Every couple is faced to some degree with fundamental differences in terms of beliefs and values. Successful couples are able to respectfully negotiate, comprise on or resolve difficult issues. Many couples, however, are unable to work past major differences despite their best efforts. Others attend to differences in a very mindful way, yet for a range of reasons may decide that they are too great to overcome.
Solvable issues or perpetual issues?
Dr. John Gottman, an internationally renowned marital researcher, has written an excellent book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (which I often recommended even to couples who aren’t married or cohabitating). In this book, he defines issues that lead to relationship conflict as falling into one of two categories: solvable issues or perpetual issues.
When we are faced with challenges or differences in a relationship, the first task is to identify whether or not the differences comprise perpetual or solvable issues.
Perpetual issues relate to conflicts that will never disappear from the relationship. They stem from fundamental differences in personality and beliefs. Beliefs regarding the value of all life forms, including animals, for example, may be a perpetual issue that leads to different dietary choices. If one is a vegetarian because of their beliefs about animal rights, this is likely a perpetual issue.
Solvable issues, on the other hand, are logistical or practical concerns that have workable solutions. The manner in which a couple handles grocery shopping and meal preparation, for example, would be a solvable issue. If one person is a vegetarian because they think it’s healthier, and there is no other underlying values driver, this is likely a solvable issue.
Every relationship has perpetual issues. So the make-or-break factor is not whether an issue is perpetual or solvable, but rather how the solvable ones are worked out and how the perpetual ones are managed and ultimately accepted by each partner.
How to work through all types of issues
So, how do we maintain relationships when there are core differences?
- Have a candid discussion regarding the differences, as well as the associated underlying values each of you hold that drive those differences. Approach the conversation from a spirit of understanding the others’ perspective – even if you don’t agree. Express respect and support for each other’s position and try to actively put judgemental thoughts away.
- Determine whether or not these issues are solvable or perpetual. Though, as stated previously, even if they are perpetual issues does not mean the relationship cannot be successful. It’s ultimately a decision for each respective partner to make to determine if the perpetual issue falls in the category of ‘deal breaker’ issue.
- If issues are identified as being perpetual, yet not a dealbreaker, both individuals need to find ways to accept that their beliefs are different, and not directly (or inadvertently) hope that the other will change these fundamental beliefs. Differences need to be approached with a healthy humour, and both parties have to make an active choice to not allow this difference to taint the relationship. Both individuals would need to agree that neither will force their respective beliefs on the other, nor expect the other to change their beliefs over time.
- Finally, focus on the other elements of the relationship and of each other that you love, care for and respect.
So, do we have a future?
Every relationship is faced with challenges. It’s how the people involved are able to respectfully negotiate, comprise on or resolve difficult issues that determine the longevity and health of that relationship.
Excerpted from Dr. Joti Samra’s “Ask the Psychologist” weekly column in The Globe and Mail.