When A Good Marriage Is In Gridlock

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Joe Beam, chairman of www.MarriageHelper.com, answers the following question from a Family Savvy reader whose otherwise good marriage is locked into a seemingly irresolvable conflict.

QUESTION: Joe, my dream is to travel with my spouse. We have the means and the time (now that kids are in college), but she hates travel. I can’t imagine growing old with her and not being able to share this passion. What do I do?

ANSWER: In his book, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman refers to something he calls gridlock. Gridlock occurs when a couple faces a perpetual conflict that appears unsolvable. He writes, “I have found that unrequited dreams are at the core of every gridlocked conflict.” He goes on to explain that by dreams he means “hopes, aspirations, and wishes that are part of your identity and give purpose and meaning to your life.”

Your description of your desire to travel as a passion and your dismay at not being able to share that with your wife :seems to fit his concept of a life dream. You even call it a dream. Much more than a casual desire, you avidly crave travel. Unfortunately, your wife’s feelings about your dream are not neutral or even slightly negative. You state that she hates travel.

In attempting to solve seemingly unsolvable problems such as this, you need to understand that your disagreement is not about travel per se, but about what travel represents to each of you. You likely have held your travel dream for years, probably from childhood. Your wife’s intense dislike of travel likely also roots in her childhood.

Why is that significant?

Typically, our dreams come from desires to replicate warm memories from our childhood, or to distance ourselves from painful childhood memories.

Therefore, rather than pushing her to join you, you would do far better if the two of you go through a gentle process of self—discovery. When you have relaxed conversations where neither of you feels pressured to either yield or win, verbally explore together what may underlie each of your feelings about travel. Start by asking yourself, what does travel represent to me? How does the thought of travel affect me, and why?

Continue with those type of self-exploration questions as you probe not only your feelings, but also any associated memories in your life. Particularly allow yourself to relive remembrances that in any way stirred your desire to travel. For example, think about times when your family traveled. Or when someone who influenced you talked about his or her travels. You might even discover that your desire came from great books you read, or digging through issues of National Geographic. The idea, as you can see, is to find which warm memories from childhood – either those you experienced in reality or in your daydreams – might be the basis for your desire to travel.

What benefit might that discovery bring?

As you verbally walk through those memories with your wife, allowing yourself to feel what you felt then, the potential exists that she will come to view traveling with you in a very different light.

The other side of that is that she, too, should ask herself the same types of questions and openly share her memories and emotions with you. In her case, you probably will hear unhappy memories and unpleasant feelings. Maybe her father was gone too much. Or perhaps a person who mattered to her left for an adventure and she felt abandoned. Just listen and let her explore her own psyche. You may come to view her resistance differently.

The process I describe seldom occurs in a single setting. It may take a few days, or even weeks, as you listen to each other dig into memories. If any memories are repressed, they likely will take a while to come to the surface. Therefore, do not try to use these sessions to solve your disagreement, or any repressed or hidden memories will stay buried. This process is NOT to solve, but to understand. Allow it to take as long as it takes.

Some couples never find the ideal solution to their gridlock. However, if they use the process I described, they nearly always find themselves closer to each other, and the problem becomes less important. On the other hand, the process often does lead to a satisfactory solution, though it may be different from what either of you imagined. If you wish to learn a method for compromise based on this method, I suggest you get a copy of 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman.

If your marriage is in trouble, there are many who will help. If you wish my organization to assist you in getting the help you need, please call us toll free at 866-903-0990. We will listen, and we will help if we can.