There Are Some Problems You Can’t Solve

John Gottman, one of the top marriage researchers, estimates that 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual. That means that couples will have the same disagreement over and over again. You may never solve it.

Despite that problems may never be solved, healthy marriages can still learn to manage these issues and thrive.

I like to think that there are different types of perpetual problems.

First, there are pet peeves. It seems like every couple has these types of issues.

I like a clean countertop. I don’t know why, but it irritates me when the countertop isn’t cleaned off. Michelle doesn’t see it the same way. She just doesn’t notice. So, she comes into the house and places her purse in the middle of the countertop. It drives me nuts.

I used to ask her politely if she would put her purse somewhere else. She would usually do that, but the next day, it was same thing. I then tried to tell her not very politely to move her purse. Same result.

I would watch her put something on the countertop and I’d not say anything. I would see how long it took her to move it. Sometimes, things would sit there for days and every time I saw it, I would inwardly seethe.

I have come to understand that this is my problem, not hers. Am I going to divorce Michelle over a clean countertop?

Then, I began to understand this in a deeper way. I grew up with my own bathroom and my job to keep it clean. It wasn’t all that hard to put my toothbrush and toothpaste away. I took pride in cleaning it up. Michelle grew up with four siblings and her parents sharing a bathroom. There was always stuff out. In her mind, that was normal.

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We have two different perspectives. I recognized that she may not change.

I now see my job in our marriage as the countertop cleaner. It’s what I do. I no longer get upset by this. I’ve come to manage this problem by acceptance. With some issues, there is a certain amount of acceptance.

There are also deeper perpetual problems. Many of these are caused by basic personality differences or by deeper triggers from our past. Often times, these triggers are may be deeply rooted in our own insecurities.

Characteristics of perpetual problems:

  • May be caused by basic personality differences
  • Often rooted in our childhood expectations
  • May reflect our deeper insecurities

If there are deeper issues involved, negotiating about who cleans up the kitchen isn’t going to help. You need to help the couple recognize the deeper issue.

When we talk with couples and they seem stuck, we talk to them about solvable versus perpetual problems. It helps couples to know that they won’t be able to solve all of their problems. Happy couples learn to manage them.

Sometimes it comes down to the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And the Wisdom to know the difference.”