69% of Conflict in Relationships is not Solvable – What to do?

Mark and I just returned from a great weekend with the Gottman’s in Seattle. It’s always a blessing to learn from masters in their field.

One of my biggest takeaways from the weekend was dealing with what they call, perpetual conflicts. It was shocking to me to learn that 69% of our intimate conflicts are not solvable. Also though, it’s a relief. This means that there is no end game, no win-win solution. Where does that leave us? Compromise. The Gottman’s state that the goal of conflict is understanding.

I have been teaching about conflict management in the corporate realm for years, and I really appreciate the TKI instrument that we use. It teaches about our natural tendencies to manage conflict in 1 of 5 basic ways. Competing (getting our own needs met), Accommodating (getting the other person’s needs met), Avoiding, Collaborating (looking for win-win solutions) and Compromising. I have to be honest, I don’t like compromising. Compromising and Avoiding are two strategies that I use least. I have always thoughts of Compromising as lose-lose, and I would rather find a win-win, give the other person their way, or get my way!

During the workshop, Mark and I had an opportunity to work through a “perpetual issue” using the Gottman’s compromise model.

Here are some examples of things that couples have perpetual issues around:

Personality style differences – like extrovert, introvert
Differences in dealing with money
Differences in sex drive
Differences in cleanliness, tidiness
Differences in food choices and/or exercise
Differences in needs for alone time
Different needs around adventure and safety
Differences in pace and timeliness
Differences in values around how you want to raise children

You can see how you could get to 69% of conflicts being “unsolvable” pretty quickly!

Here were our takeaways and “aha’s” from this exercise

1. We use Nonviolent communication as a foundation for communicating around conflict. It was absolutely essential for us to take turns listening to the other’s underlying feelings and needs until we could honestly say that we understood where the other was coming from.

2. Underlying values and dreams. We don’t usually probe too far into underlying values, but this was an important part of the process. For me the value was freedom and financial integrity, for Mark it was connection with family – and these two different sets of values had us at loggerheads over and over again.

3. Diving into the past. We love this about Imago, and it is also true in both Shadow Work and the Gottman’s work. You have to get vulnerable about why this is a trigger for you. Even if you already know what your partner’s underlying history is within a conflict, listen again. It helps to soften your heart and remember why your partner might be attached, angry, scared or sad around this issue. It all stems from our family history.

4. Compromise Circles. I loved this part of the process. This helped us move through our conflict in a good way. Draw two circles, one inside the other. In the smaller circle, write the aspects of the conflict issue that you are not willing to compromise on. Make this as small as possible. In the outside circle, write down areas or aspects of the conflict where you can be flexible. For example, in my inner circle I wrote: I can’t compromise on financial integrity (spending money we don’t have). In the outside circle I wrote, I want to support Mark in being a good dad and spending time with his kids. Even though I still don’t prefer compromise, I can see how there are issues where a win-win is not possible.

5. Come to some sort of agreement where you both are honored in your core needs, and can be flexible with the other’s core needs. If you have really heard each others’ underlying feeling, needs, dreams values and past history, this part is easier.