Dear Doris,

When you continue to hit the same problem over and over, can’t seem to make a change, what is there to do? We communicate about the issue, but there is never an effort from my partner to change the action/behavior. Do I give up, self-change, or wait, hoping for my partner to change?

Dear L.

A lot of couples run into the problem you’ve described here. You are asking yourself good questions. Although you and your partner have tried to communicate about the issue, you are seeing no change. This may possibly be one of those issues that come up in a partnership that is ultimately unsolvable. John M. Gottman, a relationship expert I highly respect, calls this a perpetual problem. With those types of issues, your best chance is to learn to cope with it, kind of like you put up with an achy back that bothers you from time to time. Similar to an achy back, you have to either accept it or find a new approach and/or understanding in yourself.

Let me give you an example of a perpetual problem. Let’s imagine a situation where the husband grew up in a family where money was scarce. He learned to be careful around spending. His spouse may have dreamt of being with a partner who is very generous and interprets his behavior as being stingy or cheap. Living with the partner she has chosen causes disappointment in her and creates ongoing disagreements between the two of them around money.

Let me also give you an example of a problem that is solvable with the same couple. The wife learns that for the next two months she has to work on the night that is her husband’s regular night out. Usually she would take care of the kids on those nights. He is not willing to give up his night out with friends. However, following a possible first reaction of disappointment and frustration, they are able to find a solution. They find that the grandmas are willing to fill in.

As you see, it is helpful to first identify what kind of issue you are having with each other, solvable or perpetual.

Keep in mind, we often end up in a power struggle over who is right and who is wrong when struggling with any type of issue or conflict with one another. This often leads to becoming entrenched in our positions and unwilling to budge. When this happens we lose our connection with each other, at least for that moment, and it becomes more difficult to collaborate in finding a solution.

With perpetual problems I recommend that you first identify the problem as such and then honor each other’s differences and the benefits those differences bring to your partnership. In the example I used above, having a partner who is careful with money would benefit the partnership by making sure the couple has a secure financial future.

Whatever issues you may be having, giving up is seldom a good solution. Giving up may create resentment. It is better to learn to understand and accept what is and stay engaged in the relationship unless there is severe abuse going on. Sometimes we have to let go of some of our dreams in order to be able to accept our partners for who they are and appreciate what is possible with them. There is no one on earth who can fulfill all our dreams.



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