Solving Your Unsolvable Problems: What happy couples know

Wise Readers,

Remember Nina, whose continual intimacy Gap with Sean is giving her grief?  Turns out Opposite Personalities are the top source of unsolvable relationship problems, but they’re not the only one.  Many of you wrote to say you and your spouse have the *same* profile on Fisher’s Personality Test —yet still you’ve got constant differences that have you wondering:  “What happened?  Did I marry my Opposite?”

 Well, yes.  In a sense, we *all* do.  Because although similarity is the foundation for finding the best life partner, there are as yet no cloned couples.  No matter how similar to our spouse we may be, differences remain.  And every perpetual problem begins with that term. 

In fact, John and Julie Gottman’s nearly four decades of tracking couples shows that solving most problems is not an option.  For any given couple,* happy or not*, 69% of our troubles will never go away.  All contend with chronic issues from the annoying to the dire, including differences in emotionality (ala Nina and Sean), lifestyle preference, values, neatness, organization, independence, how and with whom to spend time and money, how and how often to have sex, household chores, involvement and discipline of the children, activity level, people orientation, decision-making, ambition and work, religion, drug and alcohol use, and marital fidelity. 

And switching partners just switches us to a new set of unsolvable problems.  Sigh. 

Yet the implication is remarkably liberating:  Despite the popular belief that Irreconcilable Differences are *the* reason to leave a marriage, *you don’t have to solve your problems to be happy. 

So the question isn’t how to solve your problems, but how to Be Happy Anyway. 

First, identify Gridlock.    

—Have you followed the steps outlined in our articles about Difficult Women and Difficult Men, but the problem is still there—the negativity, rampant?    

—Does the problem feel very painful and intense?

—Are discussions about the issue humorless, affectionless, and lacking in empathy?    

—Do you or your mate feel like the entire problem is caused by the other person?    

—Does the word “selfish” spring to mind when you think about one another and this issue? 

—Do you sometimes feel disrespected by or disrespectful of your partner around this issue? 

—Do you feel unliked, nevermind unloved—or feel that way towards your mate? 

If you answered yes to any of the above, you’re Stuck (Gridlocked, the Gottmans say), and the real issue is no longer the problem itself, but the loss of friendship between you.

And—provided that both parties have the capacity for kindness and respect— that is a problem we *can* solve.   

Second, manage your Chronic Condition.  

Nobody wants diabetes, but for millions it’s a fact of life.  Those who ignore it wind up with horrendous complications ranging from double amputations to death, and those who can and will manage it wind up on the U.S. Supreme Court or playing pro football or entertaining millions.  Or just living effective, great lives in bodies that work for them.    

Similarly, ignoring relationship problems is deadly.  And happy couples have figured out that since there’s no cure for their own Chronic Conditions, they must protect the foundation of their relationship by Managing how they think about and discuss these problems

 Here’s what they don’t do:

—They don’t ignore the problem or one another.

—They avoid criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and/or stonewalling.

—They don’t decide –even mutually— that one of them can be right and have her needs catered to while the other must be wrong and have his needs ignored.

And here is what they do, in this order: Accept, Understand, Compromise.

Acceptance is the first step towards compromise.    Happy couples would rather their problems disappeared, but they know it’s not going to happen.  So they accept their differences as part of the over-all package.  They get it:  Nobody’s perfect, and some of the things they dislike about their mate (emotional stoicism) are the same things they love (strength and reliability in all circumstances). 

—Happy couples take steps to understand one another.  When you learned about each other’s personalities, you already made some progress because you now understand that some of the basic differences between you aren’t personal.   They’re simply core to who you are—facts of life, not feats of lovelessness. 

The method the Gottmans have found most effective?  Teaching couples to really listen to one another.  Each person takes a turn speaking/listening about the issue for 15 minutes before shifting roles. 

The goal isn’t problem-solving, but uncovering the longing buried in the conflict—which develops friendship and reduces pain and distance.  The listener asks questions aimed at understanding what’s behind the issue for their mate: “What makes this so important for you?  Is there a way this relates to your history?”  And the speaker expresses the yearning and history hidden behind the issue:  “I’m a really tender, emotional person.  I yearn for physical affection and long talks and asking me about my day.  Not having that reminds me of my dad, who didn’t even bother with eye contact.” 

—Finally, happy couples reach a temporary compromise.  They are unwilling to crush one another to have their own way; instead, they support one another at the highest level they can.  This can range from just expressing verbal support (“I respect your longing for more emotional intimacy.”  “I can learn more about being intimate the way you want it.”) to financial support, to joining their partner at some level (“I’ll devote every Saturday evening to just the two of us for the next month.”  “I’ll stop what I’m doing and hug you when you come home from work.”). 


Third, lather, rinse, repeat to Be Happy Anyway. 

