Solving Your Solvable Problems

A Gottman Method Exploration

In contemporary egalitarian relationships, the concept of partnership revolves around mutual respect, shared values, and an equitable division of both responsibilities and power. Gone are the days when gender roles dictated who was responsible for what within a marital dynamic. Dr. John Gottman’s Principle Five, “Solving Your Solvable Problems,” from his seminal work on marital stability and relationship analysis, provides a universally applicable framework that can be adapted to the modern relationship ethos. This article will delve into Gottman’s principle through a modern lens, aligning it with the egalitarian values that many couples today hold dear.

Understanding Solvable Problems:

Solvable problems, as identified by Gottman, are those situational issues in a relationship that can be resolved through communication, negotiation, and compromise. These are contrasted with perpetual problems, which are rooted in fundamental differences in personalities and life dreams, and thus, are more challenging to resolve. In an egalitarian context, solvable problems are approached with the understanding that both partners have equal say and that solutions should not be constrained by traditional gender expectations.

It stands to reason that when intimate partners respect each other and are open to each other’s point of view, they have a good basis for resolving any differences that arise. And yet too often couples lose their way when trying to persuade each other or settle disagreements. A conversation that could have been productive instead ends in a screaming match or angry silence. If this sounds like you, and you’re certain the problem you want to tackle is indeed solvable, then the key to resolving this difficulty is to learn a new approach to settling conflict. The advice offered here will also be somewhat helpful in coping with gridlocked problems, but it won’t be enough. To break the hold a perpetual problem has on your marriage, be sure to read about Principle 6, “Overcome Gridlock.”

Gottman, 1999

The popular approach to conflict resolution, advocated by many marital therapists, is to attempt to put yourself in your partner’s shoes while listening intently to what they say, and then to communicate empathetically that you see the dilemma from their perspective. It’s not a bad method–if you can do it. But, as Gottman has stated, many couples can’t- including many very happily married/partnered couples. Plenty of the people Gottman studied who had enviable, loving relationships did not follow the experts’ rules of communication when they argued. But they were still able to resolve their conflicts. By studying intently what these couples did do, he has come up with a new model for resolving conflict in a loving relationship.

Gottman’s Fifth Principle follows this Five-Step Model:

Gottman’s approach to solving solvable problems can be effectively integrated into any relationship dynamic. The summary here is followed by more in depth descriptions of each of the steps

  1. Softened Start-Up:
    The softened start-up is about initiating a conversation without criticism or contempt. In an egalitarian relationship, this means either partner can initiate the dialogue, and it is done with kindness and an openness to understand each other’s perspectives. The focus is on the issue at hand, not on personal attacks or gender-specific accusations.
  2. Making and Receiving Repair Attempts:
    Repair attempts are efforts a couple makes to deescalate tension during a conflict. In egalitarian relationships, both individuals must be adept at making and recognizing these attempts. It’s a shared responsibility to keep the communication constructive and not let it deteriorate into a battle of wills or a competition.
  3. Soothing Yourself and Each Other:
    Self-soothing is essential to prevent flooding, which is when emotions become so overwhelming that they inhibit constructive conversation. Egalitarianism in this step is about recognizing that both partners need time to process their emotions and that there is no weakness in needing a break. Soothing each other is a mutual effort, affirming that care and emotional support go both ways.
  4. Compromise:
    Compromise is an integral part of resolving solvable problems, and in an egalitarian relationship, it requires both partners to relinquish some ground. It is not about one person bending to the will of the other but finding a middle ground that respects both individuals’ needs and preferences.
  5. Addressing Emotional Injuries:
    Sometimes, solvable problems can cause emotional injuries. Addressing these requires expressing one’s feelings and needs without blame. In the spirit of egalitarianism, both partners have the opportunity to voice their hurts and receive empathy, ensuring that no emotional residue lingers to taint future interactions.

These steps take very little “training” because we all pretty much have these skills already; we just get out of the habit of using them in our most intimate relationship. To a certain degree, my fifth principle comes down to having good manners. It means treating your spouse with the same respect you offer to company. If a guest leaves an umbrella, we say, “Here. You forgot your umbrella.” We would never think of saying, “What’s wrong with you? You are constantly forgetting things. Be a little more thoughtful, for God’s sake! What am I, your slave to go picking up after you?” We are sensitive to the guest’s feelings, even if things don’t go so well. When a guest spills wine, we say, “No problem. Would you like another glass?” not, “You just ruined my best tablecloth. I can’t depend on you to do anything right, can I? I will never invite you to my home again.”

