Emotional gridlock is a term coined by Dr. David Schnarch to describe the seemingly insurmountable impasses that couples reach. For many issues, people can compromise and accommodate and surrender in order to keep the peace. It is easy to say, “Fine, we'll see the movie you want to see.” However, there are other issues about which it becomes impossible to compromise without compromising your own integrity. When this happens, you are in the midst of emotional gridlock.

Emotional gridlock happens when you can't agree to disagree.

Imagine that you and your partner are divided about whether to have another child. One of you has been offered an amazing job across the county, and the other has an ailing parent in your present locale. You do not want to live a sex-less life, and your partner is absolutely unwilling to continue to have sex when he or she does not want to. These are the kinds of situations that are not solved by “communication skills.” They require a whole new level of work and personal growth.

Many people avoid dealing with big issues until they have to.

You can continue to avoid, or at least postpone, emotional gridlock by continuing to sell yourself short. By not standing up for what you need. By letting parts of yourself stay hidden and asleep. But these choices also create a slow death in your relationship, your intimacy and your sex life. The “peace” that comes from failing to engage in these difficult issues creates disconnection, lethargy, neglect, resentment, and, ultimately, an urge to flee the relationship. The way to wake back up, engage deeply with your partner and create a relationship based on integrity is to approach these issues.

Eventually, one of you will be ready to tackle the issue.

Often, one partner reaches the point where they can no longer participate in the relationship the same way anymore. Since relationships are systems with a tendency to maintain constancy, there is usually pushback from the other person. “What do you mean we're going to talk about these things? I thought we'd (covertly) agreed to keep pretending this elephant is not in the room?” If you stand strong and refuse to keep your head in the sand, you begin to shift the relationship.

Resolving gridlock requires new skills.

Successfully working through this kind of emotional gridlock requires the development and practice of skills in differentiation. Differentiation incluldes the capacity to manage your emotions as well as your thinking; your individuality as well as your connections to others. A higher level of differentiation makes you less apt to get drawn into another's emotional issues. You will be less emotionally reactive in close relationships. Bottom line: you develop the skill to stay grounded and present while still engaging the tough issues. You show a willingness to sit in uncertainty and to tolerate complexity for as long as it takes to work out the solution, and you work to soothe your own anxiety in the meantime instead of waiting for your partner to relieve your distress.

As challenging as this is for the other partner, they will likely have more respect for the initiator of this process. the other person can step up into his or her own position of integrity when they feel that respect and when they experience the non-reactivity of their partner.  And while you may now have two people solidly rooted in apparently mutually exclusive positions, you also have people able to engage in a whole-hearted and authentic dialogue about what really matters to them. Where it used to appear that one or the other had to “win” at the expense of the other, now both people are available to find a true solution that can work. New ideas and solutions can be considered. Old solutions can be agreed to with intention and integrity. By risking everything in order to be true to yourself, it is possible to find an entirely new landscape of intimacy and connection.

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