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3 Ways Couples Get Stuck and How to Move Through It

Every couple gets stuck. After all, relationships take work, and conflict is inevitable. Sometimes, stucksnowwe might be on different pages. Sometimes, we might unwittingly do things that keep us and our partners spinning our wheels.

Below, Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist, shared three ways couples commonly get stuck and how you can move forward when it happens to you. Because that’s the great thing: You aren’t stuck forever. You can use certain techniques to help you reconnect to your partner and enhance your relationship.

Struggling with Perpetual Problems

According to John Gottman, every couple has two types of problems: With solvable problems, a couple reaches an effective solution without needing to rehash the issue. For instance, mom wants a clean house, while dad wants to spend more time as a family. They budget for a cleaning service, and enjoy special family outings on those days, explained Thorn, who practices at Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah.

With perpetual problems, a couple keeps coming back to the same issue over and over again. These problems “center [around] fundamental differences in either your personalities or lifestyle needs,” she said. Thorn shared this example: A wife wants to spend extra money on travel and vacations, while the husband wants to spend it on toys and long-term entertainment.

Getting unstuck: According to Thorn, Gottman calls it “moving from gridlock to dialogue.” That involves partners talking to each other in a friendly and understanding way, so they can discover the dreams that underlie each problem, she said. Because these problems do hold deeper meanings.

For instance, when the above couple delves deeper, he and she discover that for the wife, vacations represent freedom and family closeness. When she was a child, the only times her family seemed to get along was on vacation. For the husband, toys represent connection and success. While he was growing up, he and his brothers bonded over toys. Today, buying an item he’s been working toward means he has something to show for his hard work. It also inspires him to work even harder.

“Once a couple really understands the meaning behind these arguments, it tends to soften the discussion, and compromise generally becomes easier to establish.” For instance, the above couple decides to budget enough money so that both the husband and the wife get to have a bit of what they want — “instead of spending all their time trying to convince the other person that their idea of how money should be spent is ‘stupid’ or ‘frivolous.’”

Being Passive Aggressive

Does the following sound familiar? It’s your spouse’s turn to wash the dishes, but the dirty plates, pots and pans have been in the sink for days. You look at the dishes, look at your spouse, sigh and roll your eyes. You make statements like: “Wow! These dishes are turning colors. Am I the only one who cleans up around here?” Later in the week, you’ve absolutely had it, and start yelling: “You’re so lazy! Do you even care about what our house looks like? What’s wrong with you?”

Couples regularly come to Thorn complaining about something their partner is or isn’t doing. But when she asks if they’ve shared these feelings, they say: “I’ve practically told them,” or “They should know by now by the signals I’ve been giving…” or “when I say/do (enter any type of passive/aggressive behavior) how could they not know?”

Getting unstuck: The key is to express yourself clearly and to directly tell your partner what you want or what you’re concerned about. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re always going to get exactly what we ask for, but at least we can open up a productive discussion,” Thorn said.

With the above example, as soon as you get annoyed about the dirty dishes, you might say: “Honey, I’m feeling frustrated that you haven’t washed the dishes for a few days. We agreed that you would take that on, and when you don’t do it, I feel like more work is being put on my plate. I would like it if you could get them done by tomorrow. Will that work?”

When we’re indirect with our partners, we let problems that actually have solutions drag on and on. This only creates resentment and misunderstanding and lots of frustration.

Missing Underlying Emotions

Couples also tend to get stuck when they miss a problem’s underlying emotions. “[W]hen an argument is becoming passionate, emotional and heated, then the issue is never about what it looks like at face value; it’s almost always being driven by some type of underlying emotion the couple is feeling,” Thorn said. If couples don’t express these emotions, they’ll stay stuck, she explained.

Thorn once saw a couple that argued about everything from the style of the nightstands to the art on the wall. The wife had moved into the husband’s home, and he wouldn’t let her change anything. As they began exploring the issue, they realized that it had zero to do with furnishings.

While the husband was secure and comfortable in his tastes, change made him feel the complete opposite. For the wife, adding personal touches represented the merging of their lives. Because she wasn’t able to do this, she felt undervalued and shut out of her husband’s life.

Getting unstuck: It’s important for both partners to regularly check in with themselves about their feelings and to express these feelings out loud, Thorn said, without attacking or blaming.

Writing down your thoughts can help. After you’re done, “further analyze to identify what emotions are present.” When both partners share their thoughts, try to understand and validate each other’s feelings — “before ever trying to solve the problem.”

Even when you’re sharing your dreams and emotions and being direct, focus on negotiation, Thorn said. “The only way to continue moving forward with each other is to constantly leave room for compromise and flexibility in communication.”

Stuck Tire image from Shutterstock.

3 Ways Couples Get Stuck and How to Move Through It

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 3 Ways Couples Get Stuck and How to Move Through It. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.