Relationship conflict is complex. Sometimes conflicts only relate to the “here and now” issue. This means that you are really fighting for what you are fighting for. It’s “I’ve left your favorite cream out, it’s spoiled, no coffee, and now you’re upset with me.” It doesn’t go much deeper than that.
This type of problem is what we consider a “solvable problem.” When a problem can be solved, you and your partner can move quickly and easily because there is nothing hiding under the surface that prevents you from doing so. In this case, someone apologizes, gets in the car, and brings you both a coffee shop with milk.
Then you have a conflict looks like as if it were the subject of the here and now, the fact that the cream is damaged, but in reality it also connects with other things. Sometimes they are past experiences, belief systems or dreams and deep goals. And when that is the case, the disagreement will continue over and over again. It will resurface at different times under different costumes.
Most couples, however, only know how to talk about how crazy they are about burning coffee. And they really don’t know how to talk about all the other complexities involved in this same argument.
What follows are repetitive and frustrating loops of conflict. We call these “perpetual problems,” and when they are set in stone, we call them “stuck perpetual problems.” When a perpetual problem is blocked, there are likely to be basic beliefs underlying the problems that are being experienced as “threatened.”
Take Kris and Sam, for example, who are fighting over which school to send their five-year-old son to. They’ve been talking about this since they were parents. Sam says private and Kris says public. Fights often get out of the way. Sam becomes critical and Kris goes on the defense. They address different topics and never get anywhere.
That’s because school isn’t really the issue. Their basic unspoken beliefs are. The school theme threatens their beliefs, so they duplicate themselves.
Identification of basic beliefs
When I come across couples who use the Gottman method, I help them identify which of their arguments can be resolved and which are perpetual. If it is perpetual, I ask them to temporarily stop trying to solve the problem and to lean towards understanding.
To do this, we will have a “Dreams in Conflict” conversation. Ask the couples to talk about the following:
- What do they think about the topic they are discussing?
- What kind of feelings do they present around the topic
- How their childhood experiences are manifested within this current theme
- What would be your ideal dream here
- The worst thing that could happen is if they don’t solve the problem “in their own way”
When couples explore their differences with these types of questions, they learn more about why the problem is so difficult to solve. It’s often because it’s not the problem, it’s the basic dream or belief.
For Kris, he believes that they should not spend money on school when he is free from the state. She also has the basic dream that her children go to the same school she went to, where she had wonderful experiences. Sam, on the other hand, believes that academics are an investment and that it is important to spend money on them. Sam also had a bad experience with public school and dreams of different things for his children.
Neither is wrong. Both are right and have valid opinions based on their own needs, experiences, and beliefs.
Now that they understand each other, they can approach their conversation with more empathy and a willingness to help each other achieve what the other needs.
For couples who like to do things, they may worry that leaning toward a deeper understanding will prevent them from moving forward in their discussion. It’s not like that. Understanding couples are better equipped to create a fair engagement. This means that they are more likely to find win-win solutions that meet each person’s basic needs and beliefs, even if that means they need a little curiosity.
Find out more about the Gottman Method and how it can help your relationship by attending the upcoming Art and Science of Love virtual event. This two-day workshop explores how to build a solid foundation with the Sound Relationship House. Enjoy research-based presentations and work sessions with therapists. Sign up today!
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