Four Things to Help Overcome Gridlock in Your Marriage

Have you ever found yourself in a place in your marriage where you and your spouse disagree and it seems like there is no way forward? At some point, in any marriage, this is a possibility. It happens when you can’t learn to live with your perpetual problems. According to John Gottman every couple has two kinds of problems; perpetual (70%) and solvable (30%). How a couple handles the perpetual problems is critical to avoiding gridlock.

Here are some possible issues that can be the source of gridlock:

  • She wants another child, he doesn’t
  • He wants to adopt, she doesn’t
  • She wants to attend this church, he wants to attend another
  • He wants to go out and enjoy friends, she would rather stay at home
  • She doesn’t mind clutter, he can’t stand the site of dust
  • He wants a dog, she wants a cat
  • She wants him to lead family devotions, he wants her to
  • He wants a mini-SUV, she wants a mini-van
  • She wants to decorate the house, he wants to increase their giving to charity
  • He hates being late, she doesn’t mind being late

If you take a good look at the various types of issues that can lead to gridlock, you will notice that it can be anything! It can be something as significant as having children or a spiritual conviction to something as minor as how clean and orderly you prefer your house to be. Gottman says this:

Whether they seem important or petty to outsiders, all gridlocked disagreements share four characteristics. You’ll know you’ve reached gridlock if:
1. You’ve had the same argument again and again with no resolution.
2. Neither of you can address the issue with humor, empathy, or affection.
3. The issue is becoming increasingly polarizing as time goes on.
4. Compromise seems impossible because it would mean selling out–giving up something important and core to your beliefs, values, or sense of self.

Does that sound familiar? Do you and your spouse or another couple you know describe an issue in their marriage in this way? If so, what can you do? Here are four things, according to John Gottman:

1. Become a Dream Detective

According to Gottman, gridlock reveals that there are core values and beliefs underneath gridlock. So while the issue may look simple on the surface, there is much more going on underneath.

To navigate your way out of gridlock, you have to first understand that no matter how seemingly insignificant the issue, gridlock is a sign that you each have dreams for your life that the other isn’t aware of, hasn’t acknowledged, or doesn’t respect. By dreams I mean the hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life (p.238).

In order to avoid gridlock, you must become aware of the dreams that are underneath the conflict, begin to respect your spouse’s dreams and learn to incorporate their dreams into the relationship. When you have reached an impasse, there is a loss of respect, fondness and admiration. You must reclaim that. The way you do that is by asking your spouse what the area of gridlock means to them. What dream is it attached to?

As you listen, you may begin to see the deeper logic and start to reconnect with your spouse. This may seem simplistic, but it isn’t. It is never simplistic to make attempts to understand your spouse and listen to them as they share their deeper dreams and aspirations.

2. Remain Calm

Discussing issues that involve gridlock can be very emotional because it has become a source of tension that has remained in the marriage for a long time. To bring it up again will require wisdom. Gottman suggests that if either spouse begins to feel overwhelmed, it is important to stop the discussion and take a 20 minute break. During that 20 minute break, do something that is calming (read, go for a walk, listen to some music, pray).

3. Reach a Temporary Compromise

Gottman says that this next step will allow you to continue to discuss the issue. It will likely never go away but you are seeking to “defang” the issue that is causing gridlock. You do this by separating the issue in two ways and drawing two circles:

“Nonnegotiable areas” circle: These are the aspects of the conflict that you absolutely cannot give on without violating your basic needs or core values.

“Areas of flexibility” circle: This category includes all parts of the issue where you can be flexible, because they are not so “hot” for you.

Gottman encourages the couple to make the nonnegotiable circle as small as they can and the flexibility circle as big as possible. The couple should make an attempt over the next two months and then come back to the table and evaluate how they are doing. This will not solve the problem but it will help a couple live more peacefully with one another.

Here is an example of reaching a temporary compromise from Gottman’s book:

Kyle and Nicole

Gridlocked problem: Very different comfort levels with expressing emotions.

1. Detect and Discuss the Dreams Within the Conflict
Nicole’s Dream: Being emotional is part of her self-identity and part of what gives meaning to her life.
Kyle’s Dream: He sees being emotional as a weakness.

2. Remain Calm
They both agree that if either starts to feel overwhelmed in the discussing that it is okay to take a break and come back to discuss more.

3. Reach Temporary Compromise (Two-Circled Method)

Nonnegotiable areas:
Nicole’s: She cannot stop reacting with great passion to life.
Kyle’s: He cannot become a highly emotional person just to please her.

Areas of flexibility: They both accept that their spouse cannot change a basic personality trait.

Temporary Compromise: They will be respectful of their differences in this area. He will be receptive to her need to talk about and share feelings. She will accept when he cannot do this.

Ongoing Conflict: They will continue to have very different approaches to expressing emotion. (p.257)

4. Say “Thank You”

Dealing with gridlock is never easy. That is why it is so important to end the discussion on a positive note. This will be a process that won’t be “fixed” quickly. You will know that progress is being made when the issue feels less loaded and scary.

Gottman and the Gospel

What are we to make of this approach to gridlock? First, Gottman will tell you that he has seen this work for many couples. That, by itself, ought to get our attention. Why would we not want to utilize some basic skills to help couples who are in the midst of gridlock? But can we offer couples something more than helpful skills? Better, can we offer them something that strengthens their ability to face gridlock in their marriages? I think so.

Listen carefully to the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, in any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Pondering the self-sacrificial work of Christ in our behalf and praying to Father, Son and Spirit for grace will certainly enable a couple to move forward with humility, thinking more carefully about their spouse. This does not mean that it will not be a process or that it will be easy. It does mean that there is something unique about tapping into a power and resource outside of ourselves.

Remember, listening to another person’s dreams, remaining calm, seeking compromise and expressing appreciation do not come naturally. Thankfully, we have Someone who has redeemed us and is “purifying for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane


Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.