By Dr. Steve
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Separating the Wheat
from the Chaff
The latter part of a wise mans life is taken up in curing
the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.
Okay. Heres what weve
established so far. Making molehills out of mountains is facilitated by a relationship
skill called pinpointing the issue. Hopefully, youre beginning to consider that
there are two levels to most conflicts between you and your partner. The two levels? The
circumstances at the surface of the conflict and
the underlying relationship issues beneath the surface. The goal of pinpointing the issue?
Making a distinction between these two levels as you try to resolve your conflicts. The
reason to do so? To create an important choice for you and your partner to make. The
choice? To focus your conflict resolution efforts solely on fixing the circumstances of
the discord or to focus an equal amount of attention on resolving the underlying
relationship issue embedded in the event that precipitated the discord.
it seems to you that Im repeating myself, youre right, but for a very good
reason. I cant impress upon you how powerful this skill can be for you. I want to
make sure that you have an opportunity to give it your most careful consideration. What
were trying to do is develop a new habit. The elements of creating that good habit
are repetition and time. The payoff for you is less hurt and confusion as you master the
formula for untangling the knots that eventually entangle two people.
So lets continue by zeroing in on the surface level of any discord--the circumstance
that precipitates the discord. For example, it could be you repeatedly promise to do some
household chores, but you never get around to doing them. Or your partner continually
keeps you waiting, no matter how many times youve told them how angry it makes you
feel when theyre late. Perhaps youre never able to reach agreement
about some aspect of how you raise your children.
these three examples, theres a circumstance that precipitates some level of discord
between you and your partner. In the first example, the circumstance is not doing your
chores. In the second example, the circumstance is continually standing your partner up.
And in the third example, the circumstance is never agreeing on whether your child should
play soccer or learn to play the piano. Very simply, disagreements start with some
circumstance that arises from the day-to-day life events between you and your partner.
thing about the event that triggers any conflict is that it often serves as a smoke screen
for all that goes untalked about, yet desperately needs to be focused on, between you and
your partner. You certainly know how cloudy and confusing things can get in the heat of
the moment. But all that really does is sustain the stalemate. Lets see if the
following conflict between Blair and Jamie makes my point. You can be sure that some
variation of this dialogue goes on in millions of homes.
you promised you were going to stop drinking, Laurie said.
didnt say I would stop. I said I would drink only under certain conditions.
Thats what you and I agreed to. At least thats the way I remember it,
Jamie said, his voice shaking as he spoke.
may be right, but you havent honored any part of what we agreed to. Not only have
you not honored our agreement, I feel like youre throwing it in my face. I feel like
youre belittling me, Laurie shouted back.
forget all that noise. You havent given me one reason to be nice to you. Youre
constantly on my back. You go through my pockets counting my money. You smell my breath
when I come home from work every night. You dont think I know about how youve
been calling my friends, checking up on me?
the one to blame here. You arent giving me the space I need to find my way out of
this. How dare you treat me the way youve been treating me! What right do you have
to check up on me the way you have been? Thats what has to stop around here. The
problem isnt when and how much I drink, the problem is you and your unwillingness to
give me any space.
can quit drinking anytime I want to. You just arent willing to give me the credit.
Youre always riding my back. Thats what has to stop around here.
whoa, slow down just one second here. I refuse to keep caving in to your bullying tactics.
The issue is your drinking, its not my behavior. I have to sneak around because you
wont be honest with me.
now Jamies eyes were bulging as he said, So you admit it. You admit that
youve been sneaking around, checking up on me.
course I do, but so what. All of this is beside the point, she responded
its precisely the point. Im going to keep drinking until I decide its
time to stop. There are no other points to be made. And you will stop checking up on me or
else.... his voice trailed off, waving a menacing finger in the air.
usually where I enter the picture with a couple. Trying to help undo the stalemate. The
mechanism used to sustain the stalemate, you ask? Quite simply, focusing only on fixing
the circumstance without attempting to resolve the underlying relationship issue. And
believe me, the stalemate doesnt happen by accident. Most importantly, we have to
learn what our investment is in maintaining the stalemate.
