Relationship “Gridlock” and How to Conquer It

By Terry Gaspard, LICSW

What can you do to improve your marriage or relationship when you struggle to manage arguments and feel you’re stuck in a negative pattern of relating? While this is a common problem, the solutions are far from ordinary.

During a recent couples counseling session, Alicia, 49, talked about how her husband Jack, 52, chronically criticizes her. He mostly claims she’s a poor communicator and inpatient. He also feels left out because Alicia doesn’t include him in decisions about their three teenage daughters.

Alicia describes how they both blame each other and dig their heels in during an argument – which intensifies the conflict in their marriage. She feels frustrated when Jack goes into the attack mode and her reaction is usually to get defensive. This attack-defensive pattern intensifies their struggle and can cause them both to withdraw from each other or to make hurtful and regrettable comments.

Jack reflects: “After a while, we’re no longer addressing the issue at hand but focused on being right. This creates a vicious cycle of negative feelings that never get resolved.”

Has this ever happened to you? Has it been a long time since you’ve had a successful conversation and compromised? Do you listen and stay calm when you feel attacked?  Or, do you often find yourself getting on the defensive or trying to prove a point, which only escalates the conflict?

In a recent article for The Gottman Relationship Blog, therapist Kyle Benson identifies and analyzes a problem plaguing many romantic partners. In “4 Steps To Overcome Gridlock That Harms Relationships,” Benson unpacks what Dr. John Gottman calls “gridlock.” Simply put, gridlock is the “struggle to manage ongoing disagreements with constructive conflict conversations.”

Using the metaphor of a Chinese Finger Trap, Benson describes the all-too-common dynamic when “each partner pulls for his or her position, making compromise impossible.” Further, the notion of relationship gridlock often grows out of partners whose communication is suboptimal, and who have lost touch with each other’s priorities, goals and hopes for the future. Benson writes that “our dreams are full of aspirations and wishes that are core to our identity and give our life purpose and meaning. Gridlock is a sign that each partner has dreams that the other hasn’t accepted, doesn’t respect, or isn’t aware of.”

How to Overcome a Gridlock?

The good news is that couples should have reason for hope. Finding a way through an emotional traffic jam relies on a commitment to employing a set of tools aimed at easing tension, improving understanding, and fostering empathy. In Benson’s 4 Steps, he counsels that couples first need to acknowledge that they likely “see each other as the source of difficulty [in their relationship]” and “tend to ignore their part in creating the conflict.”

Indeed, an awareness of one’s triggers and shortcomings is key to overcoming conflict, and a healthy give and take in a relationship is built on a foundation of self-reflection and compassion. The inescapable reality that we’re all fallible and that no one is perfect is central to the solutions couples in crisis seek.

Benson’s first step is to “explore each other’s dreams.” If for example, your partner dreams of finding a job that fulfills them personally and professionally but may be less lucrative than their current position, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of being dismissive of what lies at the core of their dream. We all have a deep and evolving sense of identity, and trying to understand what professional contentment will mean for your partner at work and at home, will lead to a dialogue built on consideration and trust.

Next, Benson’s second step — “sooth yourself and each other” — is straight to the point: the idea here is that while “discussing deeply held dreams that are in opposition can be stressful,” couples should “pay attention to [their] stress levels.” This mutual awareness will let couples identify when “flooding occurs,” so they can “stop the conversation, take a break, and use repairs.” This will also give you both time to calm down and collect your thoughts so you can have a meaningful dialogue with your partner.

Benson’s third step is “reach a temporary compromise.” In other words, couples should “make peace with this issue (for now) by accepting [their] differences and establishing some kind of initial compromise.” This strategy will allow couples to “understand that this problem may never go away,” but maintain a perspective that “the goal is to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of pain.”

Finally, Benson shares his fourth step, “giving thanks.” Giving thanks grows out of an understanding that a single conversation alone will not enable partners to overcome gridlock. The work of making and maintaining a healthy, happy relationship is ongoing and often hard, Benson believes that couples keeping a focus on their long-term commitment is helped when they “cultivate a culture of appreciation in which [they] express your gratitude for all [they] have.”

Ending a tough conversation on a hopeful note through giving thanks is sure to make the next heart to heart easier. In the end, following Benson’s 4 steps will help couples grow together and get past the gridlock that stands in the way of a fulfilling relationship. Below are other five other ways to break out of a gridlock.

5 Ways to Deal Break Out of a Gridlock in Relationships:

  • Avoid blame, criticizing, or showing contempt for your partner. Avoid criticisms, such as: “You never put the dishes away.” Also, curb defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.). Starting conversations with a soft tone such as, “Can we chat for a few minutes?” will lessen your partner’s defensiveness.
  • Avoid character assassinations. Don’t attack your partner’s character, values, or core beliefs. Remember that anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so stop and reflect on your own emotions. Listen to your partner’s side of the story instead of focusing on your counterargument. Validate their perspective first – then share your viewpoint. When you feel like attacking your partner, ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish?
  • State your need in a positive way. Avoid trying to prove a point and examine your part in a disagreement. Listen to your partner’s requests and ask for clarification on issues than are unclear. Approach your partner with a positive request such as “I would appreciate you including me in your discussions with our kids more.” State your feelings as neutrally as possible and transform any complaint about your partner into a positive need.
  • Assume the best of your partner. Instead of focusing on your partner’s shortcomings and looking to blame him or her, try spending your energy fostering a deeper connection. Avoid building a case against him or her. Instead, express positive feelings and gestures of love often and become skilled at demonstrating acceptance and gratitude in your words and actions.
  • Practice having a recovery conversation after an argument. Daniel B. Wile, Ph.D. believes that your focus needs to be on listening to your partner’s perspective, collaborating, building intimacy, and restoring safety and good will. A recovery conversation can reveal information about your relationship and restore intimacy. Be careful not to rekindle the fight and be respectful of each other in your gestures, requests, and comments.

After you’ve learned to manage conflicts effectively and avoid gridlocks, it becomes much easier to repair disputes and to get back on track. If you find yourself struggling, tell your partner what is on your mind. For instance, say something like “Can you hold me or tell me you love me? I feel like I’m digging my heels in.” Most of the time, you’ll stay connected with each other in a positive way if you show interest in each other’s dreams, compromise, and show appreciation and gratitude each and every day.

Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on this website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020 and is the winner of American Book Fest’s 2020 Best Book Award in Self-Help Relationships.