Menu Close

Dealing with Perpetual Issues

What do you think are the most common topics that cause conflict in a relationship? Sex, money, power, housework, family? What about conflict in your relationship? What is the most common source of arguments between you and your partner?

In his research the American Psychologist John Gottman found that 69% of disagreements between couples relate to what he calls perpetual issues. He describes them as “problems that have to do with fundamental differences between partners – differences in personality or needs that are fundamental to their core definitions of self. On One:Retreat we spend time looking at the similarities and differences between partner’s personalities and values. It is the deep-rooted differences in some of these aspects of ourselves, which is the source of much of our conflict.

Such ‘perpetual issues’ can be distinguished from solvable problems – which tend to be more situational issues to which a solution can be found and maintained. For example you might argue about inequality in household tasks and this might be solved by a rota. You might disagree about finance and spending but this might be resolved through an agreed budget.

It is the perpetual issues that take up much of the oxygen in a relationship; they are ones that tend to create the greatest challenge; and since they relate to core aspects of our identities, they are most likely to cause hurt and pain. They also have the potential to lead to a gridlock or impasse in your relationship where you can’t move forward. The relationship coach Ellie Lisitsa provides a helpful checklist. She suggests that you may have reached a gridlocked perpetual problem when the discussion of a particular topic or issue repeatedly:

  • Makes little headway
  • Leaves you feeling rejected
  • Has you taking polarised or entrenched positions
  • Leads to you vilifying each other
  • Involves no humour or expressions of affection
  • Leaves you emotionally disengaged from one another
  • May involve one or other of you using some of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (check out this short intro video if this is new to you)

The way out of gridlock is through dialogue – which is easier said than done! Ultimately it is only in moving through a process of leaning into, understanding and accepting our differences that we are able to come out of gridlock. Although this process inevitably involves compromise from both sides, the breakthrough often comes when we focus not on changing our partner but on changing our understanding of them; being able to shift to a position of acceptance of our different personalities and values, and recognising what we need from one another. This is part of the process of attunement.

Gottman found a number of characteristics of couples that are able to attune to another:

  • They remain gentle with one another
  • They are able to use humour and laugh together
  • They accept the influence of the other (i.e. are open to persuasion from their partner)
  • They look for the deeper meanings, needs or goals behind the conflict
  • They are able to take personal responsibility when necessary
  • They self soothe (i.e. have strategies to stay calm)
  • They look to de-escalate and repair
  • They maintain acceptance of their partner even if they are requesting an aspect of change from them

In addition when dealing with perpetual issues it is important that individuals can:

  • Define the minimal core areas where they are not able to yield (i.e. what is it that is absolutely essential to them as a bottom line)
  • Identify areas where they are willing to be flexible
  • Devise compromises that are able to honour both partners

All relationships have their perpetual problems. To choose a partner is to choose a particular set of unresolvable problems that you have to contend with. It can be tempting to think that the grass may be greener elsewhere, but to chose a different partner is to choose a different set of unresolvable problems! We often forget that it was some of the distinctive differences that first drew us to our partner.

To consider together

  • What are the topics that you tend to argue about the most?
  • Do you think any of these are solvable issues that you could find lasting solutions? What are the solutions?
  • Are there any that you think relate to a deeper perpetual problem that keeps coming up? How would you describe the problem? What are the differences at the root of problem?
  • Do you recognise any of the characteristics of gridlock that Ellie Lisitsa describes?
  • Are there any attunement characteristics (ways of reaching each other) in Gottman’s list, which you might be able to adopt when you are in conflict?
  • Are you both able to express your areas of need and your areas of flexibility when in conflict? Are you both able to compromise to an equal extent or does one of you tend to concede more at the expense of the other?

Richard Elliott

Husband, father, teacher, coach & philanthropist. Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a founder of the Pickwell Foundation – a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a Diploma in Business, Executive & Life Coaching and a background in Post 16 Education in which he taught and managed Social Science subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.

Newsletter Sign Up

We are currently taking a break from our retreats but hope to be back with you in 2022. In the meantime, if you would like to be updated with our news and continued blog posts please add your details here.