This is the final installment in a series on successful conflict-resolution in relationships, based on the work of John Gottman, one of the country’s foremost researchers on relationship dynamics. In this last article I want to acknowledge that even when all the steps of fair fighting previously outlined have been learned, when both partners have mastered the art of the soft startup, have become skillful at making and receiving repair attempts, have learned to soothe each other, and have become proficient in the art of compromise – even then a huge number of issues in relationships (Gottman estimates the number to be as high as 69%) are never resolved. The reason is that core conflicts are usually rooted in fundamental personality, lifestyle or value differences. What do we do about these conflicts?
It’s a question that virtually every couple faces sooner or later. After years of searching, you finally find someone with whom you fall deeply in love. At first, everything resembles the happy ending of a romantic movie. But then difficulties begin to pop up which mar the perfect picture: your partner is allergic to exercise and you’re addicted to it; you’re a neat freak and your partner is a slob; you’re a total extrovert and he or she is a total introvert; you’re a highly emotional person and your partner is a thinking type.
The most common response at this point is to try to make your partner change. You begin to see this person, not as your lover, but as a human reclamation project, and you go on a campaign to remold your partner nearer to your own heart’s desire. When these attempts fail – and they always do — many people begin to doubt the relationship. They ask themselves “Am I just settling if I stay with this person?” There are situations, such as when a partner becomes physically abusive, when separating may be the only possible response. But most of the time, the “grass is greener elsewhere” idea is just a fantasy. One of Gottman’s more unromantic findings is that to take on a relationship is to take on a set of problems. Every relationship has a different set, but there’s always something. The only realistic way to prevent these problems from creating a nightmare of gridlock and futile power struggles is to understand that, as Gottman puts it “Conflict resolution is not about one person changing, it’s about negotiating, finding common ground and ways that you can accommodate each other.” But you can’t accommodate unless you are willing to tolerate your partner’s faults.
One way to make this easier is to ask yourself “If these “faults” really are rooted in deep personality or value differences, what are those differences, and where do they come from?” Here’s an example of how this might look in practice:
Ben lives an orderly and predictable life. He keeps the house spotlessly clean, and weekends are mostly about doing laundry, shopping, cooking, and paying the bills. For his partner Arthur, chores are way down on his list of important things, and weekends are for playing, parties, and road trips. Ben struggles to get Arthur to be “more responsible,” and Arthur struggles to get Ben to “lighten up.”
Ben grew up in a chaotic home with alcoholic parents. “I never could count on anything. My mom was usually late getting me to school, and sometimes she’d forget to pick me up. When I did get home there often would be no dinner and no clean clothes. As the oldest, my responsibility was to provide structure for my brothers.” In adulthood, he only feels safe in an orderly and predictable life. Arthur, on the other hand, had parents who were strict disciplinarians, and saw any disagreement as a sign of insubordination. His whole life was regimented. Now that he’s an adult, he wants a life in which he doesn’t have to follow any rigid rules and can be free to be spontaneous and follow his whims.
By coming to a deeper understanding of each other’s backgrounds, Ben and Arthur begin to have more compassion for each other’s needs and better appreciation of each other’s fears and dreams. That understanding makes it easier for both of them not to take each other’s “faults” so personally, and helps them both let go of the delusion that either of them can, or should, change the other. They also begin to remember that their differences were part of what attracted them to each other in the first place. As the struggle cools down, Ben can admit that he really would like to lighten up a little more, and Arthur can acknowledge that he would prefer a little more orderliness in his life. Their core issue remains unresolvable in the sense that they will always have important personality differences with the potential to generate frustration and conflict in their relationship. But, armed with a deeper understanding of where the other man is coming from, they both begin to find it easier to negotiate and accommodate where they can; and where they can’t, to live with what can’t be changed with acceptance and with a little lightness and humor.