What is gridlock? It is when you and your spouse encounter a conflict which you just can’t seem to resolve.
You are both completely set in your viewpoints, and the same argument seems to come up again and again with neither of you ever budging.
These discussions are hurtful and distressing for both of you, and you each may feel that the other is disrespecting or not listening to your point of view.
There is nothing wrong with you and your spouse disagreeing on things, and many couples experience gridlock from time to time. But sometimes gridlocked issues can start to erode away a marriage.
Eventually, these conflicts become free from any humorous or affectionate pretences and start to take a real emotional toll, with the worst result being that spouses emotionally withdraw from one other.
Couples can become gridlocked over many different types of problems, big or small. For example, one person wanting to have children now, and the other not feeling ready for children. One wanting to spend money freely, the other wanting to save for a house or for retirement.
Today I’m going to be sharing with you some great advice from psychologist and best-selling author John Gottman on how to overcome gridlock in your marriage.
Gottman has spent over 16 years observing married couples and identifying what makes a marriage last, and can predict whether or not a couple will divorce with 91% accuracy, after only observing them together for around 5 minutes. Amazing, I know.
Working through gridlock in your marriage
The first vital point that needs to be made about gridlocked issues is that you and your spouse may never see quite eye to eye on these.
Therefore, the aim of working through gridlock is not necessarily to SOLVE problems, but rather to learn to live with them without hurting each other. This involves moving from the point where you are both dead set on your own position, to being able to openly discuss the issue and come to a compromise.
What underlies gridlock is that you and your spouse have dreams which are clashing, and aren’t being fully understood or realized by the other. You may have a sense that your spouse is not addressing or respecting your point of view.
The dreams behind your side of the argument are made up of hopes, aspirations, and wishes you are holding, which often come from your own childhood experiences of family life. For example, from observations of your parents relationship, and what you liked or didn’t like about your family environment.
So what it takes to overcome gridlock is for you and your spouse to first be able to identify what your dreams are and give each other the chance to explain these, without judgment.
Sometimes all it takes is letting yourself see an issue from someone else’s perspective, in order to finally understand and stop feeling negative and defensive about their point of view.
5 steps for overcoming gridlock
1. The first step to overcoming gridlock is to actually write down what the gridlocked issue is in your marriage, and your clashing viewpoints on the topic.
Now it is time for each of you to write down an explanation of YOUR dreams surrounding this issue. Include your feelings, what it is you are actually wanting as an outcome, and where this need comes from.
Be sure to be respectful of your spouse in your written explanation. You are writing about how YOU feel and YOUR needs, not about what your spouse wants, or what they are doing wrong.
2. Once you have both written about your dreams behind the issue, it’s time to share these with each other. For 15 minutes at a time, one person is the ‘speaker’ and the other person is the ‘listener’.
During this time, the speaker needs to share their written explanation with their spouse, being completely open and honest about their feelings surrounding the issue and their reasons for feeling this way.
The role of the listener is to actively listen to their spouse, without criticizing, judging or butting in. They can ask questions about the speaker’s feelings, wants and needs around this issue, but not any questions which contain judgment. Remember, each person will have their chance to speak and be heard.
Again, this discussion is not aimed at FIXING the problem - the goal is simply for both parties to find out and understand the reasons why the other feels so strongly about this issue.
It is essential that both of you make the other feel that you understand and are supportive of your spouse’s dreams underlying the gridlock, even if you don’t believe these dreams can necessarily come to life.
3. As sharing these dreams is likely to be fairly stressful for both of you, the third step of this process involves soothing each other.
If you’re feeling quite worked up, let your spouse know if you need to take some time to calm down before you continue the discussion, or ways in which they can help you to relax.
And if you know of ways in which you can help your spouse to soothe and become more relaxed at this time, try using these.
4. Once you are both calm and feel that you have had your dreams heard, it’s time to both think about the parts of this issue you are able to be flexible on, in order to come up with a compromise with your spouse.