Just as most problems are never-ending, acceptance, understanding and compromise are temporary and must be revisited again.  And again.  And again.  Because the issue is, after all, Chronic.  But the unhappiness doesn’t have to be. 



*This article is intended only for those who are married or in permanent relationships.  If you’re Still Looking, Don’t Settle!

The author thanks and acknowledges the following sources:

John Gottman and Julie Gottman, authors of outstanding research-based long-term-love relationship books And Baby Makes Three and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work .  Both books cover the concepts in this article in much greater detail. 

— Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type .


If this article piqued, intrigued or otherwise inspired you, it might help others as well.  Please click “Share Article” below to link it with your favorite social media website.


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 All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2010


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Reader Comments (18)

This is my favorite article thus far probably because you gave me the Gottman book 10 years ago and I have pretty much lived it throughout my very happy relationship. Thank you yet again. As an aside, my favorite part of the Gottman's work is the identification of, and dynamics involved in, arguing. As you know, I don't argue well, and my significant other could make Clarence Darrow walk away in shame. However, since we both understand who the other is, it makes arguing a conversation. Finally, I love the lather, rinse, repeat to be happy anyway metaphor - so true and once it is embraced, everything else just seems to fall into place. Great job!

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Great article! My husband and I are similar in personality (both builders) and do enjoy a happy marriage without gridlock, though some pretty pronounced differences do exist. What struck me in the article is that I'm not alone in my feelings: some of the things I dislike about my husband (deliberate, plodding, routine) are the same things I love about him (reliable, dependable, patient, and strong) :)

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

Great article. As someone very happily married for more than 25 years, I totally agree with the concepts above. Being happy as a couple doesn't mean always being happy, or ignoring the problems that are there. It means "being happy anyway" with ourselves and each other.

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMS


As you know, Duana, this is exactly my hubby and me. We are so remarkably alike in most ways, but our emotional styles are radically different and it causes me (the one dripping with sensitivity) extreme pain at times. And it's so easy for me to feel sorry for myself, and like nobody will ever understand me, when all the while my sweet Michael knows me better than anybody else and is usually on the same page as I (despite his argumentative and stoic nature).

I don't expect perfection, it's just that the things that hurt can sometimes REALLY hurt. And it's all so minor that I end up feeling terrible for actually feeling bad -- when in reality I have no problems. And yet, it happens. I am so grateful that you are getting the research out there that proves the effective fungibility of relationship issues, (and that you encourage us to just deal with it!)

I remember dating after my divorce, and how quickly I figured out that there are all sorts of ways that even the coolest people can be kind of nuts. You know the saying, "No matter how hot she is, some guy, somewhere, is tired of putting up with her s**t"? Well, that goes for guys, too. And since we're all really a little messed-up, I chose to wait for a man whose "crazy" meshed well with mine. I honestly cannot imagine being married to anyone else, if for nothing else but self-preservation! I will unabashedly claim the lion's share of our 69% of problems...he deals with a ridiculous amount of over-sensitivity, but I pay him back with a mean pot of chili.

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

Amen, Monica!

It's as if you got inside my head and said exactly what I wanted to say, and said it even better! My own sweet husband often tells me, "At least I know *your* brand of crazy..."

What I'm sure other men would find ridiculous --or worse--, he seems to accept and tolerate. Not that he likes it, but he weathers the storm.

Likewise, I try to be patient with his brand of crazy, but I think he does a better job dealing with mine.

January 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGillian

Ben, thank you! I've been passing Gottman's "Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work" out like candy to everyone close to me for a decade, for exactly the reason you've given. There's just no better place to find out what happy couples are doing, and how we can all emulate them and find our own pathway there.
Until now. In some ways, I actually prefer the new Gottman book, "And Baby Makes Three". Although it's aimed at the new-parent set, it's actually better than "Principles" in helping to deal with unsolvable problems--regardless of whether a couple has or even wants children.
Smartest thing? Using both. They can be obtained for a combined $20--cheaper than one counseling session, and much cheaper than divorce ;).

Thanks again for the kudos. Means a lot from a discriminating reader well-versed in Gottman's work.

January 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Joan and MS, so glad this rings true for you (and thank you for weighing in). Joan, you bring up an important point when you say you and your husband do have unsolvable problems, but *don't* have gridlock. That's the pattern with happy couples. It's sadly ironic that most of us focus more on resolving unsolvable problems than we do on preventing/resolving the gridlock that can and must be fixed.

January 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Monica and Gillian,
LOVE the concept of finding the "brand of crazy" you can live with. That's *exactly* what courtship is for, and it's why we must not compromise on our Must-Have's when we're mate-shopping.

For instance, I knew a woman who could not tolerate drug use at all...but married a daily pot-smoker. They had what was, for her, a deal-breaker from the outset. She would have done better to stick to her Standards and find a "brand of crazy" *she* could live with.

