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How to Let Go When Your Relationship Gets Stuck

When you and your loved ones disagree, new research shows how to let it go.

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You and your partner have, you believe, a great relationship. You see eye to eye on everything, sharing your most intimate details about your thoughts and feelings. Unexpectedly, however, you find yourself in the throes of a dispute over how to handle a seemingly trivial request from a relative that you skip your traditional “date night” in order to help babysit. Your partner tells you to stand up to your relative and say you can’t do it, but you feel that to ignore the request would constitute disloyalty. The ramifications of this dispute go on for days and continue to have an impact even several weeks later. You’d like to forget the whole thing ever happened, but you don’t see how you can.

Disputes such as these are an inevitable part of human relationships. They erode your happiness and distract you from your everyday tasks at work and home. If only you could just “let it go,” as the song says, and go back to the way things were. The field of conflict resolution is built around the premise that any disagreement can be overcome, no matter how deep or long-lasting it seems to be. Enemies can be brought to the table and, with the right approach, can pave the way if not to friendship, then to the end of outright hostilities. University of California Berkeley’s political scientist Michaela Mattes (2018) examines what she calls the “piecemeal” approach to resolving disputes when political entities disagree. From her work, we can extrapolate to situations in which ordinary people find themselves at the opposite end of a dispute, such as the one you’re having with your partner.

To address the question of how opposing parties can overcome their differences, Mattes tests the well-established idea in the political science literature that “smaller cooperative steps can foster deeper cooperation." The opposing theory proposes that “partial settlements typically address minor disagreements, while sweeping more contentious issues ‘under the carpet." In relationship terms, this contrast examines whether taking baby steps toward reaching an agreement with your partner over this one issue minimizes the more deep-seated differences between the two of you over basic questions of loyalty, family values, and your overall set of priorities.

The disagreements between political entities that Mattes examined involve territorial disputes, with the “dependent variable” (i.e., what was observed) being peaceful resolution. Her measures of this outcome include a peaceful bilateral agreement, an arbitration or adjudication award, or a referendum. Additionally, to test the piecemeal approach, Mattes looked at shorter-term outcomes of partial settlements. The political disputes which the Berkeley researcher examined took place over the years of 1919-2000, with negotiations occurring in 26.3 percent of cases.

The primary factor of interest in the statistical analysis that Mattes conducted was partial settlement. However, recognizing that disputes vary in their specifics, she also controlled for such factors as ethnic conflict, the economic and strategic importance of the dispute, the number of past disputes, past territorial conflict, the transitions of leaders, and economic turmoil. A number of these factors were associated with a lower rate of peaceful resolutions, but rising above even these difficulties, partial settlements indeed predicted “peaceful comprehensive resolution of remaining territorial agreements."

In addition to partial resolution predicting successful, long-term outcomes, the Berkeley political scientist found that the short-term effects were also significant. Those steps toward peaceful resolution produced more negotiations and concessions, and even less likelihood of the parties engaging in violent conflict. These partial settlements can “create momentum for comprehensive dispute resolution." However, to be effective, there needs to be a shared desire to achieve settlement. Even if this will is present at only minimum levels, the process of chipping away at underlying disputes signals that the parties are serious about working to resolve their differences.

If long-standing political enemies can walk their way toward peaceful resolution, it would seem considerably easier for you to adopt this process to establish peace with people to whom you are strongly emotionally committed. You and your partner obviously have a strong will to get along, or you wouldn’t have entered into a long-term relationship. Over time, of course, it’s possible for this commitment to erode, particularly as you experience your own economic turmoil, try to wrest control for important strategic decisions from your partner, or even experience religious and political conflicts as historical events unfold that impact you.

Letting go, in terms of the model tested by Mattes, involves using that emotional commitment you feel as the basis for taking that first set of small steps. Someone has to begin the process, of course, and even this step may seem to be the most difficult to take. After all, if you start the negotiation process, you may feel that this portrays you as weak and ready to give in completely. However, if you really care about your partner, you’ll be willing to make this concession. Your efforts may, to your surprise, be met with relief and may even pay off in helping you set the terms for a round of compromises that your partner suggests.

The counterargument toward tackling the issues one by one is that the struggles you’re experiencing with your partner are a symptom of a larger problem. You should, according to this view, hold out until you’re able to get to the core of your actual difficulties. However, if Russia and China can overcome their long-held disputes over territories spanning their enormous borders, it would seem that you and your partner should be able to achieve a resolution of the emotional conflicts that threaten to break your relationship apart.

Compromise and cooperation form the essence of good relationships, whether between nations or people who love each other. Let your anger go long enough to start your own peace talks, and that love can be restored.

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP
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