It has happened to all of us before.
You saw a look in your partner’s eyes, felt a change of tone in their voice, or caught a quick glimpse of rolling eyes. You felt a sense of confusion and anger rise up within you. You decided to give it one last push, argued your point, and repeated yourself again and again. But no luck. A conversation about issues you have had with your partner a hundred times before ended again in a stalemate. You felt angry, disappointed, perhaps exasperated, and tired of the whole thing. You locked yourself in the bedroom for a couple of hours to sulk or gave your partner the cold shoulder for the rest of the day. Playing the victim card also worked, at least most of the time.
“You don’t care about me.”
“My dreams don’t matter to you.”
“All you want is to be right.”
These words often characterize perpetually gridlocked issues in relationships where both parties have solidified positions with no movement forward. In fact, research shows that 70% of issues in relationships are perpetually gridlocked with no clear-cut solution and only about 30% of issues are solvable. What can you do about it?
1. Accept Influence from your partner.
“You can either be right or be married,” says Terry Real, marriage and family therapist (I have enjoyed getting to know Terry’s thoughts in a recent training opportunity of which I will share about another time).
The first step is to be willing to accept influence from your partner. This is especially important for men, as they naturally move toward fighting for what they want, zero in on their target, and bat back until they win or give out. Men who are masters in relationships are willing to accept influence from women. Gottman research shows that anger is not dangerous, but escalation of anger to belligerence is. Men have a critical role in de-escalating conflict and creating repair attempts. By learning to self-soothe instead of relying on their partners to calm down first, men can make all the difference in the world.
2. Solving the problem is not important.
Perpetually gridlocked issues don’t have a solution, so why chase them?
Research by John and Julie Gottman shows that what matters is how you go about solving problems, not whether or not you are able to solve them. This issue hits couples, especially newlyweds, pretty hard. Most couples fight because they desperately want to be connected through solving their problems, yet they forget that connection is created or destroyed at the beginning of a fight. The first three minutes of a conversation determines the final outcome. By using a harsh startup, couples often blow their chances of connection early in the fight. This is where women can be instrumental in helping to work towards success. Because women bring up issues about 80% of the time in relationships, the way they initially present an issue is instrumental in avoiding an escalating conflict.
3. Happy Couples Repair Connection both during and after Fights
Researchers in the Gottman Lab have studied how couples repair their negativity. They have discovered that happy couples are doing a great deal to avoid negative discussions in the first place. Unhappy couples do not do this. An example of one of the ways happy couples avoid negativity is by “tooting their own horn” – a form of reminding themselves that they have been successful in creating connection during conflict discussions in the past. This usually happens by one of the partners congratulating the other partner about past successes in communication and on how well they coped with issues in the past. So, remember that lots of positive affect and repair attempts work!