Gottman, 1999

Step 1: Suggestions to Ensure that your Startup is Soft

Complain but don’t blame.

Let’s assume that you’re angry because your spouse insisted on buying a dog despite your reservations. He swore up and down that he’d clean up after the dog. But now you’re finding poop all over the yard whenever you take out the garbage. It’s certainly okay to complain. You could say something like “Hey there’s poop all over the backyard. We agreed you’d clean up after Banjo. I’m really upset about this.” While this is confrontational, it’s not an attack. You’re simply complaining about a particular situation, not your partner’s personality or character. What’s not okay is to say something like “Hey, there’s poop all over the backyard. This is all your fault. I just knew you’d be irresponsible about that dog. I should never have trusted you about it in the first place.” However justified you may feel in blaming your spouse, the bottom line is that this approach is not productive. Even if it does lead your partner to clean up the yard, it also leads to increased tension, resentment, defensiveness, and so on.

Make statements that start with “I” instead of “You”

“I” statements have been a staple of interpersonal psychology ever since the mid- 1960s, when acclaimed psychologist Harm Ginott noted that phrases starting with “I” are usually less likely to be critical and to make the listener defensive than statements starting with you. You can see the difference: “You are not listening to me,” versus “I would like it if you’d listen to me.” “You are careless with money,” versus “I want us to save more.” “You just don’t care about me,” versus “I’m feeling neglected.” Clearly, the “I” statements above are gentler than their “You” counterparts. Of course, you can also buck this general rule and come up with “I” statements like “I think you are selfish” that are hardly gentle. So the point is not to start talking to your spouse in some stilted psycho babble. Just keep in mind that if your words focus on how you’re feeling rather than on accusing your spouse, your discussion will be far more successful.

Describe what is happening, don’t evaluate or Judge.

Instead of accusing or blaming, just describe what you see. Instead of “You never watch the baby” say “I seem to be the only one chasing after Charlie today” Again, this will help prevent your spouse from feeling attacked and waging a defense rather than really considering your point.

Be clear. Don’t expect your partner to be a mind reader.

Instead of “You left the dining room a total mess,” say, “I’d appreciate it if you would clean your stuff off the dining room table.” Instead of “Would you take care of the baby for once?” say, “Please change Emmy’s diaper and give her a bottle.”

Be polite.

Add phrases such as “please” and “I would appreciate it if…”

Be appreciative.

If your partner has, at some point, handled this situation better, then couch your request within an appreciation of what your partner did right in the past and how much you miss that now. Instead of “You never have time for me anymore,” say, “Remember how we used to go out every Saturday night? I loved spending so much time alone with you. And it felt so good knowing that you wanted to be with me, too. Let’s start doing that again.”

Don’t store things up.

It’s hard to be gentle when you’re ready to burst with recriminations. So don’t wait too long before bringing up an issue–otherwise it will just escalate in your mind.

When you switch to a soft startup, your spouse may not automatically react so sweetly. He or she may still be anticipating criticism or contempt from you and therefore respond negatively. Don’t give up or fall into the trap of then escalating the conflict. Continue to broach the topic gently, and eventually you will see a change in how your spouse responds, especially if you are working on all of the other aspects of Principle 5 together.

Here are some other examples that illustrate the difference between a harsh startup and a softened alternative:

  • Harsh startup: You never touch me.
  • Softened alternative: I loved it when you kissed me in the kitchen the other day. You are a natural-born kisser. Can we do that more often?
  • Harsh startup: I see you dented the car again. When are you going to stop being so reckless?
  • Softened alternative: I saw that new dent. What happened? I am really getting worried about your driving, and I want you to be safe. Can we talk about this?
  • Harsh startup: You always ignore me!
  • Softened alternative: I have been missing you lately, and I’m getting a little lonely.

Complete the harsh start up questionnaire before moving on to step 2.