This means trying to meet somewhere in the middle where both you and your spouse are having part of your dream realized. This may involve adjusting some timeframes or priorities, in order to accommodate each other’s needs as much as possible.
Once you have reached a temporary compromise, try this out for two months, and then review how it is going.
This compromise should help you both be able to live with this problem a lot easier, although it might still come up from time to time. But through this exercise, you will have hopefully learned how to discuss this issue openly, without experiencing the level of pain you used to feel.
5. Once you have come to a mutually agreed-upon compromise, the final part of the process is to show your appreciation and love for one another, and finish on a positive note. You can do this by telling each other 3 things you really appreciate about one another.
By completing these steps, you will hopefully have found any negative feelings towards your spouse have been reduced, and instead you have gained deeper feelings of trust and understanding.
Real-life gridlock example
Mary and Grant became gridlocked in their marriage, over a problem that might not even seem like much of an issue to someone looking from the outside. But it was. The problem was that Mary wanted them to spend more time seeing their friends in the weekends, and Grant wanted them to spend more time together alone.
They spent many nights bickering about this issue, and could not see eye-to-eye. Mary accused Grant of being too controlling over her, and wanting to cut out her social life. Grant accused Mary of never wanting to spend time with him.
They ended up being unable to enjoy each other’s company in the weekends as they both felt so much bitterness and frustration. In order to avoid the problem, they began to talk to each other less and less.
To try to stop this problem from deteriorating their marriage further, Mary and Grant went through Gottman’s 5 steps for overcoming gridlock.
Here are the passages they wrote explaining their dreams beneath the conflict:
I want us to be able to go out and socialize with friends. I always have a great time when we got out together, and I feel like we are isolating ourselves when we decline offers to social events.
I love Grant and I love our friends. I want to keep things fresh and fun in the marriage so we don’t get sick of each other. It feels like we waste the weekend when we just stay at home – and I’m scared we will lose our ‘spark’ and lose our friends if we isolate ourselves all the time.
My parents never seemed to go out much, and they often argued at home and seemed bored with each other, growing more distant as time went on. Eventually, they got divorced. I never want this to be the case with me and Grant.
I want us to be able to spend more time together alone, because I feel like this is when we connect most as a couple.
I feel like when we’re out with other couples, we aren’t really spending quality time together, and I really want to preserve the special time I have with Mary on the weekends. We’re both really busy during the week with work and don’t have much time or energy to do things together in the evenings.
My parents never seemed to have time for each other as they were so involved in other things, and seemed to lose their connection as a result. When Mary wants to spend time just with me, it makes me feel wanted.
When she wants us to go out all the time and see other people, I feel like I’m not enough for her anymore. I do enjoy seeing our friends occasionally, but I want to put quality time with Mary first.
Once Grant and Mary finally took a step back and actively listened to what each other’s true needs were underlying this issue, they finally realized why it was that they held those views.
In reality, both Mary and Grant actually had the best interests of their marriage in mind (both wanting to keep the spark alive). But what was causing the clash was that while Grant thought the key to keeping the spark alive was alone time, Mary worried that too much alone time would make the spark burn out. As well as this, Mary identified a need for more social stimulation outside of marriage.
From there, Mary and Grant were able to come up with a compromise which met each other’s needs to some degree. They agreed to have one night every weekend in which they would spend time out with friends or family, but also make one weekend night a ‘couple night’ where they would just spend quality time together doing things they both enjoy.
As a final part of this healing process, Grant showed his appreciation for Mary by telling her how much he appreciates her warm personality, her beautiful eyes, and how passionate she is. Mary told Grant how much she values his affection, his loyalty, and how safe he makes her feel.
With understanding comes acceptance. And once acceptance dawns, you will be able to look at better ways of managing any issues you are facing, although they may remain to some degree. For instance, Mary would still prefer to have more time with friends than Grant, and Grant would prefer for them to have more alone time.
But with their new plan of action in place, and both of their viewpoints now fully understood, they were able to move on with their lives and end the persistent arguing about this same topic.