Improved communication skills = improved fighting skills.
Shortly after my husband and I got married, we started arguing about work-life balance.
My husband worked a full-time job and had recently started a coaching gig on the side.
I had no problem with him working two jobs. What I did have a problem with is that it started to consume any free time he had. It got to the point where he was working his normal 8–5 plus spending all of his nights and weekends on his side gig.
I missed my husband. We were newly married and this was supposed to be our honeymoon phase, but instead we weren’t spending much time together, and when we did, we were bickering.
Anytime I brought it up, he got defensive.
“But I’m making money on this FOR us, and I have to do it when I’m off!”
“That’s FINE,” I’d retort. “But what about time with me? Date nights? Even just going to bed at the same time? We don’t have ANY time together anymore!”
This became an issue that extended over months: I wanted quality time with my husband and felt like he was ignoring my pleas for that. He wanted to work on his coaching gig and felt like I wasn’t supporting him in this endeavor.
What was happening was not that either one of us was the bad guy. What was happening was poor communication.
Most fights that couples have will come down to poor communication, so improved communication skills means improved fighting skills.
What my husband and I were dealing with at the time was a “perpetual” or “unsolvable” problem.
Every couple has at least one thing that they fight about again and again, that they can never seem to resolve. These are “perpetual” or “unsolvable” problems, and they’re perfectly normal in a relationship.
In fact, according to research done by the Gottman Institute, about 70% of all problems within your relationship will be “perpetual,” as in ongoing problems.
What are “perpetual” problems?
Perpetual problems often arise due to your personalities. You and your partner have fundamental differences that will make you disagree with one another on how to navigate them.
You’ll often get into “gridlock” whenever the problem is brought up because you both have set stances and don’t understand how the other can think the way they do.
Below are signs that you and your partner have encountered a “perpetual” problem (this is explored more here):
Any conflict over the problem ends the same way.
No compromise that feels good to both people is reached.
You tend to feel not heard, frustrated, and hurt every time it’s discussed.
You leave these discussions angry at your partner and like they’re the “enemy.”
What are “solvable” problems?
Just like it sounds, “solvable” problems are ones that you and your partner can solve. You don’t get stuck in gridlock. You come to some kind of agreement or compromise that works for the both of you, you accept it, and let it go.
It’s important to note that sometimes “solvable” problems become “unsolvable” because of communication issues or a lack of desire to compromise.
Also a problem that is “solvable” for one couple may be “unsolvable” for another. There are no hard and fast rules for what would be perpetual vs. solvable problems because every relationship is unique.
How to deal with perpetual problems
Often the reason why “unsolvable” problems aren’t able to be navigated is because we’re focusing on the more superficial aspect of the conflict.
In the situation with my husband, both of us were focused on his side gig: me on it taking up too much of his time and him on me not being supportive.
His side gig wasn’t the issue. For me, the deeper issue is that I wanted regular date nights and other quality time with my partner. For him, he wanted his hard work and the fact that he was putting in long hours to be recognized and appreciated.
If we kept arguing over his side gig and not addressed the deeper issues, we would have never come to a resolution.
1. Get clear about the problem
When you encounter an unsolvable or perpetual problem, here are some questions to ask yourself first:
What do I feel when this problem occurs? (Unappreciated, unloved, sad, etc.)
Would fixing the problem actually help you feel happy? (For example, my husband quitting his side gig wouldn’t have made me happy.)
What is the deeper need I would like met when this problem occurs? (“I need them to do the dishes” isn’t the kind of need I mean here. This would be more like, “I need to feel safe/secure/loved/appreciated,” etc.)
What would be my ideal solution? What could I live with? What would be unacceptable?
2. Prepare for a discussion
Once you’ve answered those questions, it’s time to formulate how you’d approach the situation with your partner.
In McKay’s book Couple Skills (affiliate link), he outlines a very specific way of negotiating with our partner:
I think (facts):
I feel (emotions):
I want (interests):
I need (intangibles):
Perhaps we could (tentative solutions):
Notice that every statement begins with I/we. This helps ensure our partner doesn’t respond defensively (this is also called a “soft startup” by Dr. Gottman).
Here’s an example of how this would play out. Remember this would be a conversation, not just a monologue.
I think (facts): “I want to discuss your side gig. You’re working long hours at work and then all of your nights and weekends are also being used to work toward your side gig. It’s been 3 months since we had a date night.”
I feel (emotions): “I miss you. I feel really sad that we really haven’t had much time together since we got married.”
I want (interests): “I want to come up with an arrangement so you can still pursue your side gig, but we can also enjoy being married and spend more time with one another.”
I need (intangibles): “I need to have time with you on a more regular basis, so I feel more connected to and loved by you.”
Perhaps we could (tentative solutions): “Would you be willing to let us schedule a date night once a week?”
To set ourselves and our partner up for success, it’s often helpful to schedule a time to talk. For example, you might say to your partner, “I’d really like to talk about ____. Can we do it tonight after the kids get to bed?”
That way: 1.) you both know what’s going to be discussed and 2.) it’ll happen at a time you’re both prepared for, thus no one feels blindsided and can prepare for it accordingly.
Once you sit down to discuss, make sure to be clear that you don’t want to blame/accuse, etc. You want to focus on coming up with an outcome that works for the both of you.
4. Stay focused.
If things start to get heated, take a break (of at least 30–60 minutes up to 24 hours) and come back to it. Once someone gets heated, nothing productive will come of that conversation, so it’s important to call a time-out once it does.
If other topics are getting brought up, like your partner retorts, “But I’m tired of doing all of the laundry!” then you can say, “I’d love to talk about that, but right now I’d like to focus on just this situation so we can resolve it before we move onto anything else.”
If you need to, keep repeating to yourself, “I can handle conflict calmly. I can accept compromises. My partner is my teammate, and we will work something out.”
5. Be flexible.
In an ideal world, we’d be told something once and just do it, but life doesn’t often work that way.
You might come up with an initial solution that actually doesn’t work in real life, so it’d be important to have another conversation with your partner and try to brainstorm alternatives. Know that working things out with your partner often takes time and patience, but it’s always worth it.