And I knew a man who definitely didn't want kids--and married a woman who definitely did. Ultimately, his wife left to find a partner who would agree to give her that. (Ironically, when the former couple got back in touch--it turned out she was unable to conceive, and hadn't been able to adopt, either. She had given up the love of her life, and gotten...nothing.)

Yet happy couples also contend with these very same issues--and stay together. By carefully choosing the brand of crazy they can live with before marriage, and understanding after marriage that dealing with their differences is a permanent part of the deal, they've weathered tremendous ongoing trials. And still been grateful to be together. The optimist happily wed to the pessimist? The would-be and won't-be parents who stay together? The Christian happily married to the Jew? The Jew happily partnered with the Muslim? The tightwad joyfully united with the spendthrift? The Democrat delightedly paired with the Republican? The sexually avid wed to the sexually tepid--or even the sexually abstinent? I've known them all.

All those happy couples we see around us...they haven't fixed their problems. They don't even have different or easier or fewer troubles than everyone else. They've just fixed how they accept, understand, and temporarily compromise with one another. Endlessly.

But it's not without some difficulty. As you've found, Monica, sometimes we wind up with some really painful issues even when we find the Right brand of crazy. You could be over-sensitive, but I doubt it (that you make a mean pot of chili, I doubt not). Sounds more like you and Michael just have a Gap similar to Nina and Sean's. I hope that acceptance and understanding help you to feel less hurt over it, but because the Gap will remain for many years, it's also important to find ways to compromise from time to time.

One of the most vital things about this cycle of acceptance, understanding and compromise is that it's Never Over. You know the couples who finally divorce because they could just never solve some of their problems? Maybe if they only knew that *everyone* has issues that are never solved, they'd understand that never solving some problems is normal. And that they could Be Happy Anyway.

My best to you and your beloved Michael.

January 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

It is definitely possible to have "similar opposites" in a great marriage. It has worked in my marriage for 16 years (17 if you count living in sin).

The easiest way to explain it is that I am a Tigger and my husband is an Eeyore. He is phlegmatic, I am mercurial. I sometimes mind that he doesn't have a sense of urgency about anything; he has to put up with my "I need to do this NOW" mentality. Note: "I need to do this NOW" can refer to anything from getting a flu shot to getting a pic of the cat drinking from my mug.

But we love and accept each other, and we get along great. Both of us know darn well that the other generally acts out of love and goodwill, and that expressing love and goodwill in different ways is okay.

The thing that has helped me the most with this? Reading up on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in particular that permutation of CBT known as "Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy" (REBT).

REBT is, as the esteemed Dr. Welch knows, the brainchild of one Dr Albert Ellis, a genius with the bedside manner and subtle charm of a cranky crocodile. He strongly advocated and logically argued that Unconditional Other Acceptance -- accepting that others are as they are, and not worrying about what the "should" be -- is one of the three things most needed to live with other humans in general. The other three things are Unconditional Self Acceptance and Unconditional Life Acceptance.

The idea here is not that you give anyone unconditional approval, but that you accept things and deal with them as they are. I know a woman who believes that her boyfriend _should_ and _must_ give up drinking and lying in order to be a better boyfriend to her. Of course, an alcoholic _should_, by all the field of psychology knows, continue to drink until he himself reaches the stage of seeking help voluntarily and actively. Also, an alcoholic's nature is to be quite horrible to his or her romantic partner. So my friend is living in a dream world where she "shoulds" and "musts" about his behavior instead of chosing to accept that he is what he is and will continue to act that way, which would allow her to make reality-based choices.

In a must less toxic way, I used to think my husband "should" be less of an Eeyore type and that he "must" see that my approach to life is more fun and functional. We had a lot of bad fights.

When I came to see that all of my shoulding and musting was not changing a gosh-darn thing and that it also was hurting both me and my husband, I was able to really think about accepting him. I realized that he was actually an awesome guy, and that what had attracted me to him was his very Eeyore-ness: his constancy, his calm and authoritative demeanor, his ability to deal with life without panic or anxiety. Okay, I was also attracted to him because he's a six-foot, blue-eyed silver fox with a voice that could melt an iceberg, but his phlegmatic approach to life is an important part of what drew us together. There are visually "hot" guys who I'd rather gut myself than spend an hour with.

So reading up on CBT and REBT let me come to the conclusion that it is good and functional for me to be a Tigger and my husband to be an Eeyore, and being the way we are works for each of us quite well. Once I started to really accept both myself and my husband and stop trying to "fix" both of us, our marriage became even more awesome than it had been.

