Many people think that if a marriage is basically healthy all issues get resolved. Yet according to psychologist and author John Gottman’s research, 69 percent of problems in marriage do not get solved.1]
His good news is that in good marriages many problems can be managed. Gottman states that couples can live with unresolvable conflicts about perpetual issues in their relationship if the issues are not deal breakers.
Simply put, it is not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it is the manner in which the couple responds. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving.
Weekly marriage meetings, conducted as explained in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, foster a spirit of goodwill and acceptance, a live-and-let-live attitude that allows partners to be themselves. They learn to minimize or manage conflicts that may not be resolvable.
Unresolvable Conflicts Do Not Have to Be Deal Breakers
Here are a few examples of unresolvable conflicts that you can probably learn to live with, assuming you get along well most of the time:
How can spouse accept quirks and habits in each other that they find annoying? Many find it helpful to look at the big picture. If they are happy overall to be married to their spouse, they don't sweat the small stuff. Is it better to keep carping and become a source of irritation, or to create a happy marriage?
“Am I so perfect?” In healthy relationships partners accept each other’s imperfections as minor foibles.
Certainly, it is helpful to address concerns during marriage meetings. Even if neither spouse changes, they get to express themselves constructively, feel heard and understood, and sometimes improvements do occur.
How to Manage Conflicts That Are Not Deal Breakers
Suppose a situation is coming up soon in which one partner wants the other to behave in a certain way. During a marriage meeting, after each partner has expressed and received appreciation, either one can ask the other to do something different. Focus on something fairly easy to change, especially during the first four to six marriage meetings, as it takes time to feel comfortable with the format.
Character traits and long established habits are not likely to change, at least not without great effort. Lew did not ask Ellie to start dressing better all the time. That would have been unrealistic. Her careless approach to what she wears is an entrenched habit. He is learning to live with that because he loves Ellie regardless and appreciates her many fine qualities.
Keeping Expectations Realistic.
Maybe a partner will agree to change. If so, wonderful! Just understand that a person's basic nature and character traits are likely to remain the same. So don’t expect an introvert to become the life of the party, a frugal person to become a big spender, or a sensitive person to become thick skinned.
However, behaviors that have not become habits can be fairly easy to change — if the person wants to. The key word is want. The person may or may not want to change.
If a spouse agrees to change a habit, be patient. When she or he makes an effort, let the compliments flow anytime and especially during the Appreciation part of a marriage meeting.
What if the change still does not happen? If the partner’s fault is not a deal breaker, strive to accept what is not likely to change. Keep irritations in perspective. Focus on the big picture.
Some Conflicts May Be Deal Breakers.Although some conflicts can end up being deal breakers, a couple might still want to save their marriage. The more difficult challenges are likely to benefit from individual or couple therapy to help partners communicate more constructively or to set realistic goals and work toward achieving them.
It’s Fine to Agree to Disagree
Even the best marriages, spouses learn to agree to disagree about unresolvable differences. So if a couple is getting along well, all in all, and managing lingering conflicts, they're in good company.
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice. A former executive director of a family service agency, she previously worked in the fields of child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry. She teaches continuing education classes for social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and counselors. www.marriagemeetings.com
 John Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
Note: This article is adapted from part of the chapter, “Debunking Marriage Myths,” in the book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love; 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library).