Older couple looking around painted room

Do you and your spouse have an issue you cannot work out no matter how hard you try? You have likely experienced “emotional gridlock.” Signs of gridlock include feeling like you are talking to a brick wall, feeling you are never heard, and even feeling your marriage or relationship won’t work out because the issue never gets resolved. Dealing with perpetual gridlock is one of the most difficult relationship challenges. The good news is that gridlock does not mean the end of the relationship. There are effective ways to help you and your partner common ground and talk about core differences with respect, love, and understanding.

Couples with gridlocked problems often take one of two approaches: keep at the issue doggedly or avoid dealing with it. Both approaches can be damaging to the relationship. By rehashing old issues, you risk becoming even more frustrated at lack of resolution. The problem with avoidance is that the only way to avoid an issue is to distance yourself emotionally from your spouse; not the relationship goal most people want. There is more than “we are just too different” going on here; the frustration or disconnect you feel from your partner can inflate a perpetual issue out of proportion. Key to working with gridlock is changing the focus from frustration to understanding the dream beneath it.

Marriage and relationship expert John Gottman (University of Washington) considers gridlock a reflection of unacknowledged dreams. Dreams are “the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life” (1999, p. 218). Often, we don’t have a clear idea what our dreams are, so the first step in working with gridlock is to think about your own dreams. One way of doing this is to listen to or read conversations of couples stuck in a perpetual issue and try and identify underlying dreams. (See Gottman’s book for more exercises on identifying dreams.)

Once you learn to hear your own dreams, the next step is listening to each other’s. Below are 7 steps you can use to deal with gridlocked issues and the dreams they represent:

  1. Choose a gridlocked issue to work on: Write an explanation of your position and let your spouse do the same.
  1. Be Mindful: Research shows that constant, accumulated negativity (criticism, contempt, withdrawal) is damaging to relationships. Mindfulness prevents emotional flooding—the fight, flight, or freeze reactions that undermine interactions with your partner. Your physical body will bring your thoughts back into the present, so a good way to be mindful is to note your physical posture, doing a body scan or paying attention to your breathing. Being mindful, being present, will allow you to hear your partner’s dreams without fueling gridlock.
  1. Discuss your dreams: There are two roles here—speaker and listener. As a speaker talk honestly about your position and the dream that’s underlying it, as you would to a good friend who is neutral about the outcome (Gottman, p. 232). Avoid criticising or arguing with your partner—blaming him or her for why your dream has not happened.
    As a listener, your job is to suspend judgement and listen the way a good friend would (placing your ego aside). Don’t interrupt or interpret your partner’s dreams. Also, avoid taking it personally if your partner’s dream differs from your own. Listen attentively, thinking, “I am curious about what her dream is.”
  1. Soothe each other: Discussing core differences can be stressful; ensure you support each other in diffusing negativity. Especially important are Repair Attempts, which are “any statement or action—silly or otherwise—that prevents negativity from escalating out of control” (Gottman, p. 22). Accept and initiate repair attempts when you sense emotional distance. As in sailing, small corrections all along are easier to manage and less distracting than big ones. A smile, a hug, relating a time when you both accomplished something together, and mutually understood humor are examples of repairs.
  1. Support your partner’s dreams: You don’t have to believe the dream or that it can be actualized, just support it as part of your spouse’s unique make-up. When supported, dreams may even change into a form that is doable, but don’t expect this from your partner. Support also means accepting influence. In good relationships spouses accept influence from each other. Find some part of your partner’s dreams you can identify with and support, and you may find your own approach shifting.
  1. End the Gridlock: Using the image of inner and outer circles, identify what parts of your dream are core to your being (inner) and which parts you can compromise on (outer). This is essential in making peace with the gridlocked issue. The purpose is not to solve the issue but to remove the hurt and pain on discussing it. Like the Olympic rings, where the circles overlap is where you and your spouse can find common ground. Some elements of your differing dreams may never be “solved” but a compromise that honors both dreams makes those differing areas less toxic.
  1. Seek professional help: A qualified marriage and relationship therapist can help you shift from patterns of conflict/withdrawal into understanding and respect.
    A good relationship recognizes that each of you have different approaches to life that will never mesh entirely, differences are not so harsh when they are respected and honored. One of the underlying pillars of a relationship is helping each other meet your dreams. By exploring the story beneath a gridlocked issue, you can find ways of supporting your partner’s dreams.

A thriving relationship is good for us. In fact, feeling understood and valued in your relationship can provide three times the health benefits of daily exercise (Gottman, p. 6). When working with couples, I provide them with three chairs: one for each person and one for the relationship. A relationship has needs of its own and when individuals can deal with their own reactions (self-soothe and avoid criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling) and give their relationship what it requires, namely understanding, it thrives.
Contact me to find out how you can make your relationship grow, heal, and thrive.

References: Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.