I just say, learn what our investment in the stalemate is? Absolutely. Now Im
suggesting something very big here. Do not dismiss it without carefully considering how it
might be true.
suggesting its time to think about things differently than perhaps you have in the
past. Think this through with me. Why do you spend so much time and energy trying only to
fix the circumstance, the precipitant of the conflict? Why do you so willingly continue to
invest yourself in a process of resolution that brings you everything but resolution? Why
do you keep spinning in circles, chasing after some magical solution that doesnt
how I look at things. Theres nothing that we do, think, or feel that doesnt
bring us some kind of emotional benefit. Its critical that you open yourself up to
this point. Everything we do provides us some sort of payoff. Therefore, focusing only on
the circumstance, doing everything you can to fix a person, a problem, or both, while
ignoring the underlying relationship issue, has some kind of emotional benefit, some kind
of emotional payoff.
sure you must be thinking that Im off my rocker. Why, oh why, Steve, would I
willingly involve myself in so much pain and frustration, you ask? Yes, I know how
frustrating it is to be caught in a vicious cycle of unresolved conflict, but perhaps
its time to consider whether or not youve eagerly agreed to do the dance.
dont dismiss my assertion just yet. Think for a moment, whats so attractive
about remaining stuck in the quagmire? Heres one thought for you to chew on: the
quagmire certainly can become familiar territory. You probably have your part down pat.
You may even know the script by heart. And it leaves much about what needs to be talked
about by you and your partner safely tucked away, the bomb remains ticking, but left
undetonated for another day. For example...
and I had met at our favorite watering hole a couple of Sundays ago. We hadnt seen
each other in a few months, so he was bringing me up to date on his life. We liked getting
together to grouse about our frustrations, play some darts, take in a game on the big
screen. While waiting for the Cubs to come on, I asked him how things were going with his
kiddo. Same ol, same ol, man, nothing changes with us, Stanley said, a
look of indifference punctuating his response.
cant tell if thats good or bad, I replied.
who knows any more. Theres something heavy hanging in the air between the two of us.
Ever since I shot her down a while back, telling her I didnt what to start a family
right now. I told you how she got on that kick of hers again, wanting to have children.
Shes been, I dont know, remote, someway, somehow, Im not sure how.
Shes there but not really there. I cant quite put my finger on it, but
its there, you know what I mean? Stanley asked, seemingly searching for his
own understanding more than trying to explain the situation to me.
this tension between us. I guess more importantly there isnt any lightness anymore.
Sometimes theres nothing at all.
tonight for example, Ill go home, shell half-heartedly yell at me for being
out with you. You know how she hates me being with you. She thinks that were sitting
around, ganging up on her. Then Ill tell her how sorry I am. Then shell tell
me that I better never do it again. Then Ill tell her shes right, it
wont happen again. Then shell give me her look of disgust. Then Ill go
off and watch TV. Shell shake her head and ignore me until Thursday. Ill stay
out of her way, not wanting to turn this into anything heavy. By Saturday, shell
find some other way Ive disappointed her and then start the dance all over
two, cha, cha, cha. Three, four, cha, cha, cha. Theyve got the dance down pat.
Frozen in time, their relationship is sitting on a powder keg, yet neither of them wants
to go near it. They settle for indifference, polite apathy, subtle tension, and
ever-increasing distance. The reason why? My friend, I suggest to you one reason and one
reason only. Fear!
that what really needs to be overcome? Our fear of what isnt stated? Were so
fearful of having to put on the table things that may make us uncomfortable. So we devise
ways of dancing around the underlying relationship issue, over it, under it, through it,
behind it. Were afraid our emotions will get out of control, were afraid
well be ridiculed or, even worse, ignored. Ultimately, were afraid of the
unknown becoming known.
why we stay so focused on merely attempting to fix the problem. Its a known
quantity. We know the path backwards and forwards. We come up with ingenious ways to
rectify problematic behavior. Theres a certain seduction in focusing exclusively on
the circumstance of an argument.
there are many reasons for that, let me advance one more premise that I believe locks two
people in a death grip over the circumstances of their disagreements at the expense of
focusing on the underlying relationship issue. The ever tantalizing myth--control.