Here is the link [Harsh Start Up Questionnaire]

Step 2: Learn to make and receive repair attempts

When you take driving lessons, the first thing you’re taught is how to stop the car. Putting on the brakes is an important skill in a marriage, too. When your discussion starts off on the wrong foot, or you find yourself in an endless cycle of recriminations, you can prevent a disaster if you know how to stop. I call these brakes repair attempts. When Michael gets defensive and says, “I definitely clean off the counters in the kitchen and the table whenever we do stuff,” Justine doesn’t immediately discount his point. “Hm-hmm, you do,” she says. This is a repair attempt. It deescalates the tension so that Michael is more receptive to finding a compromise. What separates stable, emotionally intelligent marriages from others is not that their repair attempts are necessarily more skillful or better thought out, but that their repair attempts get through to their spouse. This is because the air between them hasn’t been clouded by a lot of negativity.

Complete the repair attempts questionnaire before moving on.

Here is the link [Repair Attempts Questionnaire]

As I said, the key factor in whether a repair attempt is effective is the state of the relationship. In happy marriages, couples send and receive repair attempts with ease. In unhappy ones, even the most eloquent repair attempt can fall on deaf ears. But now that you know this, you can “buck the system.” You don’t have to wait for your marriage to improve before you start hearing each other’s repair attempts. Start now by focusing intently on these “brakes” and training each other to recognize when one is sent your way. Do this, and you can pull yourselves out of the downward cycle of negativity.

Your future together can be bright even if your
disagreements tend to be very negative. The secret
is learning the right kind of damage control.

One reason couples miss each other’s repair attempts is that they don’t always come sugarcoated. If your spouse yells, “You’re getting off the topic!” or grumbles, “Can we take a break?” that’s a repair attempt despite the negative delivery. If you listen to your partner’s tone rather than the words, you could miss his real message, which is “Stop! This is getting out of hand.” Because repair attempts can be difficult to hear if your relationship is engulfed in negativity, the best strategy is to make your attempts obviously formal in order to emphasize them.

Below you’ll find a long list of scripted phrases. These are specific words you can say to your spouse to deescalate the tension. By using them when arguments get too negative, you’ll be able to keep your discussions from spiraling out of control. Some couples even copy this list and stick it on their refrigerator for handy reference.

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now. That’s because they offer a very different way of speaking with your spouse when you’re upset. But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them. If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel “wrong” and “unnatural” initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet. The same goes for these repair attempts. Over time they’ll come easily to you, and you’ll modify them to more closely suit your style of speech and personality.

I Feel…

  • I’m getting scared.
  • Please say that more gently
  • Did I do something wrong?
  • That hurt my feelings.
  • That felt like an insult.
  • I’m feeling sad.
  • I feel blamed. Can you rephrase that?
  • I’m feeling unappreciated.
  • Feel defensive. Can you rephrase that?
  • Please don’t lecture me.
  • Don’t feel like you understand me right now.
  • I am starting to feel Hooded.
  • Feel criticized. Can you rephrase that?
  • I’m getting worried

I Need to Calm Down

  • Can you make things safer for me?
  • I need things to be calmer right now.
  • I need your support right now.
  • Just listen to me right now and try to understand.
  • Tell me you love me.
  • Can I have a kiss?
  • Can I take that back?
  • Please be gentler with me.
  • Please help me calm down.
  • Please be quiet and listen to me.
  • This is important to me. Please listen.
  • I need to finish what I was saying.
  • I am starting to feel flooded.
  • I feel criticized. Can you rephrase that?
  • Can we take a break?


  • My reactions were too extreme. Sorry.
  • I really blew that one.
  • Let me try again.
  • I want to be gentler to you right now, and I don’t know how.
  • Tell me what you hear me saying.
  • I can see my part in all this.
  • How can I make things better?
  • Let’s try that over again.
  • What you are saying is…
  • Let me start again in a softer way.
  • I’m sorry. Please forgive me.

Get to…

  1. You’re starting to convince me.
  2. I agree with part of what you’re saying.
  3. Let’s compromise here.
  4. Let’s find our common ground.
  5. I never thought of things that way
  6. This problem is not very serious in the big picture.
  7. I think your point of view makes sense.
  8. Let’s agree to include both our views in a solution.
  9. I am thankful for . . .
  10. One thing I admire about you is…
  11. I see what you’re talking about.

Stop Action!

  • I might be wrong here.
  • Please, let’s stop for a while.
  • Let’s take a break.
  • Give me a moment. I’ll be back.
  • I’m feeling flooded.
  • Please stop.
  • Let’s agree to disagree here.
  • Let’s start all over again.
  • Hang in there. Don’t withdraw.
  • I want to change the topic.
  • We are getting off track.

