69% of a couple’s problems or challenges are perpetual. A.k.a., they’re not going to change much over the course of the relationship. This is what couples researcher John Gottman has observed over his 20+ years of studying couple’s behavior. Whatever subject you and your partner have conflict about today, you’re likely to still be having conflict over in 5 or 10 years. Gottman, scientist that he is, probably would take issue with my generalization, but I think that in addition to our relationship problems being perpetual, probably the majority of our individual challenges and issues aren’t going to drastically shift either.
But before you go crawl back under the covers, let me say I think this is actually good news for us.
Why good news? Because that fact gives us permission–no, actually encourages most of us (myself included) to stop banging our heads against walls that aren’t going to move. And just because the walls might not move, doesn’t mean that our experience of bumping up against the walls can’t change drastically.
Now, I’m not saying to assume that you can’t change or resolve anything in your life. Even IF 69% of problems were perpetual, that still leaves 31% which can change or end. I think, however, that we can all probably make a list right now of issues in our lives that we feel we have a good chance of tackling and another list of issues we’ve been wrestling around with for the better part of our lives.
For me, for instance, a tendency towards anxiety and over-analysis or stress during transitions are some challenges I’ve had for most of my life. I have invested considerable time and energy understanding and trying to shift these tendencies. To a certain degree they have changed, but they’ve never gone away completely. What IS changing, is the way I relate to these challenges.
Just as meditation and mindfulness teaches us to develop awareness of, compassion for, and non-attachment to our thoughts, ultimately we practice meditation and mindfulness to be able to apply these qualities to our lives in action. These are the qualities which, despite the ongoing tendency of anxiety, depression, disorganization, hot tempers, and so on, can help us relate to our lives in lighter, more fluid, more compassionate ways.
I might not be able to prevent myself getting anxious during a big life transition, but I can:
anticipate that anxiety might arise and reduce any anger or disappointment in myself
notice it early on after it does arise so that I can respond quickly to take care of myself
use humor to lighten the experience
relax into the sensations and emotion and reduce the fight/flight/freeze response.
These are just some ways that I can improve my life even if I don’t get rid of my anxiety.
We can grow and change in beautiful ways, but we have the most power to do that effectively when we make friends with our enduring character traits; our temperaments, our tendencies, the particular constellation of beauty and bunk with which we entered this world.
What qualities about yourself are you tired of trying to change? To which ones might you bring gentle acceptance and skillfulness? If the challenge is going to be there anyway, can you make friends with it?