By Dr. Steve
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The Most Important Choice of All
Anybody can become angry--that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the
right degree, and at the right time,
and for the right purpose, and in the right way--that is not within everybodys power
and is not easy.
me caution you as you begin to read the three chapters in this section. They each deserve
your undivided attention. Take your time with the information I present to you. Use your
highlighter. Write notes in the margins. Do the exercises. But most importantly, take your
time. Be patient. Be kind to yourself. Self-forgiveness will be your greatest ally in our
new adventure. Theres an unfortunate truism about learning, youll inevitably
struggle in the beginning. You and I both expect it to be that way, so there will be no
surprises. Every mistake you make along the way will not be an indictment of you or these
new skills, only a necessary step to your final destination.
good reason to mix caution with your enthusiasm. The skills that Im going to discuss
with you throughout this book are so potent, theyre so empowering, your mastery of
them will change the tone of your relationships forever. Please, please, dont set
yourself up to fail by creating initial expectations that are too high for both you and
your partner. This is a time for both of you to be kind to and encouraging of each other
with that said, Im going to talk about a very specific relationship skill
thats the bridge between unresolved and resolved conflict. Its the core
relationship skill used in the process of making molehills out of mountains. I call
it pinpointing the issue. Let that sink in for a
moment. Dont go rushing into the rest of the material. Try and focus on those three
words, pinpointing the issue. In time, this phrase is going to be one of your greatest
allies, an ally that will empower you, enabling you to create relationships that are less
conflictual, more fulfilling.
take your time with the following point Im about to make. This point is the
fundamental premise of pinpointing the issue. In order to resolve many of the unresolved
issues in your relationships, you must understand what Im going to tell you next.
Most of the conflict that exists between two people has two levels to it, not just one.
first level is the precipitating event of the conflict, which I refer to as the
circumstance. The second level is the oftentimes unacknowledged aspect of the conflict,
which I refer to as the underlying relationship issue. The underlying relationship issue
is an issue that lies hidden beneath the surface of the event or circumstance that
precipitates an argument. The relationship between the circumstance that precipitates the
conflict and the underlying relationship issue is like the saying about a wolf dressed in
sheeps clothing. The underlying relationship issue is the wolf, its simply
dressed in sheeps clothing--the circumstance, so that it may better hide its
the issue is the relationship skill you will use to resolve conflict by identifying the
two levels that exist in most of your conflicts. As youre better able to identify
these two levels, youll find that you have a choice about which level to focus on
when you try to problemsolve with your partner.
you might be wondering, should you care whether there are different levels to the conflict
you experience with your partner? Afterall, you might be thinking to yourself, all
Im interested in is being able to watch the TV shows I want to watch, or whats
the big deal if I leave the toilet seat up or down, or what does it matter if you squeeze
the tube of toothpaste from the middle or the end of the tube.
whats in it for you. Focusing your problem-solving efforts on both levels will
enable you to more effectively resolve your relationship issues with your partner. This
premise is critical to the process of making molehills out of mountains. Until now, it may
be that you have only considered the fact that theres only one level while totally
ignoring the second level. The very reason so much remains unresolved between you and your
partner is because both levels of the conflict dont get addressed. Until you address
both levels of the conflict, its likely that youll remain stuck with
your partner in a vicious cycle, unable to resolve the core of the problems that are
present in your relationship.
able to identify, as well as talk about, both levels will lessen the building tensions
between you and your partner. Its easy to see why that would be. Inevitably, there
are important unresolved relationship issues that lurk beneath the surface of those
seemingly petty examples I mentioned above. Relationship issues that are smoldering
and festering, patiently waiting for you and your partner to acknowledge their very
existence, taking up more and more space in your relationship, the longer you choose to
ignore their presence.
most of us spend all of our time spinning in circles, focusing only on the surface level
of the discord. What you need to understand is that most conflicts that remain unresolved
between you and your partner do so because youre focusing solely on the surface
level without addressing the issues that lurk beneath the surface.
I want you to understand at this point in time is the following: when you and your partner
are stuck, when you are repeatedly visiting unresolved issues, its
likely that the issues that youre talking about are not the issues that you need to
be talking about. Quite simply, you need to shift the focus from the circumstances of your
conflict to the underlying relationship issues that are hidden in the events that
precipitate the conflict.
me give you a short, simple example to try and make a complex idea a little more
understandable for you. A man continually promises his wife that hell take their
dirty laundry to the dry cleaners. Yet time after time, he forgets to take it, leaving it
for his totally exasperated wife to take care of. Each time he forgets, she becomes angry
with her husband. Time after time they try to create a plan to ensure that the husband
will follow through on his promise, time after time he doesnt follow through.
maddening circle continues. The reason why it never gets resolved is because the husband
and wife focus only on one level of the conflict, the circumstance, which is the problem
of how he can get the dry cleaning to the cleaners. However, they completely ignore the
second level of the argument which is the underlying relationship issue.
take a look at what the second level to the conflict might be. If you asked the
husband to talk about how he feels about his wife and the relationship, he might say that
he feels like his wife is always on his back. He believes that she never appreciates the
things that he does do for her. In fact, he believes she only focuses on the things that
he doesnt do.
