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Making Molehills Out of  Mountains/Reclaiming Your Personal
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Pinpointing the Issue

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.
-Jonathan Swift

Okay. Here’s what we’ve established so far. Making molehills out of mountains is facilitated by a relationship skill called pinpointing the issue. Hopefully, you’re 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.

If it seems to you that I’m repeating myself, you’re right, but for a very good reason. I can’t 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 we’re 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.

Okay? So let’s 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 you’ve told them how angry it makes you feel when they’re late. Perhaps you’re never   able to reach agreement about some aspect of how you raise your children.

In these three examples, there’s 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.

The 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. Let’s 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.

“Jamie, you promised you were going to stop drinking,” Laurie said.

"I didn’t say I would stop. I said I would drink only under certain conditions. That’s what you and I agreed to. At least that’s the way I remember it,” Jamie said, his voice shaking as he spoke.

“You may be right, but you haven’t honored any part of what we agreed to. Not only have you not honored our agreement, I feel like you’re throwing it in my face. I feel like you’re belittling me,” Laurie shouted back.

“Listen, forget all that noise. You haven’t given me one reason to be nice to you. You’re 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 don’t think I know about how you’ve been calling my friends, checking up on me?

“You’re the one to blame here. You aren’t giving me the space I need to find my way out of this. How dare you treat me the way you’ve been treating me! What right do you have to check up on me the way you have been? That’s what has to stop around here. The problem isn’t when and how much I drink, the problem is you and your unwillingness to give me any space.

“I can quit drinking anytime I want to. You just aren’t willing to give me the credit. You’re always riding my back. That’s what has to stop around here.”

“Jamie, whoa, slow down just one second here. I refuse to keep caving in to your bullying tactics. The issue is your drinking, it’s not my behavior. I have to sneak around because you won’t be honest with me.”

By now Jamie’s eyes were bulging as he said, “So you admit it. You admit that you’ve been sneaking around, checking up on me.”

“Of course I do, but so what. All of this is beside the point,” she responded defensively.

“No, it’s precisely the point. I’m going to keep drinking until I decide it’s 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.

That’s 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 doesn’t happen by accident. Most importantly, we have to learn what our investment is in maintaining the stalemate.

Did I just say, learn what our investment in the stalemate is? Absolutely. Now I’m suggesting something very big here. Do not dismiss it without carefully considering how it might be true.

I’m suggesting it’s 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 doesn’t exist?

Here’s how I look at things. There’s nothing that we do, think, or feel that doesn’t bring us some kind of emotional benefit. It’s 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.

I’m sure you must be thinking that I’m 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 it’s time to consider whether or not you’ve eagerly agreed to do the dance.

So, don’t dismiss my assertion just yet. Think for a moment, what’s so attractive about remaining stuck in the quagmire? Here’s 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...

Stanley and I had met at our favorite watering hole a couple of Sundays ago. We hadn’t 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 wife.

“S.O.S., kiddo. Same ol’, same ol’, man, nothing changes with us,” Stanley said, a look of indifference punctuating his response.

“I can’t tell if that’s good or bad,” I replied.

“Ech, who knows any more. There’s something heavy hanging in the air between the two of us. Ever since I shot her down a while back, telling her I didn’t what to start a family right now. I told you how she got on that kick of hers again, wanting to have children. She’s been, I don’t know, remote, someway, somehow, I’m not sure how. She’s there but not really there. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s there, you know what I mean?” Stanley asked, seemingly searching for his own understanding more than trying to explain the situation to me.

“There’s this tension between us. I guess more importantly there isn’t any lightness anymore. Sometimes there’s nothing at all.

“Take tonight for example, I’ll go home, she’ll half-heartedly yell at me for being out with you. You know how she hates me being with you. She thinks that we’re sitting around, ganging up on her. Then I’ll tell her how sorry I am. Then she’ll tell me that I better never do it again. Then I’ll tell her she’s right, it won’t happen again. Then she’ll give me her look of disgust. Then I’ll go off and watch TV. She’ll shake her head and ignore me until Thursday. I’ll stay out of her way, not wanting to turn this into anything heavy. By Saturday, she’ll find some other way I’ve disappointed her and then start the dance all over again.”

One, two, cha, cha, cha. Three, four, cha, cha, cha. They’ve 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!

Isn’t that what really needs to be overcome? Our fear of what isn’t stated? We’re 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. We’re afraid our emotions will get out of control, we’re afraid we’ll be ridiculed or, even worse, ignored. Ultimately, we’re afraid of the unknown becoming known.

That’s why we stay so focused on merely attempting to fix the problem. It’s a known quantity. We know the path backwards and forwards. We come up with ingenious ways to rectify problematic behavior. There’s a certain seduction in focusing exclusively on the circumstance of an argument.        

Although 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 someone’s behavior, words, feelings, or thoughts. And therein lies the problem. There’s no solution that I know of to an underlying relationship issue that includes your ability to control your partner’s behavior.

That’s 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?

Can you see the mirage that the myth of control creates? It’s 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 you’ve 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 won’t have to feel this continual pain that the circumstances of my relationship creates for me.”

Have 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.

The 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.

If 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-Builder’s 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.

I 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.

Now 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 I’ve been living in? Well, I can only respond by saying, “Me thinketh thou doth protest too much!”

Here’s 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.

Now stop at this point. Does anything I’ve said in the last paragraph ring true for you? Think your way through this. I’m offering you an important window to look through. There’s 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.

What 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.

Now, 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 there’s some other angle you may be working? All I know is how helpful it is to take ownership of what you’re getting out of the dance.

You can see how important that is, can’t 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 relationship.

Go 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 relationship issues.

I hope I am keeping things simple here for purposes of my explaining these important concepts to you. But in doing so, I don’t mean to minimize the complexity of the problems that you’re 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 aren’t so black and white in your life.          

But please be assured that if you take your time with this information, you’ll discover what I’ve discovered over the last ten years. You’ll discover what we’re 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.



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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