‘All couples have some irreconcilable differences. But when partners can’t find a way to accommodate these personal disagreements, the result is gridlock…’ [The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’ Gottman & Silver]

When couples gridlock over momentous issues such as deciding whether to have a child, making a big financial decision, different sexual needs, religious beliefs, or choosing where to live, American couple therapist, John Gottman, suggests their disagreements take on certain characteristics:

  1. The same argument will repeat over and over againwith no resolution. There feels no way to accommodate the opposing viewpoint and no way to negotiate towards a fair outcome. Each becomes intransigent and competitive over who is ‘Right’ and who is ‘Wrong’.
  2. The couple end up at loggerheadsand become increasingly polarised over the difference of opinion. Each partner remains entrenched despite a resulting disturbing feeling of disconnection. Perversely they risk losing the warmth, safety, and togetherness of ‘Us’ and take up a stance of ‘You versusMe’ – and attitudes of blame, defensiveness and criticism compound the distress.
  3. Compromise often feels impossiblebecause it would mean giving up on something seen as intrinsically valuable and important. The issue on which they have planted their flag feels integral to their sense of self, and the person they understand themselves to be. The attack feels personal. Compromise would feel like ‘giving in’ and a betrayal of their individual core values and beliefs.
  4. An air of hostility grows. Their discussions increasingly lose the loving qualities of warmth, care, empathy and affection and are replaced by frustration, resentment and anger.

Feeling completely stuck, the couple often enters therapy at this point – bewildered at the obduracy of their partner and the level of acrimony between them when, at heart, they know they love each other and can say they have a good relationship. 

Usually confident and skilful in dealing with life situations, they are confused by the intractable nature of this dispute. They slip into fault-finding and blame, resorting to metaphorical finger-pointing with accusations of ‘If only you did…’ or ‘if only you didn’t…’ – suggesting everything would work out fine if the other was not so unbending and rigid and could just listen and understand and agree.

However, the partner is listening, but only to what is an incomplete explanation. It is similar to a stuck record, the same small part of the story is being repeated over and over again. What they need is to jumpstart into further elaboration and deeper understanding. 

Then there is a further smokescreen when the argument develops into a litany of complaint:

  • I want and you won’t give. I need but you don’t understand. I feel thwarted when you ignore my wishes. I feel undermined when you dismiss my requests. I feel controlled when you keep telling me what to do. You don’t value me and things I do. We don’t want the same things…

The couple remain trapped having a circular conversation which is full of confusion and misunderstanding and which challenges their relationship equilibrium. They are wrestling with a dilemma that is only one aspect of something that has many hidden dimensions; that is multifaceted and multi-layered. Think of the iceberg sailing silently with only 10% showing above the water.

If they are going to manoeuvre out of danger they need the fuller picture that reveals the more complex back story. Until they have this within their grasp, the couple cannot engage with finding a solution and negotiating a truce.

Without an appreciation of the deeper meanings, needs will feel minimised and even dismissed. The reason why an issue is so emotionally charged will stay unrecognised or, worse, ignored and the problem will become a breeding ground for hurt and resentment.

As the implications of the impasse register, the couple can feel quite helpless, with each feeling rejected, alone and abandoned – and increasingly insecure.

The work of the therapy is to create a safe space where the underlying meaning of a particular issue can be identified and understood. The source of the difficulty may have originated in family-of-origin dynamics, or a past traumatic experience, or a childhood emotional wound, all of which can leave a sensitivity or ‘raw spot’, and a proclivity to react when provoked.

Sometimes the links are obvious but sometimes revelations can take time to surface.

-A panic about spending, with a need to be careful about money, can be rooted in a deep-seated need for security and safety if childhood needs were not met and life felt precarious and disappointing. 

And yet the surface argument is about taking a holiday.

-The drive for achievement and success at work may be to gain the affirmation and approval that was withheld by a cold critical parent. And yet the surface argument is about how to prioritise couple time together.

-Creating a home that is orderly and organised can give a sense of control when childhood was chaotic and unpredictable. And yet the surface argument is about wet towels on the floor.

-An urge for travel and adventure can offer a sense of freedom and autonomy and excitement in reaction to an overbearing rigid and authoritarian school or community. And yet the surface argument is about ‘settling down’ or starting a family.

If the meaning has remained out of sight, perhaps forgotten or unconsciously repressed by the partner themselves, then it can be forgiven that the other partner did not realise the symbolic resonance.

It hardly needs to be said, but each is a different person with a different background of experiences and influences and their own set of particular associations to events, and it all needs careful investigation and explanation. 

Revelation and recognition can allow the couple to dance to a different rhythm of attunement and acceptance. It does not mean they have to be in agreement but, with generosity and compassion and creativity and imagination, they can find a way to accommodate and manage what seemed ‘unresolvable’ differences. There is a change in the couple energy as they now unite once more and engage in ‘Us versusThe Problem’.

Terry Real, another American relationship therapist, describes how all relationships need a biosphere of positivity to thrive – much like fish swimming in clean water. If a couple can create a loving, approving, affectionate dynamic it will help mitigate an automatic threat reflex and negativity bias, and help cushion the blows of disappointment and hurt that come with conflict.

If a couple can co-create their own unique relationship ‘culture’ incorporating an ethos of openness, trust, respect, and care, they will have the tools to repair the cracks that appear over time in their ‘relationship house’.

Gottman suggests a culture that includes a routine of ‘Small things often’: loving interactions which may seem inconsequential but build to have a mighty impact:

  1. Taking time to revel in the delight of a warm greeting or goodbye
  2. Remembering to smile, share humour, laugh together, and show pleasure in each other’s presence
  3. Eye contact. Turning towards one another and holding a gaze
  4. A six second kiss instead of a peck on the cheek
  5. Meaningful gestures of concern and care
  6. Reaching out for a physical intimate connection with affectionate touch
  7. Catching up and keeping in touch. Sitting opposite one another and chatting when eating a meal
  8. ‘You are special and I am thinking of you’: the subtext of a quick message during the day
  9. Saying ‘Thank you’ and showing appreciation
  10. Practising active listening and showing curiosity about feelings and about what’s happening

Busy lives can overwhelm a couple and result in misunderstandings and misassumptions. With little time and space for reflection relationship interactions can become transactional and get on the wrong footing. Counselling can allow for a reframe of an ‘irreconcilable difference’ and offer a reassuring reset of the problem, breaking the gridlock and increasing confidence in, and optimism for, the future.

Kathy Rees