Every couple faces conflicts, but some issues seem to defy resolution, resurfacing over and over again. Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman calls these “perpetual problems” — chronic disagreements rooted in fundamental differences between partners.1 While it’s tempting to view perpetual problems as a relationship red flag, Gottman’s research reveals they are both normal and manageable. By understanding the psychology behind these endless loops, couples can break free of the gridlock and cultivate greater acceptance and harmony.

The universality of perpetual problems

Gottman’s groundbreaking studies found that 69% of relationship conflicts are perpetual in nature.2 Whether it’s disagreements over finances, intimacy, family, or lifestyle choices, most couples will encounter some friction points that persist throughout their relationship. Even the healthiest, happiest couples have perpetual problems — the key difference lies in how they approach them.

Fundamental differences at the root

Perpetual problems often spring from core differences in personality, beliefs, needs, or values between partners.1 One partner may crave novelty and spontaneity while the other thrives on routine and stability. Clashing communication styles, such as a direct vs. an indirect approach, can fuel ongoing misunderstandings. Differing attitudes towards money, sex, parenting, or politics can create a minefield of triggers and touchy subjects.

Rather than a sign of incompatibility, these differences reflect the natural diversity that draws many couples together in the first place. The challenge lies in bridging these contrasts with empathy and adapting to “good enough” compromises.3

From gridlock to dialogue

Perpetual problems turn problematic when couples get stuck in entrenched positions, defending their own perspective while invalidating their partner’s.4 Gottman calls this the “gridlocked” state, where constructive dialogue breaks down and interactions devolve into criticism, defensiveness, or icy detachment.

To break the impasse, Gottman advises couples to shift from problem-solving to dialogue. The goal is not to magically align on every issue, but to cultivate a deeper understanding of each partner’s position. By exploring the symbolic meanings, hidden dreams, and underlying emotions beneath the surface conflict, couples can foster greater acceptance and discover creative compromises.5

For example, a perpetual problem over finances may represent contrasting values of freedom vs. security for each partner. A gridlocked debate over the “right” way to spend or save can soften into a thoughtful discussion about each person’s valid needs and how to balance them as a team.

Practical strategies for handling perpetual conflicts

Gottman offers some key strategies for defusing tension and handling perpetual problems gracefully:

  1. Approach disagreements with a spirit of curiosity, not animosity.4 Ask open-ended questions to genuinely understand your partner’s perspective.
  2. Take responsibility for your own part in the conflict cycle.6 Acknowledge how your reactions may contribute to the gridlock.
  3. Verbalize appreciation for your partner’s positive qualities, even when disagreeing. Express your underlying emotions and dreams using “I feel” statements rather than attacks.
  4. Be open to influence and seek out “good enough” compromises.3 Small changes, like taking turns choosing the movie or alternating holiday traditions, can add up over time.
  5. Inject humor, playfulness, and light-hearted affection to defuse tension. Regularly express fondness and admiration for your partner.6
  6. Carve out space for connect and intimacy outside of problem areas. Nurture shared joy and friendship as a buffer against conflict.7


By shifting our perspective on perpetual problems, we can transform sources of enduring conflict into opportunities for deeper connection and understanding. Accepting that some differences may never be fully resolved relieves the pressure to change our partner or “win” the argument. Instead, couples can learn to honor each other’s contrasting views and needs, finding creative compromises and focusing on the profound respect and affection that transcend their differences. With patience and practice, we can learn to dance with our perpetual problems rather than colliding over them again and again.


  1. Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  2. Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. Three Rivers Press.
  3. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2012). What makes love last? How to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon & Schuster.
  4. Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure: A 5-step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. Three Rivers Press.
  5. Driver, J. L. & Gottman, J. M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family Process, 43(3), 301-314.
  6. Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2008). Gottman method couple therapy. In A. S. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 138–164). The Guilford Press.
  7. Gottman, J. M. & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: Exploratory analyses using 14-year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41(1), 83–96.