As a relationship issues specialist counsellor, I help individuals and couples to deal with all kinds of relationship problems. This article is about perpetual problems: those pesky relationship issues that just won’t go away.
All Relationships Have Problems
Relationships are hard. Let’s face it: you’re two different people! And each of you has your own opinions, values, and… foibles.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you have problems, you’re in a bad relationship. But that’s not necessarily the case. Even the happiest couples have to work out how to deal with an endless stream of issues.
Some are minor irritations. But there are others that are complicated, intense, and overwhelming.
Sometimes it can feel like you have two choices: spend your life in a state of conflict, or turn away from your partner, hoping that it will protect you, and maybe your relationship too. (Spoiler: it won’t.)
Every couple has their own story and their own conflicts that come with it. But all of those conflicts fit into one of two categories. Either they are the kind that you can work out using your best problem-solving skills. Or they are the other kind: the perpetual problems.
You can’t “resolve” your perpetual problems. They’re going to be part of the story of your life as a couple.
But don’t panic! This doesn’t mean that they’re going to drive you apart.
You can resolve the solvable problems, and you can learn to cope with the perpetual ones in a way which keeps you close.
Seeing clearly which problems are solvable and which are perpetual is the first step.
Recognising Perpetual Problems
Research has found that as many as 69% of relationship issues are perpetual ones. At first this statistic might feel overwhelming, but remember: all couples have these problems. You can develop ways of coping with them, and not let them get between you.
Some examples of perpetual problems include:
- Not being on the same page about whether to have kids
- Mismatched sex drives
- Having different ideas about what constitutes “tidy”
- Disagreements about how to raise the children/where they should go to school etc.
- Different parenting approaches – one is stricter than the other etc.
- Disagreeing about how much time it’s reasonable to expect to spend with each other’s families
- One of you is an introvert and the other is an extravert, so you fall out over social life stuff
It is possible to feel very satisfied with your relationship despite issues like these. The secret is to find a way to deal with the problems without getting overwhelmed by them.
Dealing With Perpetual Problems
Happy couples keep a sense of humour and perspective about their perpetual problems.
For example, if you’re one of those couples who disagrees about what tidy looks like, you could choose to spend the rest of your days rowing about it.
Or you could recognise that you knew this about your partner when you committed to them, and take responsibility for your side of things.
If you’re the “messy” one, you might make an extra effort to put things away where they belong.
If you’re the “fussy” one, you might make an effort not to nag. You might make your point by gently teasing your partner about their messiness. (Of course you’ll have bad days when you get grumpy about it, but when this happens you’ll apologise.)
Essentially what happy couples do is to constantly work on their side of their perpetual problems, rather than focusing on trying to change their partners.
They take responsibility for the fact that they chose this partner knowing full well that they were fussy/messy/whatever, and they don’t spend the rest of their lives trying to fix them. They practise acceptance.
Sometimes is gets better, sometimes it gets worse. But they acknowledge and talk about the problem (mostly good-naturedly). So it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
It doesn’t feel like the difference between them is bigger than the love between them.
Having Problems Is Normal
It might seem paradoxical, but recognising that relationships are not easy is a key part of creating a successful one.
If you expect your life together to be all rainbows and butterflies, you’re likely to find it really stressful when hard times hit.
Even worse, it’s likely that you’ll see the challenges as a sign that your relationship is broken. This might lead you to give up on it rather than doing the work necessary to get it back on track.
(This is not to say that we should keep plugging away endlessly at relationships that are bringing us nothing but pain. A peaceful separation is always better than a warlike marriage.)
Couples who accept that problems are an inevitable part of two different people working out how to share their lives are happier together.
These couples don’t always embrace their problems, but they trust in their ability to deal with them. They avoid situations that make them worse. And they develop strategies to help them cope with them.
As clinical psychologist and couples therapist Dan Wile puts it,
“When choosing a long-term partner… you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.”
Successful relationships aren’t without problems. They’re the ones where two people choose a set of problems they are willing to work at coping with.
Gridlock: When Perpetual Problems Make Relationships Go Bad
So if every couple has these problems, what’s the difference in how happy couples and miserable ones deal with them?
Sometimes relationships get stuck. Couples find themselves having the same conversation time and time again, without resolving anything.
They don’t make any progress, so both of them feel increasingly hurt, frustrated and rejected by each other.
Communication becomes toxic, and humour and affection diminish. Both parties dig their heels in. They start to feel overwhelmed by the problem and try to separate it off, but this only leads to them disengaging from each other emotionally.
When perpetual problems become gridlocked like this, it can ultimately lead couples to start living separate lives. This can create a sense of loneliness which kills relationships.
How You Can Tell When You’ve Got Stuck with a Perpetual Problem
There are a few ways you can tell if you’re in perpetual problem gridlock:
- You don’t seem to be able to make progress by talking about the issue
- You feel rejected by your partner when you try to deal with it
- You’ve both dug your heels in and no one’s budging
- Talking about it makes you feel more frustrated and hurt
- When you talk about this problem it feels heavy, and there’s no laughter or affection
- You feel like your partner is being a *insert expletive here* about this (and if you’re honest with yourself imagine they’re probably feeling similarly about you)
- Thinking about your partner’s approach to this makes you feel all the more entrenched in your own, maybe even more extreme in it, and less willing to compromise
- You feel like disengaging from your partner emotionally
If this sounds uncomfortably like your situation, don’t worry. Remember that all couples have these issues. It’s how you deal with them that makes the difference.
When you’re motivated to get unstuck and willing to look at the deeper issues the conflict represents for you both, you can make progress.
The key is to get in touch with your own individual hopes and dreams for your life. Because it’s unrealised dreams that underpin these kinds of problems.
When you work out what is bothering you both about this issue on a deeper level and share it with each other, you can get unstuck.
As John Gottman says,
“The endless argument symbolises some profound difference between you that needs to be addressed before you can put the problem in its place.”
If you’re having trouble with that, couples counselling can help.
Acceptance Is The Key
Whether you are dealing with a solvable problem or a perpetual one, the fundamentals of conflict resolution are the same. You won’t get anywhere until you express your basic acceptance of your partner.
It is in our nature as human beings to be unable to accept suggestions from people if we don’t feel like they understand us.
So the the most important thing to understand, if you want your partner to change any behaviour, is that first you need to make them feel like you understand and accept them.
If either or both of you feels judged, misunderstood, or rejected, this will get in the way of you being able to manage even the small problems in your relationship, never mind the big ones.
Carl Rogers famously said,
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
We have the same need to feel accepted by our partners before we can make changes in our relationships.
The Power of Feeling Understood and Accepted
Consider this: if you’re telling your partner about what a nightmare your friend is being, and they start criticising you and telling you how unreasonable you’re being, how are you going to feel?
Are you going to feel like considering your friend’s point of view? Or are you going to feel angry, offended, hurt and defensive?
Now imagine your partner saying, “I know how difficult your friend can be sometimes and how much this relationship tends to stress you out”.
How much more relaxed do you feel? And how much more open to considering your own part in the issue with your friend?
As John Gottman says,
“People can only change if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When people feel criticised, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”
So whether you are dealing with a solvable problem or a perpetual one, remind yourself that there is no objective reality (or none that any of us has access to anyway!), only two subjective realities waiting to be heard and understood.
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And finally, if you found this useful, you might also be interested in this post about relationship problems.