I am in no way trying to dis Duana's plugs for the Gottman book, BTW. The Gottmans are gods in the area of relationship psychology. But if you are struggling to stop struggling against your spouse's nature (or your own), you might want to check out books by David Burns and Albert Ellis from your local library. Heck, _Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies_ is a great introduction to the topic that I've found to be handy to have.

I was in an unhappy marriage that ended in divorce. I understood and accepted him, but he did not do the same for me. He liked some of the "crazy", but was intimidated by the rest. Bottom line was that he thought I was too good for him.

I don't think you can rank people like that, but I will say that I eventually realized that I was in a disproportionate relationship, and no matter how much I accepted, loved, and understood him, it never seemed to draw him to me. Instead he constantly tore down anything he thought was cool or interesting about me, and psychologically tortured me to make me feel like less of a person. Unfortunately, I fell for it, so shame on me.

(The funny part is that he still comes to me, more than ten years after we divorced, to seek advice for just about everything. Even after all that time he still thinks that I am the only person who has ever truly known and understood him.)

Anyway, I have a feeling that accepting the other person and all of his or her warts only works if the interpersonal match is a good one to begin with.

January 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

Dear Anonymous-- You're right, beginning with a good match is essential (please see "Traits For A Mate" article at this site). Sometimes the old wisdom is correct: Dating is the time to find the right person; marriage, the time to be the right person. The steps need to proceed in that order.

I wish you much better in your future relationships--someone who deserves and is deserved by you.

January 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Dear Mocha's Mom,

How do you avoid letting negativity about your troubles overtake all the wonderful things that brought you together? That is THE question--and your letter perfectly addresses it. Since the vast majority of relationship problems involve core differences in who we are, what we value, and what we want from life, the issues are permanent. But as you've demonstrated, the pain that can result from those differences is optional. Kudos to you for working that out--and sharing it with us.

Thanks also for sharing your recommendations for outstanding tomes on the subject of expectations and happiness. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (of hierarchy-of-needs fame) was noted for saying that every time he had been unhappy, he could trace the emotion back to a mismatch between his expectations and reality.

I, too, recommend Ellis' work for those who can stomach a very direct, no-holds-barred approach, and Burns' for everyone. "Authentic Happiness" by Martin E. P. Seligman (former president of the American Psychological Association and foremost authority on research in the positive psychology movement) is also fantastic for those who enjoy applying research to benefit their daily lives--most definitely including their relationships. I suspect some of the readers here fit that category ;). BTWay, Seligman also recommends the Gottmans' books as the very best for long-term-relationship help.

Additionally, for those who see their marriage or permanent relationship as a sacred union--or would like to--and want an approach to their problems that applies most of the science concepts in a spiritual framework that is not attached to any one religious tradition or belief system, I highly recommend Susan Page's latest book, "Why Talking Is Not Enough: 8 loving actions that will transform your marriage". Page is not a scientist, but somehow, every one of her books largely mirrors what science has discerned. The only caveat? This particular Page book is *not* for those heavily invested in blaming the other person for their problems; it's for those who are willing to take the concept of Being Happy Anyway into their own hands, showing leadership in and changing the dynamic of their relationship all on their own if their mate is unwilling or unable to join them in improving things. It works, but it takes a lot of self-discipline.

Thanks again for a spot-on example of how you accepted, understood and reached happiness without solving your problems.

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Wow, there's a lot to think about here. I know that is a very simple response but coming from someone who always knows what to say, not knowing what to say is a profound admittance on my part.

I will say this, after a tense discussion about an ongoing and unresolved conflict between the two of us, I did something completely silly with my spouse this morning. It totally disarmed both of us. No, I'm not telling what I did.

Our conflict is still unresolved and I have no idea whether there will be any change, but the playfulness was a breath of fresh air!

January 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCandi

:) Candi,

One of the reasons this article focuses more on the Attitude than the methods of acceptance, understanding and compromise is that there are so, so many paths towards getting to the Attitude of Goodwill. But that Attitude, and not the problems themselves, are what really has to be fixed in order for any relationship to move forward. Sounds like you're making progress with humor. Good for you. And your honey.

January 8, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.


This is right on the money--as always! I think most couples would be far happier if they simply knew that every couple struggles with certain irresolvable issues (often the same ones, such as money or household chores). Thanks for your insightful perspective.


January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Andy, Thank you so much. Helping couples feel happier by merely knowing we're all in the same boat = this article's ultimate goal. I know it's worked that way in my marriage. To wit:

Vic (joking in response to one of my many annoying habits): "So, is this part of the 69%?"
Me: "Yep. But just think how much you love having a clean house, even if it does mean everything you own gets shoved in a random drawer."
Vic (laughing): "I do love having a clean house. And I do love you."

Nurturing friendship is the key. Everything else is a detail.


January 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

And so I do. It's good that you don't have to deal with any of the "69%" with me. ;)

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVic

Dear Vic,

No comment :).


January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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