I Appreciate

  • I know this isn’t your fault.
  • My part of this problem is…
  • I see your point.
  • Thank you for…
  • That’s good point.
  • We are both saying…
  • I understand.
  • I love you.
  • I am thankful for…
  • One thing I admire about you is…
  • This is not your problem, it’s our problem.

Formalizing repair attempts by using these scripted phrases can help you defuse arguments in two ways. First, the formality of a script ensures that you will use the type of words that work well for putting on the brakes. Second, these phrases are like megaphones they help ensure that you pay attention to a repair attempt when you’re on the receiving end.

Now it’s time to use the above checklist to help you resolve an issue in your marriage. Choose a low-intensity conflict to discuss.

Each of you gets to talk for fifteen minutes. Make sure you both use at least one phrase from the list of phrases during the discussion. Announce to your partner beforehand that you’re about to make a repair attempt. You can even refer to the attempt by number, as in, “I’m making repair attempt number six under / Feel: “I’m feeling sad.””

When your partner announces a repair attempt, your job is simply to try to accept it. View the interruption as a bid to make things better. Accept the attempt in the spirit in which it was intended. This entails accepting your partner’s influence. For example, if he or she says, “I need to finish what I’m saying,” acknowledge that need and then encourage your partner to keep talking to you.

As you continue to use the list in your conversations, eventually you might consider replacing it with some other ritual, like raising your hand and announcing point-blank, “This is a repair attempt!” Or you may come up with other effective repairs that better fit your personality and relationship. For example, a couple we know say “clip clop” to each other if one of them introduces one of the four horsemen into a discussion. The humor in this repair helps defuse the negativity all the more.

Step 3: Soothe Yourself and Each Other

While Justine is in the middle of discussing laundry with Michael, he does something that seems incidental but really has great significance for their chances of a happy future: He yawns. Cleaning house is not the most fascinating subject, but Michael doesn’t yawn because Justine is boring him. He yawns because he is relaxed.

When you’re feeling angry or anxious, yawning is just about the least likely physiological reaction you’re going to have. Michael’s yawn is like an announcement that he’s feeling soothed by Justine, even though she’s discussing an area of conflict. Because no alarms are going off in his body (or mind), he is able to discuss housework and reach a compromise with Justine easily.

It is harder for a man’s body to calm down after an argument than a woman’s.

In less stable marriages, however, conflict discussions can lead to the opposite reaction—they can trigger flooding. When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically. Most likely you think thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) or innocent victim hood (“Why is she always picking on me?”). Meanwhile, your body is in distress. Usually your heart is pounding, you’re sweating, you’re holding your breath. Your brain literally thinks it is facing a saber tooth tiger. That is not an exxageration, it is a fact of brain science, and what the autonomic nervous system does to protect us.

In the vast majority of cases, when one partner does not “get” the other’s repair attempt, it’s because the listener is flooded and therefore can’t really hear what the spouse is saying. The other way of describing this state is with the concept of blending from Internal Family Systems Therapy. That model is described in other learning modules and is far too complex to go into here. Suffice to say, when you’re in this condition, the most thoughtful repair attempt in the world won’t benefit your relationship.

Flooding Questionnaire

To discover whether flooding is a significant problem in your relationship, answer the following questions:
Read each statement and choose whether it is true or false.

  • Our discussions get too heated.
  • have a hard time calming down.
  • One of us is going to say something we will regret.
  • My partner gets too upset.
  • After a fight want to keep my distance.
  • My partner yells unnecessarily
  • I feel overwhelmed by our arguments
  • I can’t think straight when my partner gets hostile, why can’t we talk more logically?
  • My partner’s negativity often comes out of nowhere.
  • There’s often no stopping my partner’s temper.
  • I feel like running away during our fights
  • Small issues suddenly become big ones
  • I can’t calm down very easily during an argument
  • My partner has a long list of unreasonable demands

Scoring: Give yourself one point for each “true” answer.

Below 6: This is an area of strength in your marriage. You are able to confront differences of opinion with your spouse without feeling overwhelmed. This means that you are not feeling victimized or hostile toward your spouse during disagreements. That’s good news since it indicates that you are able to communicate with each other without negativity getting out of hand. As a result, you’re better able to resolve conflicts (and avoid gridlock over issues that are un resolvable).

