Solving Seemingly Unsolvable Conflicts

Does this problem sound familiar?  She wants him to take a larger role in housekeeping, domestic chores and keeping the place picked up.  He wants her to get off his back.

Don’t relate to that issue?  How about this one?  She wants to socialize with and meet new people at parties and other social events, while he wants her to stay with him.  He wants her to make him the center of her attention.

Or how about this issue?  He and she have very different comfort levels with being emotionally expressive.  For her, tender emotional expression is what gives meaning to her life—and how she feels connected to her mate.  For him, tender emotional expression is overly mushy and sentimental, and he sees being emotional as a weakness.

So what do you do when you’re in a committed relationship, and you have these seemingly unsolvable problems—or polar-opposite positions—that can threaten the stability of the relationship, not to mention they can drive you crazy?  How do you solve problems that appear to have no solutions?

Here’s what you can do, courtesy of John Gottman and Nan Silver in the book The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press).

First, define the minimal core areas that you cannot yield on, your non-negotiable areas.   In the last couple described, she needs and wants a strong emotional connection with her mate.  He cannot become a tender, emotionally expressive and empathetic partner just to please her.

Second, define your areas of flexibility, such as accepting that your intimate partner is not going to easily change a life-long personality trait.  In the end, she is going to have to accept something other than what she had hoped for, and he is gong to have to accommodate her desires and needs even if it makes him uncomfortable.

Now see if you can examine your own relationship problems in the same way.  First, write a clear statement of what the problem is, and the inner dreams each of you have within the conflict (she wants connection; he doesn’t want to feel weak).  Then explore which areas are non-negotiable for each of you, and which areas you have flexibility in.

Then create a temporary compromise that you agree to try for a brief period of time.  (For the last couple mentioned, they will be respectful of each other’s position in this arena.  He will be receptive to talking with her about feelings, and more open to personal levels of sharing and connection.  She will honor, respect and accept when he says he can’t do it.)

It would be wise if you also briefly acknowledge your ongoing conflict each other:  you both understand that the problem isn’t going to go away—but it also, in many cases, doesn’t have to destroy, threaten or destabilize the relationship.

The interesting thing about this exercise is that it teaches you that in almost every conflict, no matter how entrenched the two of you are in your respective positions, there are still areas you can successfully negotiate and compromise with each other, and the needs, wishes and desires of both parties.

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