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Unsolvable Problems in Marriage I: Lowering Expectations

Different expectations of conflict

From a recent Facebook post: Working on a post about unsolvable problems in marriage: For those who have been married five or more years, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much expectation did you have entering into marriage that communication could resolve any conflict between you and your spouse? How would you rate that expectation now?

People often enter into marriage thinking that most if not all their conflicts can be resolved.

Women come into marriage thinking "I can make my husband a better man".

Men come into marriage thinking, "My wife will learn to see things my way".

This idealistic view of marriage does not survive contact with the enemy. Even for couples for whom the first years of marriage are conflict-free, raising children is its own brand of unsolvable problem. And then there's sickness and mental health issues, job changes, unemployment, moving, and shifts in friendships. Conflict in marriage is inevitable.

A number of cultural factors shape our thinking around expectations of marital conflict. One factor is our culture's fixation with romance - "the Disney effect" - where love conquers all. A related myth is that communication - i.e. "talking things out"- will solve any and all problems.

Evangelical culture often reinforces this. Marriage has social good and promoting an idealistic view of marriage benefits the church as an institution. But the result is newlyweds experience conflict, try to "talk it out", fail, and experience great disappointment. Not surprisingly, they may see marriage propaganda as an elaborate bait and switch.

Enter John Gottman and his principle of unsolvable problems. I've long been influenced by his teachings on marriage, parenting, and emotional intelligence. I read his seminal text, The Marriage Clinic, as a seminary student over fifteen years ago. Since then, I've applied his parenting principles from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child and now use The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work as a premarital counseling text.

Gottman defines unsolvable problems as perpetual conflicts around fundamental aspects of personality and lifestyle. They're connected to entrenched patterns of thinking and behavior. Discussions on these topics often devolve into character attacks. Gottman calls them unsolvable because these fundamental differences are never completely bridged.

Examples include: differences in attachment, introversion vs. extraversion, attitudes towards risk, cleanliness, sex drive and need for physical intimacy/affection, communication style, and the list goes on.

This is in contrast to solvable problems: those that can be dealt with practically. They're not entrenched in deep, long-standing conflict. For example, having a shared online calendar has pretty much eradicated all of the scheduling conflicts that Judy and I used to have. The exception is when I forget to update it, which is actually an example of an unsolvable problem - my forgetfulness.

The fascinating thing is both happy and unhappy marriages can have an equal share of problems. Unhappy couples have both solvable and unsolvable problems and it's likely all of them feel unsolvable. That's what Gottman terms gridlock. On the other hand, happy couples have a high percentage of unsolvable problems because they've already addressed most if not all of the solvable ones. The problems that remain are unsolvable and they've learned to navigate around those differences. And in many happy marriages, the couples no longer see the persistent gap between them as a problem anymore though they're well aware of the differences and their history.

I did an informal Facebook survey among friends to see how people would respond to the question at the top of this post. I figured most couples' answer to unrealistic hopes about marriage is to lower their expectations. I received thirty-six responses. Since participation was voluntary, I would guess about 70-80% of respondents have happy marriages. People in unhappy marriages are less likely to advertise their unhappiness. I picked five years of marriage because that seems to be enough time to exit the honeymoon/dopamine phase of romance and build some bad conflict patterns.

And as I expected, many who had high expectations going into marriage had subsequently lowered their expectations after five or more years of marriage.

That certainly rings true for me. Throughout my twenty-two years of marriage, I have lowered my expectations greatly about the role communication plays in resolving conflict. I no longer see conflict resolution as key to a successful marriage; at least not in the sense that I can change to please Judy or that Judy must change to please me. I don't believe the fact or quantity of communication itself resolves anything and even great communication doesn't alter the fabric of who we are.

What did surprise me in my unscientific survey was how a significant number of respondents said they entered marriage at a "10" and they are also "10" today. Or had entered marriage with lower expectations and today rate their expectations a “10”. And it wasn't that their marriage has been smooth sailing and/or they've carried their same marital expectations without missing a beat. Most respondents explained the reasoning behind their high score today is very different from the understanding they had entering into marriage, even if the rating did not change. What this indicates to me is that simply lowering one's expectations is hardly the best way to address unsolvable problems.

The couples with high present expectations indicated optimism is very much alive in their marriage today. Regarding marriage with hope seems to be vital for happy couples. And hope can appear in different forms. In regards to expectations, optimism is not the source of the problem nor is pessimism (or as pessimists like to say “realism”) the answer.

The answer involves revisiting expectations, letting unrealistic ones die an unceremonious death, and discovering a better path forward. Though there will always be a looming mountain of unsolvable problems, I think it's possible to gradually chip away at unsolvable problems and make them solvable. Other couples may not carry that specific belief but rather delight in the enduring hope of what they’ve built together.

I also believe lower present expectations do not indicate marital pessimism nor imply an unhappy marriage. That's because these respondents were trying to answer the question as precisely as possible in that they recognized the limits of communication and the inevitability of unsolvable problems. I was an 8 entering into marriage and I'm a 3 today and yet I have tremendous hope for our marriage.

Therefore, lowering one's expectations is the starting point for navigating unsolvable marriage problems but it is not the end. Hope in one's marriage is an important quality and yet sober realism is crucial as well. How do you have both? And how does that help navigate unsolvable problems? In the next part, I will explore the role of dreams in addressing unsolvable problems and then in the third part, conclude with how and when communication is helpful.

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