6 or above: Your marriage could stand some improvement in this area. Your score suggests that you tend to get flooded during arguments with your spouse. When this occurs, any likelihood that the problem can be resolved ceases. You are feeling too agitated to really hear what your spouse is saying or to learn any helpful conflict-resolution skills. Read on to find out how to cope with this problem.

Exercise 2: Self-Soothing

The first step is to stop the discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your spouse or imploding (stonewalling), neither of which will get you anywhere other than one step farther down the marital cascades that lead to divorce. The only reasonable strategy, therefore, is to let your spouse know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. That break should last at least twenty minutes, since it will be that long before your body calms down. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation and innocent victim hood. Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.

Many people find that the best approach to self-soothing is to focus on calming the body through a meditative technique. Here’s a simple one:

  • Sit in a comfortable chair, or lie on your back on the floor.
  • Focus on controlling your breathing.
  • Usually when you get flooded, you either hold your breath a lot or breathe shallowly.
  • So close your eyes and focus on taking deep, regular breaths.
  • Relax your muscles. Drop your shoulders, loosen your jaw.
  • One at a time, while you inhale deeply, tightly squeeze the muscle groups that seem tense (usually, your forehead and jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, and back).
  • Hold for two seconds, then release, and exhale, forcing the breath.
  • Let the tension flow out of each muscle group, and get that muscle group to feel heavy by imagining that it is.
  • Think about and get a sense of how the muscles feel when they are tense and when they are relaxed. Notice the difference between the two states.
  • Let the tension flow out of each (now-heavy) muscle group, and get that muscle group to feel warm.
  • One way is to keep your eyes closed and focus on one calming vision or idea.
  • Many people find it effective to think of a place they associate with calmness, like a forest, a lake, or a beach.
  • Imagine this place as vividly as you can.
  • Keep focused on this calming vision for about thirty seconds.
  • Find a personal image that brings all of this soothing to mind.
  • For example, a place on Orca Island in Washington State, where the loudest sound is the wind rustling the trees as young eagles residing in a nearby rookery soar by.
  • Conjuring that image can be relaxing and may automatically trigger all of the other steps of self-soothing.

I think taking a break of this sort is so important that I schedule this exercise into my daily routine. Invariably I get the same response from my clients. At first, they moan and groan about being forced to relax. Some are quite cynical about relaxation exercises and can’t see how closing their eyes and thinking about a lake can help cure their marital woes. And yet once they do the exercise, they realize how powerful and helpful it really is. Suddenly everybody in the room relaxes. You can see the difference in how couples relate to each other. Their voices get softer; there is more chuckling. Soothing themselves has made them better able to work on their conflicts as a team rather than as adversaries.

Exercise 3: Soothing Each Other

Once you’ve calmed yourself, you can benefit your partnership enormously if you then take some time to calm each other. Obviously this can be quite difficult to do if you’re feeling very angry or hurt. But the results can be so impressive that it’s worth trying. Remember: Only do this after you’ve already spent twenty minutes calming down on your own. Soothing your partner is of enormous benefit to a partnership because it’s really a form of reverse conditioning. In other words, if you frequently have the experience of being calmed by your spouse, you will stop seeing your partner as a trigger of stress in your life and instead associate him or her with feeling relaxed. This automatically increases the positive interactions in your relationship. To comfort each other, you first need to talk about flooding.

I invite you to use a journal or notebook to record your answers. Ask yourself and each other these questions:

  • What makes me (you) feel flooded?
  • How do I (you) typically bring up issues or irritability or complaints?
  • Do I (you) store things up?
  • Is there anything I can do that soothes you?
  • Is there anything you can do that soothes me?
  • What signals can we develop for letting the other know when we feel flooded?
  • Can we take breaks?

If your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard you try. Take a twenty minute break before continuing. There are many different ways to calm your spouse. What matters most is that your partner determines the method and enjoys it. Some couples find massage the perfect antidote to a stressful discussion. Another helpful technique is to take turns guiding each other through a meditation. Think of it as a verbal massage. You can even write an elaborate script in which you have your spouse tighten and relax different muscle groups and then visualize a calm, beautiful scene that brings him or her pleasure. You can tape-record your rendition for future use — perhaps give it to your spouse as a special gift. You don’t need to wait for a tense situation to use this exercise. Soothing each other regularly is a wonderful way to prevent future flooding and generally enrich your marriage.

