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Pinpointing the Issue

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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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 everybody’s power and is not easy.

Let 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. There’s an unfortunate truism about learning, you’ll 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.

There’s good reason to mix caution with your enthusiasm. The skills that I’m going to discuss with you throughout this book are so potent, they’re so empowering, your mastery of them will change the tone of your relationships forever. Please, please, don’t 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

Okay, with that said, I’m going to talk about a very specific relationship skill that’s the bridge between unresolved and resolved conflict. It’s 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. Don’t 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.

Now take your time with the following point I’m 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 I’m going to tell you next. Most of the conflict that exists between two people has two levels to it, not just one.

The 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 sheep’s clothing. The underlying relationship issue is the wolf, it’s simply dressed in sheep’s clothing--the circumstance, so that it may better hide its presence.

Pinpointing 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 you’re better able to identify these two levels, you’ll find that you have a choice about which level to focus on when you try to problemsolve with your partner.

Why, 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 I’m interested in is being able to watch the TV shows I want to watch, or what’s 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.

Here’s what’s 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 there’s 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 don’t get addressed. Until you address both levels of the conflict,  it’s likely that you’ll remain stuck with your partner in a vicious cycle, unable to resolve the core of the problems that are present in your relationship.

Being able to identify, as well as talk about, both levels will lessen the building tensions between you and your partner. It’s 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.

Unfortunately, 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 you’re focusing solely on the surface level without  addressing the issues that lurk beneath the surface.

What 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, it’s likely that the issues that you’re 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.

Let 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 he’ll 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 doesn’t follow through.

This 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.

Let’s 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 doesn’t do.

If 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.  

What’s the big deal, you may be wondering. Let me ask you this, is the dry cleaning the sole issue worthy of this couple’s 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?

To 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 relationship issues.

Let’s take a moment and practice identifying the two levels of conflict by looking at the following scenarios.

Scenario #1

A 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 habits.

The circumstance: Disagreeing over how much money the wife can spend.

The underlying relationship issue: Power and control about who is going to tell who how much money they can or cannot spend.

Scenario #2

A 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.

The 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.

The underlying relationship issue:  The child feels unappreciated for his overall effort so the child gets even by not trying at all.

Scenario #3

A man belittles a woman for her beliefs about abortion.

The circumstance: Two people have an honest disagreement about their views on abortion.

The underlying relationship issue: The man’s intolerance leaves the woman feeling judged and unaccepted.

Scenario #4

A 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 partner’s resentment repeatedly spills over onto the man, perpetuating the arguing and inevitable threats.

The circumstance: The man’s reaction to conflict with his partner.

The underlying relationship issue: The partner’s unmet emotional need of being able to feel safe without the threat of the man leaving the relationship anytime an argument breaks out.

Focusing 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.

Let 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, there’s 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.

Are you beginning to see why it’s 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, you’ll 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.

For now, think of the underlying relationship issues as the emotional owwies of your relationship. Sometimes you know that you’re hurting, sometimes not. Sometimes you’re aware of what you’re hurting about, sometimes not. Whatever is true for you, that pain doesn’t sit idly by waiting to be noticed.

Pain 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.

I have a saying, “Those feelings that we don’t verbalize, we’ll act out.” If you choose not to verbalize the pain you’re feeling from the underlying relationship issue, you’ll inevitably choose to express it in behaviors that tend to spark even more discord between you and your partner. It’s those circumstances that perpetuate much of the unresolved problems that undermine the well-being of your relationships. 

The 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 issue.

That’s 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 you’ve made the choice to focus on the relationship issue as well as the circumstance. But for now let’s conclude with a bit of wisdom my good friend Max once told me, “Steve, you can’t do the boot scoot boogie with your dance partner until you understand what the fiddler is a fiddlin’.”



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from 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. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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