They can become workable, however. The classic example of this is the slob who is married to a neat-nick: She wants the house hospital-clean; he leaves piles of crap everywhere. Being neat is hard for him, but easy for her.
Even if he commits to putting his stuff away, she can’t really turn him into a neat-nick, and so this is a problem that will wax and wane. His efforts to be neat will gradually fade as he gets busy or stressed or just lazy. She’ll get frustrated and the conflict will resurface. He’ll redouble his efforts, and the conflict will fade again, and so on.
The question is not whether you can get the problem to go away completely—you can’t—but whether or not you can establish a constructive dialogue about it (again, using your superior conflict resolutions skills—more coming soon!) and make periodic headway toward solving it.
Cyclical conflicts can actually create intimacy: You’ve worked together to improve a problem, and that feels good. So the question is: Can you arrive at a workable solution, knowing that you will continue to revisit this throughout your time together? These are the lesser-value gems. Can you work with them?
(3) If you can’t work with those imperfect gems, you’ve got a deal-breaker issue on the table. Abuse is a deal-breaker that sometimes masquerades as a cyclical conflict.
Other deal-breakers aren’t so obvious. I have a friend who couldn’t establish intimacy with her husband unless she was very upset and let him come to her rescue. She got tired of having to be stressed-out (or freaking out) in order to feel connected to him, and she realized this was a deal-breaker for her. If they couldn’t move the problem into a different category—making it a cyclical conflict based on their personality differences—she didn’t want to be in the relationship.
They started seeing a counselor to see if they could establish intimacy in other ways. They couldn’t. After a year of trying in vain to make headway on the problem, they parted ways.
(4) Wounding problems are similar to cyclical ones, in that they can be fights you have with your partner over and over and over. The difference is that you never really make any headway on the issue.
Wounding problems generate frustration and hurt, they get worse over time, and they lead to feeling unloved, unaccepted, and misunderstood. These conflicts are characterized by the presence of the four things that the Gottmans have long found to predict divorce: defensiveness, contempt, criticism, and stonewalling (think of talking to a stone wall: The other person is totally disengaged).
Many couples can move their wounding problems into the cyclical conflict category by learning how to fight differently (again, those stellar conflict resolution practices). Spouses who raise their issues with genuine respect and appreciation for their partner tend to engage in radically different discussions than spouses who launch headlong into a fight and hope to “win” it, blaming and vilifying the other and going right for the jugular.