Step 4: Compromise

Like it or not, the only solution to marital problems is to find a compromise. In an intimate, loving relationship it just doesn’t work for either of you to get things all your way, even if you’re convinced that you’re right. This approach would create such inequity and unfairness that the marriage would suffer. You may develop anger, resentment, and contempt. Usually, though both partners do make an effort to compromise on issues, they fail because they go about trying to compromise in the wrong way.

Negotiation is possible only after you’ve followed the steps above — softening the conversation or interaction startup, repairing your discussion missteps, and remaining calm (DBT intersection of wise mind – middle path). These prime you for compromise by getting you into a positive mode. Before you try to resolve a conflict, remember that the cornerstone of any compromise is the fourth principle of marriage, accepting influence. This means that for a compromise to work, you can’t have a closed mind to your spouse’s opinions and desires. You don’t have to agree with everything your spouse says or believes, but you have to be honestly open to considering his or her position. That’s what accepting influence is really all about.

If you find yourself sitting with your arms folded and shaking your head no (or just thinking it) when your spouse is trying to talk out a problem with you, your discussion will never get anywhere. As I’ve said, men have a harder time accepting influence from their wives than vice versa. But whatever your gender, an inability to be open minded is a real liability when it comes to conflict resolution. So if you haven’t already, or even if you already have, I invite you to work through the exercises in the lesson on the 4th principle (let your partner influence you).

Realize that it may take time and continued self-awareness to break out of this tendency. Your spouse can assist you in seeing things from his or her perspective. Ask your spouse questions to help you see his or her point of view. Remember to search for the part of your spouse’s perspective that, by objective standards, is reasonable. Once you’re ready, there’s nothing magical about finding a solution you both can live with. Often compromise is just a matter of talking out your differences and preferences in a systematic way This is not difficult to do as long as you continue to follow the steps above to prevent your discussion from becoming overwhelmingly negative.

Exercise 4: Finding Common Ground

Decide together which solvable problem you want to tackle. Then sit separately and think about the problem. On a piece of paper, draw two circles–a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle make a list of the aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle list all of the aspects of the problem you can compromise about.

Remember the aikido principle of yielding to win–the more able you are to compromise, the better able you’ll be to persuade your spouse. So try hard to make your outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Here are the inner and outer circles of a couple named Raymond and Carol, who were both dissatisfied with their sex life.


Inner Circle:

  • I want sex to be more erotic.
  • I want there to be fantasy play with you wearing very sexy lingerie.

Outer Circle:

  • I can compromise on whether to have sex in the morning or at night even when ‘m tired.
  • I can compromise on our talking during sex


Inner Circle:

  • I want to feel like we’re making love when we’re having sex.
  • I want Raymond to hold me and stroke me a lot. I want a lot of foreplay.

Outer Circle:

  • I prefer to have sex at night because I love falling asleep in your arms afterward, but sex in the morning would be okay too.
  • Talking to me a lot while we make love is nice, but I can compromise on this too.

Once you’ve filled in your circles (your lists may be much longer than Raymond’s and Carol’s), come back and share them with each other. Look for common bases of agreement. Remember as you discuss this to make use of all the other problem-solving strategies outlined in this chapter-namely, softened startup and soothing yourself or each other if flooding occurs.

In the case of Carol and Raymond, their inner circles are very different, but they are not incompatible. Once they accept and respect their sexual differences, they can create lovemaking sessions that incorporate his desire for erotic fantasy with her longing for intimacy and lots of touching. And although their outer circles are in opposition as well, they are willing to give in these areas, so compromise should be easy. Maybe they’ll decide to switch off with morning and evening sex depending on how tired Raymond is. And they can vary how much they speak during sex as well.

The goal of this circle exercise is to try to develop a common way of thinking about the issue so that you work together to construct a real plan that you can both live with. As you share your circles, ask yourselves the following questions:

  • What do we agree about?
  • What are our common feelings or the most important feelings here?
  • What common goals can we have here?
  • How can we understand this situation, this issue?
  • How do we think these goals should be accomplished?

Most likely if you’re grappling with a solvable problem, following these steps will lead you to find a reasonable compromise. Once you do, try out the solution for an agreed-upon time before revisiting it and deciding if it’s working. If it’s not, begin the process again and work together to resolve it.

