Dr. John Gottman’s 30+ years of research has consistently focused on what happy couples do differently than couples who unhappily struggle. He used to call these couples the “Masters of Marriage.” Now, (I imagine in an effort to de-stigmatize cohabitating couples), these happy couples are now called the “Masters of Relationships.”

Dr. Amy Rauer, an Associate Professor in Child and Family Studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is also the founder of the Relationships & Development Lab. Dr. Rauer’s research explores how behaviors that characterize happy couples earlier in their marriage may, in fact, tend to undermine them later in their married life.

Dr. Rauer was fascinated by how happy couples decided which marital problems to focus most on. Her new research concludes that while all couples have arguments, happy couples tend to focus on the 31% of marital problems that Gottman calls “solvable problems.”

The research suggests the happy couples are more careful about which problems can be tackled and solved, and which seem more appropriate to put on the back burner.

Issues like how to split up household tasks or how to spend free time are more immediately solvable — so happy couples tend to talk about them first.

What About the Other 69% of Marital Problems?

Here’s the problem with that…Gottman’s research tells us that 69% of marital problems are fundamentally unsolvable.

According to Dr. Rauer’s research, perpetual problems tend to be avoided by happy couples. This avoidant tendency is a short-sighted strategy to avoid continuous conflict or embarrassment.

Dr. Rauer reported that happy couples tend to take a solution-oriented approach to their marital conflict, and this solution-oriented approach starts with how they pick their battles.

How the Study Was Designed

The study included two distinctly different age cohorts of happy couples. Fifty-seven of the couples in Rauer’s study were in their 30s, and 64 couples were in their 70s. All the couples were asked to rank their relationship problems from the least serious to the most difficult.

Among the study subjects, the most serious issues were money, intimacy, communication, and conflicts over how to spend free time. Among the older couples cohort, health management was an additional area of conflict. The least serious issues were jealousy, religion, and family matters.

Dr. Rauer’s research showed that couples preferred to work on the solvable issues because discussing unsolvable problems was anxiety-provoking.

Dr. Rauer said:

“Rebalancing chores may not be easy, but it lends itself to more concrete solutions than other issues. One spouse could do more of certain chores to balance the scales. Focusing on the perpetual, more-difficult-to-solve problems may undermine partners’ confidence in the relationship.”

The happy couples in the study avoided discussing perpetual problems.

It’s all about momentum. Happy couples who chose conflicts that they could solve believe that they are building more emotional muscle to perhaps work on their more unsolvable problems in the future. If couples could not work together on smaller solvable problems, they were even more reluctant to tackle the larger issues in their marriage. Dr. Rauer commented on the research:

“Since these issues tend to be more difficult to resolve, they are more likely to lead to less marital happiness or the dissolution of the relationship, especially if couples have not banked up any previous successes solving other marital issues.”

The results also showed that happy couples who are together longer tended to argue less, suggesting they knew which disagreements they could make progress on.

Dr. Rauer said the momentum of success was important:

“If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues.”

Implications of this Research for Happy Couples

This research rings true.

Couples do seem to acquire confidence when they can resolve solvable problems.

However, many larger issues in a marriage may not only appear to be unsolvable, but they may also actually be unsolvable.

Gottman’s research says that 69% of marital problems are fundamentally outside the scope of human endeavor. They involve differences in the family of origin, temperament, values, beliefs, etc.

Happy couples typically do not know this… they are taking a “common sense” attitude toward problem-solving.

But there is no “common sense” in relationships. What seems like a reasonable course of action today is often the worst thing to do in the long run.

Avoiding big issues and perpetual problems can set them up for more conflict in the future.

Good couples therapy can teach happy couples how to manage unsolvable problems instead of avoiding them or trying to prevail over their partner.

That’s the importance of science-based couples therapy. Many couples are relieved to hear that there is an alternative to trying to solve a problem or avoiding the conflict altogether.

Managing perpetual problems requires a skill set that typically builds on how happy couples have successfully navigated solvable problems in the past.

Are You Happy Because You’ve Been Avoiding Your Perpetual Problems?

Dr. Rauer’s Recent Research:

Rauer, A., Williams, L., & Jensen, J. (2017). Finer distinctions: Variability in satisfied older couples’ problem-solving behaviors. Family Process.

Fiori, K., Rauer, A., Birditt, K., Brown, E., Jager, J., & Orbuch, T. (2017). Social network typologies of Black and White couples in midlife. Journal of Marriage and Family.

Brown, A., Rauer, A., & Sabey, A. (2017). The meta marriage: Links between older couples’ relationship narratives and marital satisfaction. Family Process.

Rauer, A., Pettit, G., Samek, D., Lansford, J., Bates, J., & Dodge, K. (2016). Romantic relationships and alcohol use: A long-term, developmental perspective. [Special issue]. Development and Psychopathology, 28, 773-789.