Working through issues together is a healthy sign in a relationship, but what happens when there isn’t a tidy solution? While navigating conflict is a normal part of being in a relationship, some problems are unsolvable. This begs the question: how should you deal with a problem you can’t fix?
Well, it helps to know how common this actually is. According to Dr. John Gottman, unsolvable relationship problems can make up two-thirds of a couple’s issues. Many issues come from things neither partner can change, but this doesn’t mean a relationship is doomed.
Frustration comes from treating perpetual problems like solvable ones. The goal isn’t to get rid of an unsolvable problem. Instead, couples should focus on managing these issues so they don’t create a gridlock. Best practices vary for each type of conflict, so it helps to know how they differ.
What are the types of problems people encounter in a relationship?
There are three types of relationship problems – solvable, perpetual, and gridlocked. All three demand emotional intelligence, conflict management skills, and commitment from both partners.
These issues aren't static, either. Poorly handling a perpetual problem can lead to gridlock. Avoiding a solvable problem just means it will come back later, making it cyclical. Here’s how they differ.
Solvable problems – situational conflict
Solvable problems are caused by specific incidents like one partner lapsing on chores or disagreement on a topic. A situational conflict tends to have a simple solution because it’s rooted in the trigger.
In other words, there may be no deeper meaning than the topic at hand. Couples can move past the situation by addressing it directly.
Perpetual problems – fundamental differences
Perpetual problems, on the other hand, are rooted in the fundamental differences between partners. These problems come up when personalities, lifestyle needs, and perspectives naturally clash.
A healthy relationship still gives each partner enough space for individual expression. This is why couples may find themselves at odds over the same topics — and frustrated by the lack of a solution.
Gridlocked perpetual problems – unsolvable problems
When a perpetual problem deepens to the point where it’s uncomfortable to even talk about, it creates a gridlock that halts the relationship.
Gridlock stems from failing to deal with an underlying issue. It makes it harder to connect with your partner or express your feelings, especially when the root cause is still hidden.
What are unsolvable problems and why are they considered unsolvable?
A pessimist might say an unsolvable problem is an issue that will never go away. The trouble with this perspective is that it turns this type of conflict into a fatal flaw. If more than half of all relationship problems are unsolvable, then that can’t be the full story.
We can find a more useful definition by flipping this idea: unsolvable problems are challenges that can exist without overshadowing the relationship.
Progress doesn’t come from “fixing” anything because these problems are based on fundamental differences. Partners can differ on anything from intimacy needs to attitudes on money and still coexist happily.
A couple’s connection often comes from the differences each partner admires too. Unsolvable problems don’t need to be solved, they need to be managed with empathy and care.
The goal is to engage with the problem without it leading to gridlock. That said, unsolvable relationship problems can be hard to spot.
One couple’s fundamental differences may lead to a perpetual problem that another couple would see as solvable. A perpetual issue can manifest in ways that obscure the root cause too.
Dr. Gottman’s research names four conflict styles that can predict the end of a relationship. Known as the Four Horsemen, they are:
Criticism turns the issue into an attack on your partner’s character. Contempt uses disrespect, mockery, and name-calling to maintain superiority over a partner.
Defensiveness tends to be a response to criticism, but one that deflects responsibility, even when the complaint is valid. Stonewalling, often a response to contempt, is when someone withdraws from the conversation, essentially shutting down when their partner is trying to engage.
All four horsemen are a form of gridlock because they force both partners to dig their heels in. It entrenches them on either side of the issue, which only solidifies their negative feelings.
5 Steps on how to deal with unsolvable problems in a relationship
You may be wondering: how do you deal with a problem that can’t be resolved? The good news is couples can still take actionable steps to manage these issues before they get critical.
1. Stop trying to “fix” the problem
A perpetual problem becomes more frustrating with each attempt to fix it, so step one is to stop looking for a solution. Accept that the problem isn’t something you can make go away.
Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up. It just means seeing the issue for what it is. Clarity comes when we stop asking, “How are we going to fix this?” With unsolvable problems, a more important question is, “Can I live with this, and if so, how?”
2. Identify the patterns
If you and your partner keep coming back to the same issues, it’s worth investigating the pattern these conversations take. You might start off dealing with a specific, solvable problem, only to find yourselves on a topic that never seems to resolve itself.
Identifying the pattern can help break the cycle, or at least make you aware of the issues that drag every conversation back to the same issue.
3. Be open to digging deeper
When we’re aware of the root cause, an unsolvable problem becomes more concrete in our minds. It stops being an abstract issue looming over the relationship, which lowers the emotional stakes for everyone involved.
As Dr. Gottman says: “If your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you.”
Unfulfilled dreams are at the heart of most perpetual problems, which is an uncomfortable topic because no one wants to feel limited by their relationship. Luckily, Gottman’s ‘dream detective’ principles help us understand our unmet needs without judgment or resentment.
Take a moment to explore the dreams and hopes that may have been buried in the conflict. Think about where these wishes have gone unaddressed, and how that feeds into recurring issues.
4. Break the gridlock with dialogue
In the process of uncovering your hidden dreams, you may unearth anxieties and fears around the lack of fulfillment too. That can make starting a dialogue with your partner even more stressful.
Gottman’s dream detective principles break the ice by asking couples to do three things:
- Express their unmet needs without judgment or criticism
- Soothe each other when emotions become overwhelming
- Define what they can and can’t compromise on
These three steps allow for productive dialogue by giving partners room to be vulnerable together.
5. Work together on the solvable problems
Finally, fix the problems that can be solved. Gridlocks are hard enough without situational issues draining your energy too.
Working together on solvable problems frees up more space to enjoy your relationship. It’s also a subtle way to restore the sense of control that perpetual issues take away. Most importantly, it allows you and your partner to bond while nurturing the friendship that holds everything together.
Relationship problems, if not treated or dealt with early, can only worsen after marriage. The key is to become more aware that conflicts exist in any relationship, and that some of them can be unsolvable. If you're currently lost in this phase of your relationship or marriage, you can talk to us about it. We're always all ears.