For the majority of people, a large part of their individual sense of life satisfaction and happiness is bound up in their close relationships. Work certainly contributes to a sense of fulfilment, even more so when we find our work meaningful. But humans are a social species so it tends to be relationships with others that is an important barometer for well being. Many people will say it is their children that give them joy and happiness but can be less forthcoming when talking about the relationship that is arguably even more important, their spouse or life partner.
There are various reasons for why some people are reluctant to confidently say that they find their marriage or partnership fulfilling but according to John Gottman, the most well respected researcher worldwide in marriage and couple relationships, a key reason is the way they handle conflict. His research, based mostly on observing couples interacting for over 30 years, has found that, for most couples 69% of their conflict is based on issues that are actually unsolvable. That means the reason why so many couples report circular arguments that have long histories and that never seem to get anywhere is because they are arguing about something they can’t actually fix!
It is this kind of argument that can begin to erode a couple’s relationship over time and produce the kind of gridlock that can lead to separation and divorce. If left unchecked this kind of arguing can create a negative emotional attractor whereby we view our partner as defective and begin to filter everything they do through this lense.
So what is the answer?
Well of course the answer is simple – start recognising what is unresolvable and focus instead on the 31% of things that are solvable within the relationship (and yes this can be easier said than done).
Take for example a relationship that consists of one introvert and one extrovert. An ongoing conflict can be the frustration the extrovert has with the introvert on the ways they don’t communicate and this ends up being a character assassination on the introvert’s perceived negatives. But remember this difference in communication style may be unresolvable. The extrovert could focus instead on a positive need such as “I really need you to check in with me for five minutes on what we are doing Saturday with the kids, that way I feel like we’re a team on this”, rather than “You never give any time to me about OUR children you just stay in your own little world”.