Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Overcoming Perpetual Problems in Gridlock

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Last week, we talked about the difference between solvable and perpetual conflicts. Solvable conflicts are those issues in marriage that are relatively easy for a couple to reach a compromise. Perpetual problems are those conflicts that have gotten to the point where the couple has started ascribing the issues in those conflicts with personality flaws in one another ("She's so stubborn!" "He's such a jerk!"). We also discussed how to overcome perpetual problems.

This week, we are talking about those conflicts that are at the next level of perpetual conflict. According to Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver in their book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, this level is known as Gridlock. Gridlock is a conflict that neither partner is able to understand or respect the other's stance on the issue, making each party become more and more entrenched in their position (Gottman & Silver, 2013, p. 236). It becomes a test of wills or a struggle for power in the relationship.
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How do you know if you have reached gridlock? Here are Gottman and Silver's four characteristics of this issue:

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  1. You have argued over the same issue again and again with no resolution.
  2. Neither of you is able to approach the subject with any level of humor, empathy, or affection.
  3. The issue makes each of you feel further and further apart as time goes on.
  4. Compromise seems impossible because you are afraid that by giving in, even by an inch, would mean that you are giving up something priceless or giving up power in the relationship.
(List taken from p. 237).

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The key to coping with gridlock is to avoid allowing your differences to escalate to this point by practicing the principles we have already discussed in this blog such as nurturing fondness and admiration of your spouse, turning toward one another, and allowing your partner to influence you (p. 237). However, since most couples don't start looking for help until they have reached a stage of crisis, you are most likely already having problems with one or more gridlock issues if you are reading this. Fortunately, there is hope. Once you have both mastered what it takes to overcome gridlock, the problem will be more like a pesky allergy or a bad back--not likely to go away, but manageable with the right treatment (p. 237).

Usually, gridlock is a result of the dreams (life aspirations) of both parties not being realized or respected (p. 238). These are usually dreams that are deeply rooted in childhood such as the husband wanting to make lots of money because he grew up poor and knew what it was like living in uncertain circumstances. The deepest root of that is that he equates money with security and a sense of freedom. Other deep roots of dreams might be things like:
  • Feeling at peace.
  • Self-exploration ("I want to know who I am.")
  • Adventure
  • Spiritual journey
  • Justice
  • Honor
  • Consistency with past values
  • Healing
  • Having a sense of power
  • Seeking forgiveness
  • Regaining a part of self that was lost
  • Feeling productive
  • Setting priorities
  • Atoning
(This partial list is taken from p. 238-239).
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Step 1 to Overcoming Gridlock: Explore Each Other's Dreams

A very important part of overcoming gridlock is becoming aware of one another's dreams and considering helping each other to realize them. Happy couples understand this to be a priority of the marriage (p. 239). These dreams can be concrete such as wanting a specific type of dream home, or they can be intangible such as wanting to feel safe (p. 240). What is important is allowing your spouse to explain their dreams concerning your gridlock subject and why it's so important to them while withholding judgment (p. 243). Think of this exercise as a fact-finding mission. You are there to observe and to learn in order to gain a greater understanding and respect for your spouse's viewpoints, not to be a spy in order to gain intelligence to undermine or subvert your spouse's most cherished dreams. You wouldn't like it if someone did that to you, so don't do it to your spouse.
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Ideas of questions to help you with fact-finding:
  •  "What do you believe about this issue? Do you have some values, ethical ideas, or other beliefs that relate to your position on this issue?"
  • "What are all the things you feel about this issue?"
  • "What does your position mean to you?"
  • "What is your ideal dream here."
  • "Tell me the story of your dream. Does it relate to your history or childhood in some way? I would like to understand what it means to you."
  • "What do you want? What do you need? If I could wave a magic wand and you'd have exactly what you needed, what would that look like?"
(List taken from p. 251).


Dr. Gottman says, "If you can, tell your partner that you support his/her dream. This doesn't necessarily mean that you believe that the dream can or should be realized" (p. 252). The three levels of honoring your spouse's dreams that will benefit your marriage:
  1. Express understanding of the dream and be interested in learning more about it. 
  2. Actively enable the dream.
  3. Become a part of the dream.
(List taken from p. 252).

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During your turn to explain your dreams about the issue at hand, make sure to keep your start-up soft and make "I" statements to communicate feelings and needs. Do NOT use this as an opportunity to criticize or argue with your partner (p. 251). Your goal is to present the facts as though you were communicating them with a stranger. You are trying to help the other person to understand who you are, not who you want the other person to be.
Note: It is normal for one of your spouse's dreams to seemingly clash with your own. However, you still need to hear each other out (p. 250).

Step 2 in Overcoming Gridlock: Soothe
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Be aware of flooding. Use soothing techniques discussed previously (remember "small circles"?) to help your spouse feel comforted and comfortable with you when you sense stress creeping into the conversation. You can also use repair techniques (p. 253).

Step 3 in Overcoming Gridlock: Reach a Temporary Compromise (the Two-Circle Method)

Make a diagram that looks like this:
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List aspects of your dreams in one circle. The parts that you feel are non-negotiable are in the large part of your circle. The portions you feel you can be flexible with are put in the overlapping section of the circles. Your partner then fills the other side of the circle in the same manner. In order to not make your non-negotiable portions look less imposing or disrespectful, write them much smaller than the portions that you are willing to be flexible with. Writing your flexible positions larger will send the message that you are wanting to negotiate, not dominate (p. 254). Proceed with making your temporary compromise from here.

Step 4 in Overcoming Gridlock: Say "Thank You"

It may have been very hard for you both to reach this point. Make sure to acknowledge this effort of both of your parts to work together. Gratitude is a great relationship builder (p. 259). I know that I feel very appreciative when I receive gratitude after trying something really hard. It makes me feel less incompetent. It also makes me more likely to repeat my efforts or even to go the extra mile. My husband also thrives on gratitude. His primary love language is works of service (see The 5 Love Languages website for more information about love languages). When he does something for me to let me know that he loves me, a "Thank you" will make him feel 10 feet tall.

If you would benefit from a visual example of how a couple can overcome gridlock, here is a video of a couple who went to John Gottman's "Love Lab" to learn to overcome their gridlock issue. Watch for the steps we have gone over in today's article:

One more thing you need to do to help you overcome gridlock--or, indeed, any marital strife--is to seek to have a heart filled with charity toward your spouse:
You must earnestly seek this godly trait and pray for it in order to acquire it (Goddard, 2009, p. 122). Allowing it to permeate your heart will open your eyes to a new life that is glorious, even with its limitations.
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In order for your marriage to flourish, you both have to be committed to clearing out the negativity in your relationship. Make an agreement that negativity is your common enemy that you will fight tooth and nail to overcome. Understand now that you and your spouse will make mistakes, so commit yourself to learn to forgive not only your spouse but also yourself for being human (Gottman & Silver, 2013, p. 282). Remember to voice sincere gratitude. Give each other at least one heartfelt comment of gratitude per day. If you can do more, go for it (p. 283). Lastly, remember to pray to God to acquire charity toward your spouse that you may see them as He sees them--precious, full of divine portential and gifts, and worthy of your love.
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Goddard, H.W., PhD (2009). Drawing heaven into your marriage. Cedar Hills, UT: Joymap Publishing.

Gottman, J.M., PhD, & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Harmony Books.

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