According to relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman, the majority of problems married couples have are “perpetual.” These ongoing issues exist in virtually every relationship—yes, even healthy ones.
The idea that most problems in your marriage are “perpetual” may bring up thoughts of doom and gloom. After all, if a problem persists indefinitely between spouses, how can they ever find peace and fulfillment in their relationship?
The truth is, perpetual problems don’t necessarily spell trouble for your marriage. Keep reading to learn more.
The Difference Between Perpetual and Solvable Problems
A solvable problem for a married couple has a relatively simple solution. It often is about a specific situation or conflict. There’s usually no deeper meaning behind it and it’s not something a couple argues about repeatedly.
A perpetual problem is an issue that spouses revisit again and again. They never really come to an agreement and never seem to resolve the issue. Based on his research, Dr. Gottman estimates that nearly 70 percent of problems arising within marriages are of this kind.
Perpetual problems reflect irreconcilable differences spouses have in their beliefs, values, and core needs. These are fundamental differences in the way two people are. Not exactly easy to change—but perhaps not necessary to change, either.
4 Things to Know About Perpetual Problems
1. Perpetual Problems Are Different for Every Couple
Both solvable and perpetual problems can be about anything—politics, religion, politics, timeliness, cleanliness, in-laws, money, sex, child-rearing, and so on. But what might be a solvable problem for one couple could be a perpetual issue for another.
So, don’t assume that a long-standing issue your married friends deal with is bound to be the same issue for you and your spouse. Spouses should take inventory of their relationship (and themselves) to determine what issues are truly persistent in their marriage.
2. Yes, Perpetual Problems Don’t Really Go Away
It bears repeating: perpetual problems reflect irreconcilable differences between partners’ beliefs, values, and needs. These issues represent fundamentally different ways that two people view and navigate in the world.
What this means is that couples would be better off learning how to cope with these issues rather than trying to solve them—or worse, trying to change their spouse or believing things would be better “if only” if their spouse was different.
3. Beware: Perpetual Problems Can Turn to Gridlock
Perpetual problems aren’t inherently bad. But if they aren’t dealt with appropriately they can lead to trouble in a marriage. In imago theory we refer to this as “gridlock,” a disruptive state that leaves spouses feeling like they’re just spinning their wheels.
When a couple becomes gridlocked about a perpetual problem, they start to become adversarial with each other. Gridlock can lead to frustration, resentment, defensiveness, contempt, emotional withdrawal, and other negative interactions that can weaken a relationship from the inside out.
4. How Perpetual Problems Are Handled is More Important Than What the Problems Actually Are
When it comes to coping with perpetual issues, it’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong but how well a couple can discuss the problem in an emotionally intelligent way. Wondering how to do this? Here’s a cheat sheet:
- Communicate with affection, respect, patience, and even humor
- Be willing to accept the things you can’t change about your partner
- Find common ground and areas of compromise that won’t violate either of your core values and needs
As you might imagine, these can be tough waters to navigate! Working with a marriage counselor can be incredibly helpful here.
Remember, it’s not about trying to “solve” perpetual problems in your marriage. It’s about learning how to actively cope with them in a respectful and cooperative way.
And what happens if a couple simply can’t find common ground on an issue, even with professional help guiding them along? Realistically, if spouses have values that are so fundamentally different and opposed to each other, it may be time to re-examine the relationship. Fortunately, finding common ground is within reach for most couples. Contact us for help.