I like solving problems – always have. I like to think triangularly, question appreciatively, figure out what has not worked before and suggest something that I think is brilliant, create a plan for real change, and measure the anticipated success. I was taught all this in grad school, some of my female friends tell me that this is such a “man thing,” but I have lived this as far back as I can remember – when I was 8 years old I tried marriage counselling with my folks! I think I did pretty good.
Now John Gottman comes along as a marital researcher and says that about two-thirds of relational problems are perpetual, like dandelions in the grass. Some troubles are unsolvable he says, and lots of arguments never accomplish a thing other than rehearsing for the next squabble. Never-ending — sounds discouraging.
Carole and I have a bunch of unsolvable problems, mostly the same ones we had when we were first married. No matter what I do to “persuade” (coerce) her to do what I want (or she me), the problems keep flowering. The solvable ones delude us into thinking that we are pretty good at conflict solving, and it’s true that we’ve had some dramatic successes. It is the unsolvable ones that really bug me.
Here are some perpetual problems that you are probably familiar with:
Personality or “your way in the world”: Who is the most introverted in the dyad and who is the most extroverted? This probably doesn’t change much. Neither does the tension between the one that is most emotionally intuitive with the one that is perseveringly logical. And some people are emotional stuffers (always have been) while their devoted other is pretty much a feeling gusher (always has been).
History: You can’t change a person’s history. The times in which you were born, and the ways in which you were raised, or dynamics in your family of origin – this is set in history. The goodness of your connection has a lot to do with how winsomely you accept each other’s life before you met.
Sensitivities: How do you react to failure, or criticism, or loneliness, or unpredictability, or being excluded from a group? This is well-wired by the time a child becomes an early teen.
Some things change really slowly. Things like your view of what success or failure means in life, or what a worldview might be. Our relationship to money, emotions, work, conflict are hard to change, but change they do.
Habits change slowly as well. If you are an early-to-bed kind of person and you are married to a late night email addict, this too can change. Savers always seem to marry spenders – at least in my practice. Maybe that is why they come to therapy. Habits change – slowly.
I have discovered that unsolvable problems require different strategies than solvable ones. First off, you need to be willing to distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. Make two lists of your problems. What can be negotiated (solvable) and what cannot (unsolvable)? What is most important to you (grade this 1-3)? What can you let go?
Secondly, focus 80% of your resources towards the good things that you already do well. Show a little “benevolent disinterest” (differentiation) towards the problem areas. It is not a moral failure to take a break from working on faults while you celebrate the good stuff you do now. Over-focusing on problems (many of which you can’t solve anyway) is a serious waste of good humour and friendly faith.
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