January 16, 2023
How to Identify and Manage Solvable vs. Perpetual Differences as a Couple

Dealing with conflict is a major part of engaging in any relationship. People are unique and when they want to join and realize some of the pieces do not fit, conflict ensues! It is inevitable and much of it is resolvable through effective communication skills, a genuine willingness to engage with your partner, humor and affection.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have done significant sociological and psychological work around and about couples: how they come together, how they manage day to day, how they fight and how they stay together. Dealing with conflict is a major part of engaging in any relationship. People are unique and when they want to join and realize some of the pieces do not fit, conflict ensues! It is inevitable and much of it is resolvable through effective communication skills, a genuine willingness to engage with your partner, humor and affection.

However, there are some conflicts that are not resolvable. Gottman found that 69% of couples have some issues that they return to time and time again without resolution. These are called Perpetual Differences. He makes a distinction between them in that Solvable Differences are generally situational in nature, i.e. who does what in household? How is money used?

Perpetual Differences tend to occur because they are so strongly tied to the individuals’ personality (internal drives, motivations and preferences) and deeply held values. For example, levels of physical touch or socializing or spontaneity.

Of course, we forget that the things that drive us nuts now are the very things that we first loved about the other!

So how can we manage these differences effectively?

Gottman stresses the importance of developing EQ (Emotional Intelligence) which is the capacity to be aware of, control and express our emotions and handle them in relationships with understanding and empathy. He encourages couples to explore differences, especially the Perpetual ones, in a framework of curiosity (vs. accusations) with humor and affection. What he terms as “turning towards each other.”

Solvable problems are about negotiation; allowing win-win situations to occur. Who does what in the household can be resolved with conversation, a chore chart and loving reminders. Perpetual differences are about our essence, so they are not negotiable. However, they do not need to be deal-breakers for the relationship.

The goal is to have a safe space for continual dialogue about these differences. The willingness to learn about each other and what makes us “tick” is done in both verbal and non-verbal forms. We do not have to agree in order to feel loved and understood.

Here are some tips to manage Perpetual arguments:

Talk and listen, then switch. This is an intentional format to have conversations that focuses on each partner having their turn in sharing their ideas and feelings. This is done openly, honestly, with no interruptions or profanity. This can allow for greater understanding of perspectives.

Watch the body! Our bodies talk too. Use loving eye contact. Check your posture and facial expressions. Use calm, quiet tones.

Be willing to apologize. A sincere apology includes ownership of your part in the disagreement. Apologizing does not mean that you agree, it can mean that you understand.

All couples have those areas that they cannot agree on. Willingness to engage in conversation anyway allows for greater intimacy in the areas that they can and do agree upon. Delving into the non-negotiable parts of us can allow us to recognize and accept each other’s quirks and open room for acceptance.  Challenging, but doable!

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