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    Holy Deadlock

    tomIn my last column I shared the startling finding, by couples researcher John Gottman, that fully 69% of the conflicts that couples have in relationships are never resolved. Relationships survive, not because the parties settle their differences, but because they learn to treat the areas where they disagree the way they would treat a bad back or allergies – as inconvenient realities to accept with grace, compassion and humor – rather than as zero-sum games in which someone must win and someone must lose.

    But many couples have differences that they can’t just take in stride, and which can cause major gridlock if some workable compromise isn’t found. Gottman found that gridlock is almost always a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by your partner, and in some cases, by both of you. Dreams can operate at many levels. Some, like wanting a certain amount of savings, are practical, but others can be profound and deeply rooted in childhood experiences and lifelong values. We have to respect the power of each other’s dreams if our relationships are to work.

    For instance, Matt wants to get an advanced college degree. He has always wanted to teach in his field, and the degree would make that possible. His partner Rafael has an income that allows him to make Matt’s dream a reality. But Rafael longs to quit his high-stress corporate job to run his own landscaping business, where he can work outdoors and enjoy the freedom of being his own boss. They begin a process of discussion and negotiation. Maybe Rafael will decide to keep at the grind until Matt finishes school; or maybe Matt will go to school part-time, or suspend his studies for a while. The point is that they make their decisions with mutual respect for each other’s aspirations.

    Matt and Rafael understand and respect each other’s dreams. But when either partner doesn’t fully understand the other’s dreams, gridlock is almost inevitable. It gets more complicated when the dream that is fueling the conflict is hidden, that is, when either or both partners aren’t clear about what the deeper issue is. This happens when, for instance, you see your dreams or your partner’s as “childish” or “impractical.” But when you adjust to your relationship by burying a dream, it just resurfaces as resentment and gridlocked conflict. Gottman believes that one good indicator that you’re wrestling with a hidden dream is that you see your partner as being the sole source of the problem.

    So the first step in resolving gridlock is to become what Gottman calls a “dream detective.”  Become curious about your partner’s desires. If he or she says, “I’ve always wanted to get a pilot’s license,” don’t reply, “Well, we don’t have the time or the money for that.” Instead of crushing your partner’s dream, listen as a friend. Ask questions, not to criticize, but only to elicit more information. Explore together what the dream means to your partner. At this stage your purpose is not so much to find a way of reconciling conflicting dreams as to “declaw” the issue by understanding its roots.

    Look deeply, as well, into your own dreams so that you can better understand them and articulate them to your partner. It can be helpful to separate the issue into two categories. In the first category, place all the aspects of what you want where you can’t yield without violating your basic needs or core values. In the second category, put all aspects of the issue where you can be flexible. Try to make the first category as small as you can and the second as large as possible. When you are both clear about where you can be flexible and where you absolutely cannot, compromises that honor the dreams of both parties are more likely to arise.

    Learning to honor each other’s conflicting dreams is usually a difficult process, and it can be tempting to give up. But the research shows that couples who are demanding of their relationships are more likely to have deeply satisfying unions than those who lower their expectations.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is