you asked the wife what she feels about her husband and the relationship she may tell you
that she feels like she is being taken for granted. She feels more like an errand boy for
her husband rather than his lover. Both husband and wife are feeling unappreciated by each
other, but they never take the time to talk to each other about their hurt. They only
focus on the dry cleaning, which is the circumstance, not the underlying relationship
issue, which is feeling unappreciated by one another.
the big deal, you may be wondering. Let me ask you this, is the dry cleaning the sole
issue worthy of this couples focus or are the relationship issues that I just
mentioned likely to be as important? Furthermore, if you agree that the most important
focus of discussion needs to be on the relationship issues, how likely is it that the dry
cleaning problem will go away until they begin to focus on them?
bring this discussion full circle, experience has taught me the way out of this trap is by
mastering the relationship skill: pinpointing the issue. This skill will enable you to
step out of the cycle of futile arguments, unkept promises, and angry reactions. And the
secret to pinpointing the issue, the first necessary step is accepting the fact that
there are two levels to most conflicts: the circumstance and the inevitable underlying
take a moment and practice identifying the two levels of conflict by looking at the
husband tries to limit the dollar amount his wife spends on her credit card. She shows her
husband who the boss is by digging her heels in and refusing to change her spending
circumstance: Disagreeing over how much money the wife can spend.
underlying relationship issue: Power and control about who is going to tell who
how much money they can or cannot spend.
parent criticizes a child for getting one C while ignoring the five As the child received
on their report card. The child responds by getting all Ds on their next report card.
circumstance: The parent harps on the one C the child gets on their report card
and does not acknowledge the good work the child did in other areas.
underlying relationship issue: The child feels unappreciated for his
overall effort so the child gets even by not trying at all.
A man belittles a woman for her beliefs about
circumstance: Two people have an honest disagreement about their views on
underlying relationship issue: The mans intolerance leaves the woman
feeling judged and unaccepted.
man continually threatens to end his relationship with his partner every time an argument
occurs between the two of them. His partner begins to resent this man for refusing to have
more of a commitment to the relationship. The partners resentment repeatedly spills
over onto the man, perpetuating the arguing and inevitable threats.
circumstance: The mans reaction to conflict with his partner.
underlying relationship issue: The partners unmet emotional need of being able to
feel safe without the threat of the man leaving the relationship anytime an argument
on both levels of a conflict is a new way to think about more effectively resolving
conflict. Think what that would mean to you. Think for a moment what any of your
relationships would be like if you had more time and energy to put into nurturing them
rather than furiously trying to plug every leak that springs.
your imagination run wild for a moment. What would your life look like if you felt more in
control of yourself and the way you resolved issues with the people in your life? In my
mind, theres only one thing that gets in your way--not effectively applying the
relationship skills that will resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise in your life.
you beginning to see why its so important to be able to distinguish between the two
levels that exist in most conflict? As I said before, these relationship issues live
beneath the surface of the events in your relationship. They oftentimes go untalked about
between you and your partner. Because these issues lay beneath the surface, oftentimes
unknown to you and your partner, youll necessarily create a way for the pain caused
by those underlying issues to be expressed. The way that they get expressed is a special
code. That code inevitably is the misunderstandings and petty arguments that appear and
reappear in your relationships.
now, think of the underlying relationship issues as the emotional owwies of your relationship. Sometimes you know that
youre hurting, sometimes not. Sometimes youre aware of what youre
hurting about, sometimes not. Whatever is true for you, that pain doesnt sit idly by
waiting to be noticed.
is energy. Energy that needs to be discharged. Our goal is to discharge it by learning how
to talk about it with our partner rather than acting it out against our partner.
have a saying, Those feelings that we dont verbalize, well act
out. If you choose not to verbalize the pain youre feeling from the underlying
relationship issue, youll inevitably choose to express it in behaviors that tend to
spark even more discord between you and your partner. Its those circumstances that
perpetuate much of the unresolved problems that undermine the well-being of your
way out of the cycle of self-sabotage is the skill I mentioned above, pinpointing the
issue by addressing both levels of the conflict. This relationship skill is so important
that I want to recap the process involved with this skill:
1) recognize that there
are two levels to most relationship discord; 2) distinguish between the two levels which
are the specific circumstance that precipitated
the discord with your partner and the underlying relationship issue that is embedded in the event or circumstance;
3) recognize that you have a choice whether to stay stuck in trying to fix the never ending circumstance or resolve the unexpressed underlying relationship
the process of pinpointing the issue. The next two chapters of this section will focus
more specifically on the circumstance and the underlying relationship issues. In section
seven I will walk you through exactly how to pinpoint the issue. I will also suggest some
tools to use once youve made the choice to focus on the relationship issue as well
as the circumstance. But for now lets conclude with a bit of wisdom my good friend
Max once told me, Steve, you cant do the boot scoot boogie with your dance
partner until you understand what the fiddler is a fiddlin.
chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your
children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs
free. Learn how
to in Dr. Frischs, Psy.D. Recovery book series.