Do you and your spouse seemly hopelessly stuck over a problem that you just can’t solve?  If so, learning to cope with the conflict may seem impossible, and you fear your relationship is going to become difficult. People have issues that for them are negotiable and others that are non-negotiable. It is usually the non-negotiable that get us “stuck.”  These issues usually involve a deeper part of who we are.  John Gottman, a leading marital expert, calls these deeper issues our “dreams” when they are part of the conflict with our partner they are called, “dreams within conflict.”

A good way to look at these problems is to realize you don’t have to solve them, but most people don’t realize that because they are so emotionally invested.  Many times there is no solution. So what is the answer?  The goal is to move from the “gridlock” into a dialogue. One needs to get to a position of declawing the problem; thus, taking the sharp pain out of it so you can talk about it without hurting, defending or attacking. If a couple can do that, they can handle about any perpetual problem.

Okay, how does one do that?

First, you must get to the root of what the issues are that underlie the conflict. Usually, it is because either or both have deep dreams or hurts that underlie the problem and are not getting realized or respected. Often people don’t even realize what their own dream is that is driving them to pursue their position. Dreams, as defined by Gottman are the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of a person’s identity and give purpose and meaning to life.”  Dreams can be practical and profound, or a combination of either.  They may be as practical as owning your own home or financial independence.  Victor Frank calls these your “meaning centers; “ Steven Covey calls them “personal centers.”

In a close relationship, we draw meaning from what the other person thinks of us.

We all look to certain people to affirm our sense of self worth (a sense that we are worthy of love and respect). No one can validate himself or herself. We look to certain people or objects to validate this sense of self. The more certain we are of this significance the more “emotional wealth” we have. We should get our primary wealth from the fact that we are made in God’s image, but we extend it beyond that to things that we are invested in.

Second. Couples that identify dreams and can realize that they are deeply important to the other person understands it’s important to support the other person’s dream even if you can’t go along at implementing it. Neither party should be expected to bury their dreams. What is important is that both of you share your dreams with the other partner.  This is more important than just exchanging information. It lies at out deepest core. The challenge comes when dreams work in conflict with each other. One person could want a bigger house or another child, while the other partner wants financial independence.  Or it may be that one person is more invested in the children and the spouse wants the larger emphasis to be put on the couple.

Years ago my husband and I got in an argument about something. As we talked it was obvious that I was clearly wrong. He said, “OK, Janie, say you were wrong.”  Then I said, “OK. I was wrong.”  He then said, “OK, say you are sorry.”  I said, “No. I will say I was wrong, but I won’t say I’m sorry because I am not sorry yet.”

I realized that we get invested in things and it takes calming down before we can become more objective. Now this thing I was arguing about was just a fact about something.  It was not about one of my personal centers.  Can you imagine how emotionally invested I would have been and refusing to back off, if we had been discussing something that gave my life significance? You see, many of us spend a lifetime evaluating our life centers or the things that give meaning to our lives.  It helps us if we realize what things that we are not willing to give up or are “non-negotiable.” Often when a couple are locked in this “gridlock, they are arguing about something that is non-negotiable. It is most helpful if your spouse or partner realizes that you are locked, not just in an issue, but also in one of the things that gives your life significance.

It is also wonderful if they can at the end of the conversation express that they realize how important this significant thing is in your life.  In valuing the “thing” they are tantamount to saying,”I value you.”

In order to find out what our non-negotiable are a couple has to be willing to move from conflict into dialogue about the issue. (I say issue, because it is hard to dialogue or conflict over more than one issue at a time.) The most helpful thing in this dialogue is to realize 1) First that we are in dialogue about something that is non-negotiable for us. 2) If the spouse is just trying to understand our deepest feelings about these issues, they do not challenge us out of their strength. But they use their strength to be supportive of our dreams.

Now here is where it gets sticky. The person with the least amount of personal significance is often married to a person that has more personal power. Very often when a spouse or friend challenges the less powerful partner, that partner gives in to the other person’s personal power externally by giving in on what they hold dear. The problem with this is that if I do this, it is tantamount to slicing off a piece of my sense of self. It is hard, for sooner or later, that person not to become bitter. So the person with the most personal power has won, but they have really lost part of their spouse. This is especially true if the person they are married to is passive aggressive. Passive aggressive people will feel “no” but say “yes” to keep the peace but become more and more bitter each time they give up part of themselves.

That is why when you are in dialogue about these issues that are so personally significant that you fight fair. Do not use the strategy of criticizing, blaming, defensiveness or stonewalling. What you are seeking to do is draw your spouse out and get to understand them better.

As described in earlier issue: The best way to dialogue about an issue is have one person be the listener and the other person be the speaker. The listener keeps asking “who, what, when where questions” until the speaker feels like the listener really understands their issue. Then they swap roles. The most important thing of all is to tell what you feel about the issue and how it affects you emotionally.

Next we will be moving into bitterness and resentment that follows when one does not feel understood or has been forced to give up one of these personal values.