The Truth about Relationships #2: Solvable vs Perpetual issues

70% of the problems couples face in their relationships are actually not solvable!

Wrap your mind around that for a second… or maybe two…

You mean my partner and I keep trying to solve unsolvable problems???


John Gottman discovered this in his sociological research in the 90’s. One of the great skills in creating the relationship you most deeply desire is the ability to differentiate between the relationship issues that are solvable and the ones that aren’t. Why is this so important? Because it can change the way we approach the issues we come up against in our relationships.

Here’s what Gottman and others have discovered…

Solvable problems allow for a clear compromise; a win-win situation is readily visible.

Problem:             “I like creamy peanut butter and you like crunchy peanut butter”

Solution:             “Let’s buy both!”

Problem:             “I want to hike a fourteener and you want to do yoga”

Solution:             “You hike a fourteener and I’ll do yoga!”

Problem:             “I want things clean and you want things neat.”

Solution:             “I will spearhead clean and you can spearhead neat!”

Many other problems are perpetual issues across the lifespan of the relationship. You know you’re dealing with a perpetual issue when you see it coming up again and again (duh!). This is because they are so strongly tied to the individuals’ personal makeup (intrinsic drives & motivations, innate tendencies & preferences, and deeply held values).

“I need more physical touch than you.”

“I’m a verbal processor and you’re an internal processor.”

“My environment affects me so strongly, but you seem unaffected by it.”

“I’m a planner and you’re spontaneous.”

“I’m a risk-taker and you are risk-avoidant.”

“I respond emotionally and you respond logically.”

“I want to deal with conflict right now and you need space.”

I could go on and on with examples. But you can see and feel the difference can’t you? Perpetual issues aren’t resolved by simple compromise. A clear win-win is not readily apparent. And this drives couples crazy! “What’s wrong with you? You should be more like me!” Of course, we forget that the things that drive us nuts now, are the very things that first attracted us to each other! What begins as, “He’s just so easy-going and never seems to get riled up,” becomes, “How can he be so calm? I just want to shake him!” “She’s so passionate and fun,” becomes, “She’s such an emotional mess!”

Listen. As hard as you try, perpetual issues are not actually solvable. And that’s okay. And if they are ever going to be solved, it will be the result of healthy engagement around the issue. Until then, your job is to turn toward each other in these perpetual issues. Reach for understanding. Have multiple conversations. Regularly advocate for the relationship dynamic you desire. Be the change you wish to see in your relationship.

A personal example:

Betsy and I have been married for 20 years. At the beginning, I desired much more physical affection than she. This has complex origins, but basically has its roots in our childhood family dynamics. This became a perpetual issue for us. I regularly reached out for physical touch more than Betsy. I regularly requested that Betsy reach out more. I understood that her lower felt need in this area was not a personal attack on me or lack of interest in or attraction to me, but simply a way of relating that was more familiar in her. She graciously worked to increase her contact initiation with me. Over time, we have come much more center with each other. I will always reach out more often to make physical contact, but my need for it is less intense. And Betsy has really skyrocketed in her felt need for physical contact, and will reach out very often to make those brief points of contact. Amazing. But to get there, we had to dialogue, get curious and mine into each other, reach for understanding, step away from personalizing the issue, advocate for and communicate what we were wanting, and realize that it didn’t really matter who reached out more for contact – only that contact was made and responded to. And Betsy did an amazing job of responding to my reaching out for connection.

So, as Gottman suggests… turn toward each other in these perpetual issues. It will pay off.

                ~ Clinton J. Nunnally, LPC