Lucky us: We live in a world where many of us have an abundance of choices: where to live, what to do for a living, and, of course, who to marry—or whether to get married at all.
All these choices give us certain freedoms, but they don’t necessarily make us happier. They create certain perfectionistic expectations: If we aren’t perfectly happy with the one we love, for example, might we have chosen wrong? Should I make a different choice now? Would the grass be greener with my high school sweetheart?
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Here’s where I find John and Julie Gottman’s seminal research to be totally essential to understanding the problems of long-term romantic relationships. Here are two key things I’ve learned from them.
First, all couples have problems. Think the grass might be greener? Remember you’re trading out one set of problems for another. It isn’t about finding a conflict-free relationship, or even about solving all of your relationship’s problems, but rather about accepting the problems you can live with.
In her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert offers a very useful metaphor for this, quoting her gem-buyer husband:
"A parcel is this random collection of gems that the miner … puts together. … Supposedly, you get a better deal that way—buying them all in a bunch—but you have to be careful, because … [he’s] trying to unload his bad gemstones on you by packaging them together with a few really good ones. …
After I got burned enough times, I … learned this: You have to ignore the perfect gemstones. … Just put them away and have a careful look at the really bad stones. Look at them for a long time, and then ask yourself honestly, 'Can I work with these? Can I make something out of this?'"
Spouses are much the same: They come with flawed bits as well as sparkly strengths. The question isn’t so much whether you want the sparkly parts (of course you do) but rather whether you can deal with the flaws.
Second, there are really only four types of problems. The key is knowing what type of problem you’ve got, and then deciding whether or not you can work with it. The four kinds of problems are:
(1) One-time, solvable problems. I think many of us bull-headed people assume that all problems are solvable. They’re not.
But some are. These tend to be the types of conflicts that arise from a unique situation rather than differences in our personalities.
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Say one person wants a dog and the other doesn’t. This is a conflict that can be solved, using your well-practiced conflict resolution skills. (I’ll be blogging about that next.) If you don’t resolve the conflict, it can turn into #2, below: a conflict that comes up again and again and again, until you just get the darn dog.
(2) Cyclical conflicts. The Gottmans call these problems “perpetual issues.” Unlike solvable problems, they are based on fundamental differences in your personalities, emotional needs, or ideas about how you’d like to live life—and they will never, ever go away. Period. Accept that now.