Focusing only on fixing the problem is a way to do the dance--the dance of attempting to
control someones behavior, words, feelings, or thoughts. And therein lies the
problem. Theres no solution that I know of to an underlying relationship issue that
includes your ability to control your partners behavior.
why trying to fix the circumstance without resolving the underlying issue is so
ineffective. The only solution to fixing the circumstance is dealing with the underlying
issue. But let me ask you, what seems like a more familiar way to problemsolve for you,
attempting to control who your partner is, does, says, thinks, and feels or peeling back
the scabs of the underlying relationship issue?
you see the mirage that the myth of control creates? Its total misdirection. Take
some time to think about this. Let your mind wander with my next question. Think about all
the time, all the emotional energy, think about all of you that youve invested in
the following simple proposition. It sounds something like this, If I fix the
problem, if I fix the person, if I can come up with just the right way of saying what I
have to say, then I wont have to feel this continual pain that the circumstances of
my relationship creates for me.
you ever taken notice just how ineffective this is? Have you ever noticed that any
strategy aimed at fixing the problem without resolving the underlying relationship issues
is like squeezing a balloon full of water. All you do is slosh the problem around from one
side to the other, but the problem never goes away. Push the problem down there, it pops
up again over here. Threaten it away, plead for it to go away, or cajole it away, it makes
me no-never-mind, because it will transform itself into a more virulent reincarnation.
reason by now should be plain. Any attempts at controlling the person or the situation is
not dealing with the root of the problem--the underlying relationship issue.
you read my book Building Better Bridges, you know that I devoted a whole chapter to
personal freedom and the destructive influence that control exerts on the emotional
climate of our relationships. I have a Bridge-Builders Tip in the chapter that
reads, If you place demands on a person to change, can you see how you will require that
person to lie to you? Please heed this tip as you find yourself trapped in trying to fix
the circumstance of an argument rather than resolve the underlying relationship issue.
want to advance one more reason the circumstance of an argument is a much safer place to
focus on rather than the underlying relationship issue. It freezes the relationship in
time. Nothing changes. Everything stays the same.
I can hear you shouting at me. I can hear your protests. Why would I want this mess to
stay the same? Why would I be reading this book and every other book I have read? Why
would anyone want to live in the hell that Ive been living in? Well, I can only
respond by saying, Me thinketh thou doth protest too much!
Heres a short answer. Fear. Fear of what moving forward with your partner may mean.
Fear of what the next level of your relationship may look like. Even a bigger fear for
many of you, fear that if you worked through the relationship issues that live and breathe
beneath the surface, your relationship would be over.
stop at this point. Does anything Ive said in the last paragraph ring true for you?
Think your way through this. Im offering you an important window to look through.
Theres much freedom on the other side of that window if you can only glean what your
investment is in keeping the relationship stuck on the surface level.
are the circumstances that appear and reappear in your relationship--circumstances that
merely serve to freeze your relationship in time? Take a moment and write down what
conflicts appear and reappear in your relationship.
think for a moment. What purpose does focusing solely on the circumstances of the conflict
in your relationship serve you? Does it help you or your partner to remain in control,
does it freeze your relationship in time, and/or does it give you a role to play in your
relationship? Perhaps theres some other angle you may be working? All I know is how
helpful it is to take ownership of what youre getting out of the dance.
can see how important that is, cant you? The work we do throughout this book is
geared towards one thing and one thing only--helping you create new choices that will
enable you to get your needs met, as well as having an alternative to sabotaging your
ahead and put it on paper. Write about the investment you have in continually revisiting
the circumstances of your relationship discord without focusing on the underlying
hope I am keeping things simple here for purposes of my explaining these important
concepts to you. But in doing so, I dont mean to minimize the complexity of the
problems that youre dealing with in your life. I understand how confusing it can get
for you when things that are so black and white in this book arent so black and
white in your life.
please be assured that if you take your time with this information, youll discover
what Ive discovered over the last ten years. Youll discover what were
building together is not a mere understanding of a self-help technique, but a blueprint
for your path to reclaiming your personal power and a means by which you can return a
sense of stability to your life.
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.