Why A Lack of Tolerance Dooms Relationships

Why a Lack of Tolerance DoomsWhat if you can’t find common ground with your partner on some serious relationship issues like finances, sex life, and parenting differences? Does this mean your relationship is necessarily unhappy, or even worse, doomed?

Typically, most attribute dissatisfaction or unhappiness in a relationship to an increase in the number of problems a couple faces. However, a recent study, conducted by the University of Georgia and the University of California in Los Angeles, found that experiencing an increase in the number of problems is not what increases relationship dissatisfaction. This holds true even when the number of problems stays the same; some couples will still grow apart. The researchers hypothesize that it is a lack, or lowered tolerance, to the same old issues partners are having that causes the biggest rift, not any additional or new conflicts.

These study results are, in fact, very consistent with the work of Dr. John Gottman. His research found that the majority (over 60%) of marital problems are perpetual, unsolvable problems which are not likely to change much over time. Gottman found that even 10 years later, these problems will still be there (even if they’re a little less intense). He concluded that intimate partners who are healthier and more at peace, whom he refers to as “Masters of Love,” develop tolerance, playfulness, and humor to manage their differences. On the other hand, the “Disasters” don’t learn to accept their partner’s preferences as the years go by. Instead, these conflictual issues grate on them and increase the emotional distance within the relationship. Gottman found that these perpetual problems can become “gridlock issues,” (especially for the “Disasters”) in which couples spin their wheels and get nowhere.

It is interesting to look at why some partners have more tolerance than others. One important factor, suggested by Gottman, is that the partners whose tolerance grows thin over time seem to have an idealized, underlying belief about relationships. They believe that couples should mostly be happy and in a state of bliss. It is likely this belief that prevents couples from realistically accepting the difficult qualities of their partner and becoming more tolerant of them.

It should be noted that some relationship issues can very reasonably become “deal breakers.” If you and your partner have polar opposite stances (on finances, parenting issues, or sex life) and these issues are extremely important to one or both of you, this level of incompatibility, regardless of how tolerant you are, is likely to doom your relationship. However, the level of tolerance plays a vital role when the perpetual relationship problems are difficult, but not deal breakers for the couple. When you and your partner learn how to manage this difficult issue in a way that is acceptable, but not ideal, the level of tolerance you have over time becomes critical to your relationship satisfaction.

How to best deal with perpetual relationship problems:

1. Recognize when unresolved issues are, in reality, perpetual problems. Ending the relationship is always an option, but you should realize there will likely be an ongoing difficulty in any relationship.

2. Distinguish between a one-time issue, and an on-going perpetual issue. Is it a solvable problem or a situational problem? What is solvable for some couples isn’t for others. A perpetual problem that reflects a fundamental difference in character or lifestyle is likely a deal breaker. For some, that issue might be an open relationship versus a monogamous relationship. To other couples, the unacceptable issue could even be about how to load a dishwasher.

3. Honestly examine and evaluate your underlying beliefs about relationships. If they are unrealistic and idealized (expecting only relationship bliss), recognize that your high expectations are setting you up for disappointment.

4. Seek couples counseling early on, before the problems become gridlocked. Counseling can help couples learn how to manage their perpetual problems, and even increase your tolerance for each other’s personal preferences.

5. For couples just starting out, premarital counseling can be invaluable in this regard, helping couples recognize their differences and working through them, prior to committing to a permanent partnership.

Learning to manage and tolerate our differences, rather than letting them fester and cause increased resentment with each passing year, is a critical step to promote a satisfying long-term relationship.

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