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updated: 12/30/2011 2:41 PM

It's important to know what can change — and what can't

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Ever have an issue in your marriage that just never seems to get settled?

You know, the sort of issue that you've talked about again and again and again, the sort of issue that was probably present from the very beginning of your relationship -- and likely will be present to the very end.

Research suggests there are actually two sorts of issues that all marriages face: Those that arise from things we cannot change, and those that arise from things we can change.

That sounds a bit simplistic, but it is important. If we don't accept this difference and don't correctly sort out the issues we face into these two categories, we can do some serious damage to our marriage.

Let's start with the issues that have to do with things we cannot change. First, we have to accept that there are things about each of us that are so grounded in our personality that they are just not changeable. Are we naturally a person who is ordered and structured, or are we more casual and laid-back? Do we see the world through a more emotional or a rational lens? Are we intuitive, big picture folks, or are we nuts and bolts, detail types? Are we highly social people who get energized by being with others, or are we more quiet and reserved and need some regular alone time to recharge our batteries? What level of sexual frequency do we prefer, and what is our preferred lovemaking style? Do we enjoy a high level of activity in our day, or do we need a more sedate pace?

There is good evidence that the above dynamics and a number of others are, for the most part, built in to our personalities and can't be easily changed. Sure, with some we have the ability to adapt a bit -- but not a lot.

The second category -- issues regarding things we can change -- are grounded more in how we are raised and the choices we make. How do we celebrate Christmas? What are our favorite restaurants? What do we believe about disciplining children? What roles do drugs and alcohol play in our lives? How do we handle money? How do we approach conflict?

The fact that we can change in these areas does not mean we are willing to do so, and that is important to understand.

If he was raised a Methodist and is strongly committed to that faith tradition, and she was raised a Roman Catholic and is strongly committed to that tradition, neither may be willing to change. Issues like where they go to church or in what tradition they'll raise children become pretty tough to sort out.

Believe it or not, about 60 percent of the issues we face in marriage fall into category No. 1 -- things we can't really change. That means only about 40 percent of marital issues are ones we have any chance resolving.

If you buy into all of that, it means one of the most important things we can do in our marriages is identify that 60 percent. It fact, we need to make that identification a central part of our marital conflict management style.

If he is not Mr. Organization, he may be able to do a bit better job of getting his life in order -- but don't expect a huge change. Or maybe she needs some time each day just to herself. That doesn't mean she can't learn to be socially skilled or attentive to others. She will, however, also continue to need that alone time.

It is amazing how much time we spend in marriage arguing about such issues. Once we identify the 60 percent and if we can find room to tolerate such basic differences, we will significantly reduce the amount of time we spend in conflict. We also need to recognize that some differences may be just too much for us to accept, which is why we want to spend a lot of time before we get married learning as much as possible about each other!

On the 40 percent side, where change is possible, we need to have the proper communication skills to be able to work through issues as quickly, easily and successfully as possible. The good news is that communication skills can be learned, practiced and perfected. We can become good enough at managing conflict that we don't even spend a whole lot of time dealing with the 40 percent of issues where change is possible.

So, here's the bottom line: First, we need to accept that a lot of the issues in our marriage have to do with things we can't change. We want to learn to live with these. Second, when it comes to issues that have to do with things we can change, we need to master the skills to make these changes as painlessly as possible.

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