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Perpetual Problems: The Root of Most Mixed-Faith Marriage Conflict

Dr. Gottman, a researcher and psychologist, contributed extensively to our understanding about what it is that really makes some couples thrive and others struggle or even head for divorce. One thing he found in his research is that ALL couples deal with what he calls “perpetual problems.” Perpetual problems are problems that arise because of the way people in a relationship are fundamentally different in their personalities, lifestyle needs, or core values. These core aspects of people aren’t going to drastically change (for example an extrovert vs. an introvert, or someone who is organized vs. someone who is messy) and so these problems are perpetual, meaning they will always be a source of tension to some degree throughout the relationship.

Perpetual problems are not the same as solvable problems. Solvable problems can be discussed, solved, and then the problem is gone until a completely separate problem arises. Perpetual problems, on the other hand, can’t be solved because we can’t change the core of who people are, and so those fundamental differences will keep emerging in various forms or at different times since they can’t be solved away.

Here are some other examples of common perpetual problems:




*Time Together/Time Apart

*Conflict Style

*Extended Family/ In-Laws









You Can’t Escape Perpetual Problems!

Dr. Gottman says that when you marry someone, you marry a set of perpetual problems! If you were with someone else, you would not be free of perpetual problems, you just might have a different set of perpetual problems to deal with. Often, we don’t even know what these perpetual problems are until well into the relationship when our differences more fully emerge (which is part of the natural developmental process of relationships). In the case of a mixed-faith marriage, it might seem like a a new set of perpetual problems can develop later on in the relationship that may not have been there in the beginning, although I might argue that the perpetual problems were there all along, but they presented in different areas. Gottman’s research showed that a whopping 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems, and only 31% of conflict is about solvable problems. This means that couples need to get really good at identifying their perpetual problems and learning to manage them since they make up the bulk of conflict areas.

Instead of being able to solve perpetual problems, couples need to learn to manage them effectively so that they don’t end up in what Dr Gottman calls “gridlock.” Perpetual problems that are in gridlock look like entrenched positions, arguments that go nowhere, vilification of each other, tense or icy exchanges, or even emotional disengagement. Perpetual problems that aren't in gridlock on the other hand, feel manageable, less stressful, positive, and still have interactions that feel connecting.

Religious/Spiritual differences in a mixed-faith marriage tend to fall under this category of perpetual problems. This is due to the fact that if you were to really dig beneath everything on the surface, religious/spiritual differences that emerge for whatever reason, are ultimately about fundamental differences in the values, personality and lifestyle needs of each person. These core elements of who a person is impact everything about how they relate to their faith or how they might deconstruct or reconstruct their faith. Since religious differences are often perpetual problems, they are very prone to becoming gridlocked if a couple isn't intentional about learning how to prevent gridlocked conflict.

Why does it matter?

The reason why it is so important to know if you are dealing with a solvable or a perpetual problem is so that you know what to do with them. Different types of problems require different kinds of goals, strategies and skills. How you approach a solvable problem is very different than how you approach a perpetual problem. The goal of a solvable problem is to solve it so that it goes away. Oppositely, the goal when dealing with a perpetual problem is NOT to solve it since ultimately it is unsolvable. The goal is also NOT to get both partners on the same page and eliminate your differences, that simply won’t happen either. That is a complete fantasy! Yet that is exactly what most couples who are experiencing a perpetual problem try to do and it goes nowhere productive and ultimately leads to disconnection and gridlocked conflict.

Instead, the goal when dealing with perpetual problems is to have effective dialogue. Effective dialogue utilizes skills that allow your conversations about your differences to be manageable, full of give-and-take, less stressful, more connecting, and more positive. Positivity is key! Effective dialogue does not require being in agreement or being on the same page. Effective dialogue has nothing to do with providing facts or evidence of your point of view, and it has nothing to do with deciding who is right or who is wrong. Effective dialogue does require knowing what NOT to do and what to do instead. Dr. Gottman found that there are 4 communication styles that get in the way of effective dialogue. He calls these communication patterns the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

He named them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse in reference to the New Testament about the 4 horsemen riding together before the end of the world. According to Dr. Gottman, when these 4 communication patterns are present, they can signal the end of the relationship or at least signify major relationship distress. Dr. Gottman can predict divorce using formulas he has created with 94% accuracy. So if he says that there are four communication patterns that are detrimental to a relationship and indicate relationship trouble, we would be wise to pay attention!

Over the next few blog posts, I will go into further detail about all of these 4 Horsemen, why they matter, and what to replace them with in order to have much more effective dialogue regarding your perpetual problems and avoid gridlocked conflict. Stay tuned.........

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