When Problems Seem Unsolvable

Image from Unsplash by Alice Yamamura

Most of the problems you will face as a couple are unsolvable.

This can be discouraging to hear, so I ask you to hear me out:

The Gottman Relationship Institute did over four decades of research with thousands of couples at different point in their lives together. They surveyed the couples about which topics create problems in the relationships. This survey was done at the time of the marriage, then at numerous points throughout their decades of marriage together.

The ongoing answers were compared against their original answers. Results showed that roughly two-thirds (69%) of the struggles or problems in the marriages remained consistent across the entire relationship, and only about one-third of the problems couples faced were different.

Yes, at first this seems discouraging. Are our problems truly unsolvable?

The truth is that most of the problems we face are not things to “be solved,” but are part of the relationship dynamic. They are rooted in the differences about who each person is in their character, preferences, and way of living.

If, for example, I am a spender and my partner is a saver, any time there is a financial decision, I will want to spend more than he does, and my partner will want to save more than I do. If I have a high need for spending time with family and being social is important to me, I’m always going to feel that way. If my partner is more introverted, likes quiet one-on-one time, they are always going to feel that way.

This reality applies to so many relationship issues.

These issues are not truly unsolvable, but they are MANAGEABLE because we can get better at discussing and dealing with our differences in the current situation.

The solvable problems we experience, on the other hand, are often tied to where we are, and the unique season of our relationship.

Young couple starting careers and forging a life together face different situations than couples who have been together for years or decades. Their kids are older, their careers are established—and this, in turn, is very different from the problems faced by empty nesters and those nearing retirement.

David and Lisa are remodeling their kitchen and need to select new appliances. They both feel stressed about so many decisions and so much money. David wants the super high-end version that matches their cabinet colors and has all the bells and whistles. Lisa is much more comfortable with the mid range purchase that fits the space, is stainless steel, and will get the job done. They go 20 rounds explaining why their choice is logical, and they both make fair points.

So now what?

They start with a wonderful request. They say to each other: Help me understand why this choice is so important to you.

David talks about how he grew up feeling less than others. His family lived modestly and he wore hand-me-down clothes from his brothers. He feels he has worked very hard and built a good career. He feels like his home is special and he wants to feel special living in it.

Lisa talks about how her parents were always extravagant with their purchases but almost always ran out of money at the end of the month, and there were constant money fights. She remembers a sense of fear and chaos around money. She grew up and promised herself to never put herself in the position of instability that she felt as a child.

Now, David and Lisa can start having a dialogue about compromises each are willing to make that still honors David’s need to feel valued and important and Lisa’s need for stability. After lots of good discussion they find a middle ground that works for both. The fridge is the biggest, most noticeable and gets used the most anyway. So the big fancy fridge gets purchased and the oven, microwave and dishwasher are more modest.

They both needed to compromise, but now their kitchen symbolizes many wonderful things for them about their marriage and teamwork—and they both feel special and secure in that.

Think of unsolvable problems as temporary compromises that work where you are right now in your life together. This is life’s emotional journey. And each seemingly unsolvable problem that you manage together is one small part in the wider story of your life together.

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