Ask the Therapist 

Question: “My partner and I fight all the time. We have several issues that just keep coming up and I don’t know what to do anymore. Please help!”

Dear Reader, 

Does any of this sound familiar to you? 

  • Constant, repetitive arguments.
  • You can’t agree to disagree about the issue.
  • Increased communication provides no solution, and often makes things worse.
  • You feel like you have no room for compromise or negotiation because your integrity is on the line.
  • Apologies or repair attempts cease or are unsuccessful.
  • You and your partner frequently have angry or hurt feelings.
  • You feel alienated and cut off from each other.

If so, I wonder if what may be happening is called Emotional Gridlock. Emotional gridlock is a normal and important edge for the evolution of relationships – with ourselves and others. Many couples experience the above list of dynamics and believe that there is something wrong with their relationship. When in fact, more often than not, it is something really RIGHT! Their relationship is trying to grow. In childbirth, just before the mother is ready to push, she is often heard screaming “I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” and it’s a great indication a baby will be here very soon. When we meet these edges, it can feel overwhelming and like we just can’t go on like this. It’s true – you can’t. You will be asked to push and dig deep to birth something new into your personal experience and that of your relationship. 

“When misunderstood and mishandled, gridlock leads to divorce. Given that gridlock IS usually misunderstood and mishandled, it is arguably the greatest single cause of divorce around the world. It is commonly misunderstood as irreconcilable differences, or communication problems, or falling out of love. But gridlock isn’t caused by a lack of communication, so more communication won’t resolve it. When people are unable to resolve gridlock with a communication-based approach, they wrongly convince themselves their problems are irreconcilable. If they depend on a reflected sense of self, they feel unloved and become unloving.” 

– David Schnarch

Emotional gridlock occurs when what you want to do blocks what your partner wants to do, and vice versa. Conflict in relationships is inevitable. When a partnership is gridlocked – it’s impossible to compromise, negotiate, or communicate your way through it. That is why you think your differences are irreconcilable. However, GRIDLOCK CAN BE RESOLVED! It just takes different strategies. And learning how to resolve gridlock is how you and your partner co-evolve. 

Resolving gridlock requires (at least) one of you to increase your Four Points of Balance, a term and practice created by Dr. David Schnarch that include these concepts: 


Solid Flexible Self: 

Knowing who you are and holding onto yourself without dominating another.

Quiet Mind-Calm Heart:

 Soothing your mind and heart. 

Grounded Responding: 

Getting emotionally grounded.

Meaningful Endurance: 

Tolerating discomfort for growth.

Unfortunately, when you are in a gridlock, addressing these four points of balance is not often what you usually want to do. You typically want your partner to make you feel better. Although in processes like couples therapy, we can learn ways to be there for our partners when we have the capacity for it, ultimately, it is our sole responsibility to tend to our needs. 

Now this does not mean not getting support, it just means that we don’t assume that it is always our partner’s responsibility to continuously hold our sense of self and emotional regulation in their own hands. Here we accept personal responsibility for our states of being and tend to ourselves in a way that allows us to show up maturely in the relationship. This creates a sense of safety and an easier way to be in conflict with one another. Although sometimes we can be addicted to the drama cycle in the relationship and that is another point to address for another article! 

You can think of Gridlock as nature’s way of encouraging differentiation – and your journey toward becoming more of the unique fascinating self that you were meant to be in this world! 

Both partners are involved in co-creating gridlock and now you can both co-evolve by resolving it. 

More on emotional gridlock soon, but for now. I invite you to consider a 1-2-3-4 step approach for handling difficult situations within your relationship: 

  • Identify your situation as a differentiation (both people trying to be themselves without contorting and changing by force process.)
  • Recognize you are losing your emotional balance.
  • Break down your problem in terms of your Four Points of Balance (this shows you where you’re having difficulty and what you need to do).
  • Use your mantra to keep yourself focused when things get tough: Hold onto yourself.

If any of this is helpful, I invite you to read some of Dr. Schnarch’s work. He has several books that share so much wisdom about the importance of differentiation in relationships and how to work through this kind of gridlock. Also, don’t be afraid to get a third party involved. And I am not talking about your friends or your mother! But a professional who can support you both in discovering what is getting in the way of each of you working towards freedom and ease inside of the relationship, which is mostly to say, freedom and ease inside of you FIRST

If you are interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I offer couple’s intensives and couples therapy to a limited number of couples per year depending on my availability where I help educate, process, and support couples in learning how to not only be a healthy functioning adult and grow out of oppressive systems inside of our bodies, minds, and hearts but also creating more of a brave, pleasurable space for relationships to thrive. 

Love Endures, 


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