Help for a Gridlocked Conflict

This week as we continue along our summary of “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” we talk about unresolvable conflict in your marriage! This was really interesting to me and very eye-opening. Because these are problems that you can’t get past in your marriage!

The solution that Gottman presents in this chapter is interesting. He claims that if we knew our spouses dreams, or the motives behind why they feel a certain way about that specific gridlocked problem, we would be more apt to at least consider their feelings regarding the problem.  So let’s get to it:

Gridlocked Conflict

The gridlocked conflict will probably always be a perpetual issue in your marriage, but one day you will be able to talk about it without hurting each other. You will learn to live with the problem…gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life.

Gottman’s solution for gridlock, is unlocking the unmet dreams in your marriage. You have to do some work to figure out what they are, but it can be helpful. Unmet dreams…

…can cause problems if they are hidden or not respected by your spouse. When this occurs, you may either have open battles over the issue, or it may go underground and be expressed symbolically.

Gottman suggests that most of the unmet dreams we carry are from our childhood. We remember something with reverence or disdain and either want that type of thing in our life, or we want to stay as far away from it happening in our marriage and family as possible.

Gottman again:

In happy marriages partners incorporate each others’ goals into their concept of what their marriage is about. These goals can be as concrete as wanting to live in a certain kind of house or to get a certain academic degree. But they can also be intangible, such as wanting to feel safe or wanting to view life as a grand adventure.

He suggests that in happy marriages, we actually want our spouses to achieve their dreams, and working together as a team, we can do our best to try to accommodate the dreams of our mate.

Steps to identify those unmet dreams you have

  1. Identify the dream (or dreams) that you have. A good place to look is the spot where you think your husband or wife is the source of the problem.
  2. Don’t discount the dreams once you figure out what they are. They likely have been buried because they seem impractical or not worthy. They are – you just have to figure out how to express them well.
  3. Talk about your dream to your spouse. Gottman suggests an exercise where you both come together and share for 15 minutes with the other just listening, or asking questions, to get you to share more in depth about your dream. (The listening spouse needs to not try to “solve” or make the sharing spouse feel guilty/stupid about sharing. They need to offer support )
  4. Understand that your dream may not be realized exactly as you wish.

For the listening spouse, you need to express support and that you honor the dream (even if it isn’t possible to make it happen.) Gottman suggests three levels of honoring:

The first is to express understanding of the dream and be interested in learning more about it even though you don’t share it…the second level would be to offer financial support for her dream…the third level would be to become part of the dream.

He suggests the goal of working past gridlocked problems isn’t that you become part of the dream coming to life, but that you acknowledge and understand where your spouse is coming from. Very helpful at this stage are nurturing your friendship with your spouse and your admiration and fondness of them.

“Declaw” the issue

Another exercise Gottman suggests is to make a list of the parts of the issue that you cannot yield. Then, make a list of the things you could yield. (The point is to be as flexible as possible with your spouse.) Next, you share your list and then, compromise with one another. Regroup after a couple months to see if your plan is working.

Gottman with another suggestion:

First write a clear statement of what the problem is and which dream(s) of each of yours is fueling it. Then note which areas are nonnegotiable for each of you and which you are able to be flexible about. Finally, write out a temporary compromise that you agree to try for a brief period of time. It will be helpful if you also write a brief description of your ongoing conflict to confirm that you both understand it remains unresolved but can be lived with.

End with Thankfulness

Even though the conflict may continue, hopefully your spouse listening, and then working out a plan together, will be a step in the right direction. Express your gratitude to your spouse – which is always a good way to end.

Over time, as you continue to work on your problems, they will still be there, but you will be able to talk about them with respect for one another – and maybe even some humor!

Was this chapter helpful for you and the perpetual problems in your marriage?


For the next Several weeks we are reading John Gottman’s ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’. It’s one of the original books on marriage that helped me begin this blog and podcast. I wanted to reread some of those first books to renew my dedication to healthy marriage, and also to go deeper for myself. You can join in by purchasing the book and reading along with us, and leaving comments here or at the Facebook group.