How to identify solvable and unsolvable problems in your marriage


We’ve been together with my man for five years now. Staying together during the lockdown is proving quite challenging. I find that we fight more often, and we get frustrated when we don’t resolve issues on the same day.

We’ve been taught that it’s very bad for your relationship to go to bed without resolving conflict. And when we do so, we now find issues piled up on top of the other.

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Is it okay to have some of our disagreements go unresolved? Can we still have a healthy relationship in spite of the unresolved issues? 

Managing marital conflict: Solvable and unsolvable problems

Coronavirus restrictions involve couples to spend more time together even if they don’t feel like it. We’re now getting used to this new normal, that of being in each other’s faces 24/7 with nowhere to go, where couples have very little room to breathe from the unresolved issues that may have long been plaguing their relationships. 

This period will also bring up new issues you may have never known to exist as they were hidden by the rhythm of your pre-Covid-19 era. Being on each other’s face day and night, couples are most likely left without any of the backdoors through which they usually escape from unpleasant situations. Unable to avoid the problems anymore, couples typically run headlong into them, and the results are pretty much what you’d expect.

Probably one of the most commonly taught and often misunderstood pieces of marital advice that we hear before getting married is “never go to bed angry”. This is somehow interpreted in many marriages as though you can’t go to bed with conflict unresolved.

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The consequence of the incorrect exegesis of that advice are that many couples understand it to mean whatever conflict they face on a given day, they must not sleep without resolving it. As a result they go into marriage expecting that any problem that comes up within the relationship has to be solved before bedtime. However, they get very frustrated as reality teaches them the practical impossibility of that notion.

Solvable Problems

A solvable problem within a relationship is about something situational. The conflict is simply about that topic, and there may not be any deep-seated meaning or need behind each partner’s position.

If your spouse’s responsibilities in the household, for example, are not being managed due to the increase in work responsibilities, then this is a solvable problem. With healthy communication, you can find a mutually agreed solution.

Amongst solvable problems, finding creative solutions and learning to work together to adopt new standards, values and strategies that address each of our needs doesn’t always come quickly. Though some solvable issues seem less difficult, even petty at times, they are sometimes better left for the “morning” when we have rested, collected our thoughts and calmed our minds. With time, often comes perspective.

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Important to note though is that solvable problems for one couple can be about the exact same topics that could be unsolvable problems for a different couple.

Unsolvable Problems

Patricia and Trevor (not their real names) argue about household chores, for example. "I've been unhappy with Trevor's messiness for some time," complains Pat.

"I've asked him to be more considerate of my needs and put his clothes away, but things don't appear to be changing. It feels like I'm at the bottom of his list."

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To this Trevor laments: "Pat puts too much focus on neatness and misses the big picture. Most guys are slobs and I think I’m doing just fine."

The common thread in these statements is this couple's focus on "fixing" the other person rather than on taking specific actions to change their part in a relationship dynamic that is undesirable.

In the follow-up session, we had both of them make a list of their priorities and non-negotiable deal breakers. Interestingly, Pat decided she could tolerate Trevor's messiness as long as he continued to do his own laundry and take his shirts to the cleaners.

On the other hand, Trevor felt that he could live with Jena's complaints about his messiness if she could find ways to compliment him more for his nice qualities, such as being a good cook and supportive partner.

Resolving marital conflict can be a long process that may even last for as long as the relationship itself. Never fall for the trap of believing that you can’t be happy if you can’t resolve some of your disagreements.

It is not the presence of conflict that stresses a relationship; it is the manner in which you, as a couple respond. Positive, respectful communication about differences helps keep a marriage thriving. Couples can live with unsolvable differences about ongoing issues in their relationship as long as they aren't deal breakers.

What is even more significant than solving problems is ensuring that as a couple, you have a shared system of meaning underpinning your marriage. Developing a shared vision for your marriage, as well as the emotional intelligence and skills for managing conflict is far more significant than any resolution of conflict.

When your marriage is characterised by a shared meaning, any conflict is inevitably less intense. And you are likely to maintain focus on what’s important, the bigger picture, without avoiding the conflict.

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