Perpetual Problems in the Family
August 22, 2022 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist
Some problems just aren’t solvable. They might seem like they are: the laundry on the floor, the noisy blowing of the nose, the dirty kitchen, the humming, the forgetfulness. They are the type of problems that parents and spouses try to resolve over and over and just find they can’t. In some cases, children and adults can develop strategies to overcome the habits that drive their loved ones crazy, but most times, there is just some reason the other people just keep doing the same things. In that situation, family members have to make a choice. Do they keep pointing out their loved one’s struggle, hoping it will change? Or do they themselves make a change and learn to cope with it?
Marriage researcher John Gottman suggests that the majority of problems that cause conflict in a marriage are unresolvable. He dubs these, “perpetual” problems and suggests that they make up over two thirds of marital issues (Gottman & Silver, 1999). These types of problems represent personality differences, different worldviews, and different ways of coping and functioning. Yes, a partner may change, but can they? And do they want to? The other partner may want change, and pursue it, but to what end? Does it actually help? Gottman suggests that perspective matters. If couples learn to see problems as perpetual, they can begin to accept them, and consider how they will go about them. They can learn ways to honor one another and love one another in spite of the problems. They can learn to overlook the problems unless they are harmful. Maybe, just maybe, they can develop an empathetic understanding of one another.
While the parent-child relationship differs from the marital relationship in many important ways, the issue of perpetual problems still exists. Some neurodivergent children have specific tics or habits that bother others. The intent of these habits is to self-soothe, not annoy others. Try as they might, children may not be able to break them. Parents then have to decide what is more important: the relationship, or breaking the habit. Parents who bolster their own reserves of strength to cope with these issues typically find themselves less stressed and more able to relate to their children.
There is the possibility of gridlock with perpetual problems. In gridlock, family members get stuck in what seems like a never-ending cycle (Fulwiler, 2012). They feel like they constantly fight the same battle, or are in a hamster wheel that just keeps going round and round. This gridlock can result in difficult exchanges, silence, criticism, content, defensiveness, and shutting down, all of which are negative for a relationship.
How can couples and families get out of gridlock over perpetual behaviors? They can work on examining the motivation for the other person’s behavior (Dryer, 2021). Perhaps they can even ask about the person’s reason for the behavior, or if they notice it. They can work on empathy (Haji, 2019). They can focus on the positive. If the problem is not going away, the only options are to stew on it, or look for other things that make the relationship good.
Some perpetual problems need therapeutic attention. These include, but are not limited to addiction; marital infidelity; lying, stealing, and other legal transgressions. While perpetual, these harm individuals and relationships and may need to be brought to resolution. For the other two-thirds of life’s problems, though, the ones that are mostly about preference, the best thing to do is accept them, strengthen personal coping skills, and move on with what is most important: the family relationships worth preserving and keeping.
Dryer, J. (2021, May 28). Positive parenting for your neurodiverse child. Washington Parent. https://washingtonparent.com/positive-parenting-for-your-neurodiverse-child/
Fulwiler, M. (2012, July 2). Managing conflict: Solvable vs. perpetual problems. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/managing-conflict-solvable-vs-perpetual-problems/
Gottman, J.M, & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Libby.
Haji, S. (2019, September 26). Resolving perpetual problems in relationships. Living Well Counseling Services. https://livingwellcounselling.ca/resolving-perpetual-problems-in-relationships/