Perpetual problems — every relationship has them, but not every couple knows how to work through them.
A perpetual problem endures because you and your partner fundamentally see the situation differently, according to Michelle Peterson, founder of the marriage blog #staymarried.
“It’s one of those things where you bring it up, you try to work it out, and it just stays in your relationship,” Peterson tells NBC News BETTER.
Peterson, 39, is the executive director of a nonprofit, and her husband Tony, 41, is a software designer. The couple live in Somers, Wisconsin, and have been happily married for 11 years with three young daughters.
Like any couple, the Petersons experience perpetual problems, but have learned how to live happily in spite of them. Here’s how.
They recognize when their relationship is in gridlock
If you and your partner can’t see a disagreement eye to eye no matter how much you talk about it, you’re probably experiencing gridlock, Peterson says.
“I said the same thing over and over again, and he’s still not budging — that is a symptom of gridlock,” she says.
In the past, Peterson often failed to recognize when her relationship was in gridlock, believing she could change her husband’s perspective or behavior, she says.
“What’s really happening is you’re at an impasse altogether, because you’re dealing with something that fundamentally you’re not agreeing on,” she explains.
When they hit gridlock, the couple takes a break
If a perpetual problem in your relationship turns into gridlock, Peterson says, it’s important to understand that fighting isn’t going to solve anything.
If an argument gets heated, Peterson says, she and her husband take a break.
The rule is simple: When one partner asks for a break during an argument, the other must honor it, she explains. After about 30 minutes, she says, they’ll calmly revisit the issue.
“Usually, you can be more clear headed and understanding once you’ve been able to temper down your emotions,” Peterson says.
Get past “the curse of familiarity”
When the couple realized they needed a third-person perspective, they began seeing a marriage counselor in 2015. Peterson was surprised to hear her husband tell the therapist things she never knew.
“He shared things that were so insightful to me that I never considered asking about,” she says.
Peterson says the “curse of familiarity” had prevented her from asking questions that would have helped her understand him better.
“You’re with somebody long enough, you think you know them, and so you forget to dig a little bit or to ask better questions, or to get curious about each other,” she says.
The truth is, you live with a person, you don’t live with a solution.
Seek to understand each other better
Peterson says she no longer focuses on solving problems in her relationship. Instead, she says she strives to understand where her husband is coming from.
“The truth is, you live with a person, you don’t live with a solution,” she says.
To better understand your partner, it’s important to spend quality time with them alone, says Peterson.
Each night, the couple dedicates 15 minutes to talking alone. They go outside on their deck with no electronics to distract them, she says. Peterson calls it their “nightly debrief.”
“It doesn’t matter what the weather is, it doesn’t matter how cold it is — if it’s super cold we’ll just bundle up extra — but we go outside, no devices, just the two of us, for 15 minutes,” she says.
Give your partner space to make up their own mind
In the past, Peterson would automatically assume certain situations were problems. Now, she says, she no longer makes those assumptions. Instead, she asks her husband what he thinks.
“I’m approaching him not like I already have the answer,” she says, “but [with], ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Does this feel like a problem to you?’”
For example, the couple recently moved into a new apartment that didn’t have a washer and dryer. Peterson wanted to buy their own appliances, but her husband saw things differently. Instead, he takes the family’s laundry to a laundromat once a week on his free time.
Since her husband doesn’t see it as a problem, Peterson decided not to push the issue.
“He needs to decide for himself he doesn’t want to go to the laundromat anymore,” she explains.
She says seeking to understand each other, rather than trying to solve perceived problems, has made the relationship stronger despite their fundamental differences.
“I don’t know any non-corny ways to say this,” Peterson says, “but we like each other.”
How to survive perpetual problems in a relationship
- Recognize when you're at an impasse. If you are having the same fight over and over, there is probably a fundamental difference you simply can’t agree on.
- Know when to take a break. Recognize that fighting and arguing won’t solve anything. If things get heated, ask your partner for a break, take 30 minutes, and revisit the issue with a clear head.
- Get past “the curse of familiarity”. Don’t assume that because you’ve been with someone for a long time that you know and understand everything about them. Be curious and ask questions.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s important to take time each day to talk. This gives you an opportunity to get to know each other’s perspective.
- Create space. Don’t assume that a situation is a problem that needs to be solved. Instead, talk to your partner to see how they feel about it. If they don’t see it as a problem, give them space to come to their own conclusion.
MORE RELATIONSHIP ADVICE
- How one couple saved their marriage by asking this simple question
- How thoughtful communication can improve your marriage, according to a divorce attorney
- Why this marriage counselor says a "good enough marriage" is one that lasts a lifetime