From time to time it’s a good idea to recharge your compromising skills by focusing together on solving a problem that is not related to your marital issues. What follows is a fun exercise that will give you practice in coming to consensus decisions by working as a team and giving and accepting influence.

Exercise 5: Paper Tower

This exercise is especially fun to do with other couples. Consider having a paper tower party or contest where each couple is a separate team. You can take turns being builders and score keepers. Make sure each couple has the same amount and type of supplies on hand for construction materials.

Your mission: Build a free-standing paper tower using the supplies listed below. The goal is to build the highest, most stable, and most beautiful tower you can. You may have very different ideas about how to go about this, so remember to work out your differences of opinion using the compromise approach described in this chapter.

During this exercise try to be a team. Try both to give and to accept influence. Include your partner. Ask questions. Take about half an hour for this task. The finished product should not adhere exactly to either of your visions but should include both of them. When you’re finished, have a third party (or another couple) score your tower. No doubt the scoring will be highly subjective since it values creativity more than engineering prowess. But your final score is beside the point, which is to have fun building your tower together. When you’re finished you’ll have created a monument to your marriage and your enhanced compromising skills.


  • Newspaper or Magazine
  • Crayons
  • Ball of string
  • Colored cellophane
  • Scotch tape
  • Construction paper
  • Stapler
  • Cardboard pieces
  • Paper towel cores
  • Markers

Score: Have a third party (or another couple) score your tower. The top score is 90.

You get:

  • Up to 20 points for height
  • Up to 20 points for strength (stability)
  • Up to 50 points for beauty and originality.

Step 5: Be Tolerant of Each Other’s Faults

Too often, a marriage gets bogged down in “if on lies.” If only your spouse were taller, richer, smarter, neater, or sexier, all of your problems would vanish. As long as this attitude prevails, conflicts will be very difficult to resolve. Until you accept your partner’s flaws and foibles, you will not be able to compromise successfully. Instead, you will be on a relentless campaign to alter your spouse. Conflict resolution is not about one person changing, it’s about negotiating, finding common ground and ways that you can accommodate each other.

When you have mastered the general problem-solving skills outlined in this chapter, you’ll find that many of your problems find their own solutions. Once you get past the barriers that have prevented clear communication, difficulties are easy to resolve. In fact, the next chapter offers some creative and simple solutions to some of the most common conflicts couples face–money, sex, housework, kids, work stress.

But remember: These solutions work only for problems that can be solved. If compromise still seems like a distant goal to you, then the problem you are grappling with may not be solvable after all. That means it’s time to turn to the advice on coping with perpetual problems in the lesson on principle 6, overcoming gridlock.

Applying the Principle in Modern Relationships:

To apply Gottman’s Principle Five in modern relationships, it’s crucial to discard the antiquated notions that assign problem-solving roles based on gender. Instead, partners should focus on their strengths, preferences, and the unique dynamics of their relationship. For instance, if one partner is better with finances, irrespective of gender, they might take the lead in budget discussions, while the other may excel in organizing and therefore handle planning aspects.

Challenges and Opportunities:

The main challenge in applying this principle in an egalitarian framework is ensuring that both partners truly have equal footing in the relationship. It requires constant vigilance against societal conditioning and the subtle ways traditional gender roles can infiltrate even the most progressive relationships. However, this also presents an opportunity for couples to engage in deeper conversations about their values and the kind of partnership they aspire to have.


Solving solvable problems within the context of an egalitarian relationship is about mutual respect, shared responsibility, and valuing each partner’s contribution to the relationship. By applying Gottman’s Five-Step Model and adapting it to an equal partnership ethos, modern couples can navigate their conflicts with a sense of fairness and cooperation that transcends outdated gender roles. In doing so, they lay the groundwork for a relationship that is not only stable and loving but also deeply rooted in the principles of equality and mutual respect.


  • Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.
  • Knudson-Martin, C., & Mahoney, A. R. (2009). Couples, Gender, and Power: Creating Change in Intimate Relationships. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
  • Papp, L. M., Goeke-Morey, M. C., & Cummings, E. M. (2004). Genderspecific vulnerabilities to depressive symptoms among young couples’ relationship. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 98-107.

Liability Waiver Disclaimer

Please note that this article serves as an informative piece of educational content and should not replace the personalized guidance of a licensed professional in the field of relationship counseling.