Having the Same Argument Over and Over Again? Of Course You Are!



“Not this fight, here we go again,” she mumbled to herself as she realized she was about to have the same argument with her husband. It seemed that whatever they were arguing about never got resolved, and it only became a broken record, repeating itself again and again in a vicious cycle. Michael Fulwiler, of The Gottman Institute, notes that this is a frequent experience for many couples. It is what he calls a perpetual problem.

A Perpetual Problem

Why are perpetual problems worth knowing about?  Well, The Gottman Institute’s research has found that as much as 69% of conflict between couples stems from perpetual problems! He notes that there is a difference between perpetual and solvable problems in that:

1. A perpetual problem is one that often reveals fundamental differences in a couple’s lifestyle and personality which makes it very difficult to resolve.

2. A solvable problem is one that is situational, and can be more easily resolved.

Washing the Dishes

Let’s use an example to highlight the differences between the two types of problems couples face. Say that a couple is arguing over who is going to do the dishes after dinner:

  • If both partners believe they should contribute to completing this chore at least some of the time, then this is likely to be a solvable problem where they should be able to find a compromise and resolve the dispute.
  • On the other hand, if the husband feels that he shouldn’t ever have to do the dishes and the wife believes they should share the chores, then a fundamental difference between the couple exists. In all likelihood, this will then become a perpetual problem that persists after the initial argument is over. It will likely be much harder to find a compromise or agreed upon solution.

The important question, of course, is how should couples handle perpetual problems? Every couple has them, but perpetual problems don’t have to ruin a relationship. Relationship health does, however, depend on how well couples manage the conflict.  If they can’t do so effectively, they can experience gridlock.

What is Gridlock?

Gridlock occurs when the perpetual problem between you and your partner has been “mishandled” and cannot be resolved. As Fulwiler states, couples who are gridlocked can seem like they are “spinning their wheels” when they get into these kinds of arguments. This occurs because, underneath the surface, are hurt feelings, unresolved conflict, and “hidden agendas” that ultimately prevent anything from being resolved.  As a result, these gridlocked problems often doom a relationship.

Tips for Resolving Perpetual Problems

Here are some steps that can help couples more effectively navigate their perpetual problems:

1. Check your pulse rate – Seriously! Research from The Gottman Institute indicates that when our heart rates rise above 100 beats per minute, it becomes almost impossible for us to process information effectively. This means we are no longer capable of being a good listener or able to truly understand our partner’s perspective. If you’re too worked up, schedule a time in the near future to resume the discussion and then take a break until you’ve had time to cool off.

2. Begin conversations with a “Soft-Start-Up”:  A “hard start-up” is when you begin by blaming or attacking your partner. A “soft start-up” includes using an “I statement” and a respectful tone when you begin a discussion. For more information on soft start-ups, go here.

3. Are you focused on being “Right”?  If the discussion starts to escalate in an unproductive direction, try to de-escalate by asking yourself whether you really understand your partner’s point of view. Or, are you just trying to prove you are right (and your partner is wrong)?

4. Shift your focus to your partner’s feelings over your own. This can really make a huge difference by allowing your partner to truly feel heard.

5. Be ready to compromise and to find a middle ground that can satisfy both parties.

6. Utilize humor, when possible, to help with difficult communications.  

In general, research shows that couples who learn how to manage or “massage” their perpetual problems are much less likely to experience gridlock. On the other hand, couples who poorly manage their perpetual problems are, unfortunately, risking the long-term survival of their relationship.

If, after following the above tips, you and your partner are still struggling to navigate your perpetual problems successfully, don’t hesitate to seek professional support from a local, skilled couples counselor.

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