Does your partner drive you a bit batty by doing the same thing over and over that they must know by now that it is a pet peeve of yours? Here is a little secret about disagreements with your partner: if the same argument keeps coming up, over and over again, you may be dealing with a “perpetual issue.” Dr. Gottman’s research has shown that perpetual issues make up about 69% of conflict couples have. These are issues that relate to fundamental differences between partners, such as differences in personality or lifestyle preferences.
When you are discussing a perpetual issue, the most valuable skill is establishing an ongoing dialogue about the issue. An essential part of this dialogue is to slow down the conversation. The aim is to understand what is going on underneath the surface. Then, with this understanding, explore options to make things better for both of you.
For example, take Joe and Mary. Mary wants to be on time, but Joe has a relaxed stance on timeliness. Is Mary’s need for timeliness about a value like respect? Is there a backstory that can help flesh out what is going on? Is Joe’s underlying value about relaxing and escaping the tyranny of time? Is there a disaster scenario for them around some aspect of this? The possibilities of what could be going on for each person are endless.
When we understand what is going on, for ourselves and our partner, and we both feel heard and understood, avenues for honoring each other’s needs become possible. A deeper understanding will allow you to experiment with possible solutions. But know that you will likely need to return to dialogue when it comes up again. As always, remember to avoid the Four Horsemen (contempt, stonewalling, criticism, and defensiveness).
Let us go back to Joe and Mary. For Mary, timeliness is about keeping her word and being responsible. For her, it is about how disappointed and let down she feels when others fail to show up for her. For Joe, his relaxed stance on time is about not worrying about responsibilities all the time. His story is about how stifling it was to grow up in a house where there was no space made for hanging out and being creative. With this understanding, Joe and Mary discussed ways to manage this difference. One option they came up with is deciding which events will be prioritized for being “on time” and which events both will be “more relaxed” about. They also decided to set up activities that are not bound by a set time frame.
Once you have set up a plan, give yourselves some opportunities to try it out. Come back and talk about it again after a while to see what may need to be adjusted. Remember that this is an ongoing conversation; keep experimenting, building on what you learn along the way.
While some arguments will change over time, others will stay with you as you find ways to deal with them. Keep in mind that differences are inevitable when two people love one another. The important thing is that the positive things about your partner and your relationship can far outweigh these differences.
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