Dealing with unresolved problems in your marriage
In an earlier post I talked about different types of problems relationships face and how to tell the difference. If you’ve already read that one, you can skip this first section.
Solvable vs perpetual problems
I’ve got some news for you: Not all problems in your marriage can be solved. Some just don’t have solutions. These may come from differences in personality traits, religion, political opinions, cleanliness preferences, and the like. No matter how much you talk about these things or fight about which way is right, neither of you is likely to change or to change your partner.
Experts say that as many as 69% of marital problems are unresolvable. Can you believe it? 69%! So what do you do then? Spend a lot of time fighting about problems that don’t have a solution? Just live in constant annoyance with each other? Never address any problems? None of those sounds like a road to long-term happiness.
I've got some ideas for you. First, identify the problem. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it’s more challenging. But you’ve got to acknowledge that a problem exists before you can address it. Next, identify which type of problem you are dealing with: is this a solvable problem or a perpetual problem? How do you know which is which? At its simplest, if you’ve made multiple attempts to solve this problem and none of them work, you’re probably dealing with a perpetual problem. In the earlier post I gave some steps for working toward solutions to problems through compromise. In this post, I’m talking about the majority of your marital conflicts or differences that don’t have solutions
You don’t complete me and you’re not perfect
My first suggestion is that you might need to let some things go. One of the things you need to let go of is the expectation that your partner will fill all your needs, agree with all your opinions, and be your perfect match in every way. This is fantasy. It makes for some really great books, movies, TV, and love songs, but it’s not reality. Give your partner space to be human.
Marriage expert Dr. Susan Johnson explains that in the last several generations as we’ve moved away from living near our extended families and in tight-knit communities increasing pressure has been put on marital relationships. Our grandparents or great-grandparents might not have expected so much from their marriages. Doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? But there’s truth here. Now we expect our marriage partners to be our best friends, co-parents, passionate lovers, playmates, travel buddies, workout partners, and on and on. That’s a lot to expect from one person and one relationship! You’ll be more content if you can let go of some of those expectations.
Is this the hill I want to die on?
Along the lines of letting go of expectations, you may need to just learn to live with some of your differences. Are there things you don’t like or that bug you that you can learn to just work around? Not everything is worth bringing up. I’m not suggesting that you do this with everything, not at all! But to preserve feelings of togetherness, love, and affection, you may need to let some things go so that you have energy to focus on the things that matter more to you. When you bring up a problem, you want it to be something that really matters and not just one more in a long list of things you complain about.
Recognize and accept that this problem or difference isn’t going away
You will drive yourselves crazy and spend a whole lot of energy trying to solve problems that don’t have solutions. You have different cultures, politics, or religions; no amount of convincing or fighting is likely to change this, and you may do a lot of damage to your relationship trying. When you recognize and accept that you are dealing with a perpetual problem, you can change the conversation. Instead of spending your energy trying to change each other, you can focus on your values and how you can accommodate each other’s dreams.
Behind your position on most issues are deeply held values and beliefs. There is meaning behind why you think the way you do, why you want what you do, and why you see the world the way you do. When you understand the meaning behind your partner’s position (and your position too), it’s easier to find ways to to work with these perpetual problems or differences. Now the conversation isn’t about who won or who’s right, it’s about honoring our values and dreams.
Example: The spender and the saver
Let me give an example to bring these concepts to life. It’s not uncommon that couples have some level of disagreement in how they spend money: one of you is more of a saver and the other is a spender. You could bicker and argue over how money is spent for years and never really make any progress. It could be a mild annoyance or a major source of unhappiness and distrust in the relationship. Let’s take a look at what happens when we go beyond the dollars and cents and look at the meaning.
The saver likes security. They feel calm when they know they have money in the bank. The saver might imagine living a simple life without a care in the world because they know they have lots of money saved up. They don’t have to worry about what life might bring, because they have a backup, a nest egg. Saved money means security and reassurance.
The spender enjoys things and experiences. They like to live in the moment. They don’t see the point of having a bunch of money if you don’t get to enjoy it. Maybe they want to work hard so that they can spend the money they earn. This is part of the reward. Having money to spend means they have a good life. I means they don’t have a lot of worries and don’t have to deprive themselves of the good things life has to offer.
When these two people share their dreams around saving and spending money, new possibilities open up for how they might honor and value each other’s dreams. The spender may agree to save more or spend within certain limits, not because they are being deprived, but because they want their spouse to feel secure. The saver may agree to put more money aside for discretionary spending because they want their spouse to enjoy life and to reap the benefits of their hard work. They may never change these traits in themselves, but that can learn to accommodate their differences.
Deeper connection and intimacy
In an unexpected way, honest discussion of these problems often opens up the possibility of deeper connection and intimacy between couples. (I use intimacy here to refer to an accepting and open connection between partners, not as a euphemism for sex. Though a deeper emotional connection may well lead to more satisfying sex.) A truly intimate connection requires to that we have the courage to be fully vulnerable with our partners, to show our true selves—good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, warts and all—and to accept our partner’s true self. Intimacy comes when we love each other in our differences, wholly, without the condition that I would love you more if . . . .
Helping people find this kind of deeper connection and intimacy is what I love about my work! If you’re ready to put in the work to get there, call me. I’d love to work with you.