your heels on your point-of-view.
On the flip side, you might develop bitterness and resentment from avoiding conversations about these tense topics, which spills out into other areas. Have you ever had difficulty remembering what started your fight? Little annoyances are magnified by the underlying tension and anger from gridlocked conflict.
What needs to change?
Altering your approach to conflict requires you to reframe the argument as an opportunity to grow in intimacy with your partner. There are reasons why you feel stuck in these areas. Often it is because of your own and your partner’s desires and the narratives tied to them. These make it difficult for you to change your position. The purpose of the next exercise is to understand you partner’s story so that you can see why their position is so important to them.
This does require some level of vulnerability on the part of each of you in order to grow in intimacy. If you struggle with vulnerability with your partner, try this exercise out with a smaller gridlocked issue first..
Gottman’s 3-Step Process
Step 1: Discuss (and listen) to each of your perspectives.
Set aside a time for each of you to talk about your personal perspective on the issue. Use the talking formula: “I feel…because/about…and what I would like is…” Speak in a respectful and non-critical tone to your partner, believing that they want to hear your side.
The most crucial component of this exercise, however, is playing the role of the listener. Often we listen with one ear, but our mind is focused on our response and how we might defend ourselves. When we do this, we’re not truly listening to the other person. Instead, Gottman encourages you to “suspend persuasion” for a time and seek to understand your partner’s perspective, as if you were an outside observer. Validate what you hear in your partner’s perspective. What feelings make sense to you? Can you understand from their perspective, even if you don’t fully agree?
Example: In talking about housework, you might say, “I felt abandoned when I asked you to help me clean the garage and you said “no.” I need to feel like we share responsibility and are working together to keep our home organized.”
Step 2: Identify the “dreams within conflict.”
Look deeper at why the issue is so important to you personally. Exploring your own triggers is a self-reflective tool that helps you identify your own personal narrative contributing to the issue.
Typically, this narrative has to do with your past. Describing why you are uniquely triggered helps your partner feel empathy. As you discuss this narrative, ask open-ended questions like “tell me the story behind that” or “what experience from your past makes this so important to you?” to understand more of your partner’s perspective.
Similar to Step 1, it is essential to listen and understand your partner’s perspective. Do you see why they might make the connection between the present issue and a past experience? Does it make sense why they are having a strong emotional reaction?
Example: “I’m reminded of the importance of my value of equality. My father made sure that my mother felt as though they carried an equal weight in taking care of the house, and I saw that as a way they loved each other. When you don’t help me out, I wonder if you don’t see us as equals, and then I feel unloved.”
Step 3: Choose areas of compromise.
Once you’ve listened to one another’s perspective, asked questions, and helped each other feel fully understood, then you can move into a place of compromise. Understanding and empathizing with your spouse’s story makes compromise vastly easier. Where you might have been stubborn before, now that you know their story, you may be more willing to move closer to what they desire.
Make a list of essentials about this area: what do you need? Then make a list of more flexible items where might you be willing to compromise. Discuss your lists together and seek overlap. Where might each of you make some compromise to move closer to your partner’s needs? How can you practically put this into play this upcoming week?
Example: “It is essential to me that, in general, you help out with tasks around the house. I am willing to be flexible about what those tasks are. If organizing the garage is not your cup of tea, I would feel supported and equal to you if you prepared dinner so I could focus on getting the garage done today. Are you willing to consider that?”
Know this: even in using these three steps, you will likely still argue. Perhaps the compromise will work for a time, but eventually a new trigger will come up that needs to be discussed. Remember: this is normal! You will be discussing compromises and seeking to support one another throughout your relationship. If you look at this as an ongoing conversation that will get easier over time, you’ll be set up well to continue to love one another through compromise in the course of your relationship.
Are you having a hard time finding common ground in your relationship? Do you constantly feel stuck in your arguments? At Restored Hope, I offer supportive couples counseling that helps you learn to communicate your dreams and listen with empathy to your significant other. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.