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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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Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire

If the core of conflict between two people is denied or suppressed, the relationship itself will become sick, whether it be subtle or obvious, sooner or later, the relationship will always suffer when the core of the conflict goes unacknowledged.
-Stanley Phillips

I hope it’s becoming clear that there’s a different way to think about the conflict that exists between you and your partner. And as that shift begins to take place within, can you see the possibilities that come with this new way of thinking about the dance that you and your partner do with each other?

Therein lies the key--being open to what’s possible for you by simply readjusting your focus from the surface event to the underlying relationship issue. Let me remind you that the skills discussed throughout this book are the means by which you can transform your relationships. However, the most important derivative of mastering these skills, first and foremost, is developing a better understanding of yourself.  

Now I hear those gears churning. Why, pray tell, is it so important for me to have a better understanding of myself, you may be thinking? Afterall, so much of the conflict between me and my partner would be alleviated if my partner would simply act differently. However, if you accept that much of the conflict that exists in your relationship is about the underlying relationship issues rather than the mere circumstance, then it’s important that you begin to understand yourself better.

Self-knowledge is the prescription I write for anybody who’s seeking to create significant shifts in their relationships. Do you clearly understand what your fears about emotional intimacy are?  Do you understand how your emotional discomfort shows up in your relationship? Is that discomfort even acknowledged by you? Does it get expressed? If it gets expressed, is it verbalized or acted out? Can you see the path I’m suggesting in order to effectively make molehills out of mountains?

Let me first tell you what the path is not. The process of making molehills out of mountains is not making your partner out to be wrong. Blaming and shaming merely fuels the fire rather than puts it out. Are you ready to surrender your unwillingness to take responsibility for your words and deeds? That’s a prerequisite for all of this work. If you truly want to learn how to resolve your differences, you no longer get to go through life being an expert on everybody but yourself.

Do you get what I mean by being an expert on everybody but yourself? Is there anybody reading this book that doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time explaining their partner to their partner? What a wonderful way to pass the time. The only question I have is, are you getting any closer to understanding yourself as you spend most of your time in your partner’s head? I have never, ever, not once seen anything good come from one person getting into another person’s head. But let me tell you what I have seen work time after time.

Focusing on yourself. Knowing yourself. Knowing how your issues, your craziness, gets provoked and ultimately activated in your relationships. Do you know what fears you have about connecting with another human being? Do you know what essential truths about who you are are at the core of the chaos that you create?  Do you know enough about who you are to express that to your partner rather than act it out?

You see, we’re back to that choice thing again. Making molehills out of mountains is a series of choices. Choosing to know yourself. Choosing to stay out of your partner’s head. Choosing to talk about your fears rather than acting them out. Choosing to focus on the underlying relationship issues rather than the events that precipitate the conflict. I hope I’ve made a compelling enough case that self-knowledge is the foundation upon which resolving conflict is based. So with that as a premise, let’s explore what the underlying relationship issues are and how they uniquely present themselves in your life.

First, here are four themes for the underlying relationship issues you can count on living and breathing beneath the surface of much of the conflict that exists between you and your partner. Those themes are: 1) acceptance; 2) unmet emotional needs; 3) appreciation; 4) power and control. I will speak in more detail about each of these themes in the upcoming sections. For now, let’s discuss more broadly what an underlying relationship issue is and why it dwells silently beneath the surface of your relationships.

It’s easy to understand why you would prefer to leave the underlying relationship issue hidden, isn’t it? Typically, the underlying relationship issue is much more volatile than the circumstance that’s being discussed. For example, what would be a safer discussion, why your partner picks a lousy restaurant to go to every Saturday night or why your partner hasn’t shown any interest in sex with you in the last twelve months?

Consider this conversation I had with my friend, Max. There’s a special beach in the park where everyone goes to exercise their dogs called the doggie beach. We take Max’s dog, a beautiful blond spaniel, Kaybee, to let her swim in the lake and play with the other dogs. One day as Kaybee was thrashing around in the water, chasing down an old tennis ball we’d thrown into the lake, Max and I got to talking.

“I really did it this time,” Max said in a dejected tone.

“What did you do this time?” I asked Max.

“I stuck my foot in my mouth. I don’t think that Teddy will ever forgive me for this one,” Max admitted.

“What did you say?” I asked.

Max’s voice was coated with remorse. “What did I say, what didn’t I say? In fact, that’s the whole problem. I said everything but what I wanted to say. But boy, oh boy, what I did say, hoooo, she’s never going to let me live this one down.”

“Max, I hope you won’t be offended if I tell you,

I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said.

As Max began to explain, Kaybee decided to dry herself off on us, shaking her body furiously. Max continued the  tale of woe as we toweled down.

“Teddy set up an interview for a job in Seattle. When I found out about that, I flipped out. I felt like things were going so well between us. Then I find out about the interview, well I really felt angry, even hurt. It made me feel so unimportant that she would even consider going so far away.”

Pleadingly I asked, “Max, of course you told her about how hurt you were? Max, tell me that you told Teddy how unimportant it made you feel that she would even think about moving away. Max look me in the eyes and tell me you told Teddy that you cared, that you didn’t want to risk having such a huge separation.”

“Wellllll, not exactly,” Max said.

“Well, what exactly did you say?” I asked insistently.

“Steve, in my defense I thought all those things that you just said, I just didn’t say any of those things to Teddy.”

"Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades,” I said with as much support as I could muster.   

“Well, I sure detonated one hell of a hand grenade,” Max meekly replied.

“Max, please, I’m begging you, please tell me you didn’t do what you usually do.”

“Well, pretty much so, yea,” Max slyly admitted.

“That would be your seemingly innocuous statements that leave everyone guessing at what you’re upset about, but no one understanding what it is you’re upset about?” I growled at him.

“Oh, that would be,” Max responded, equally exasperated.

“Max, just what is it that you told Teddy?”

“I simply said that if you moved to Seattle, then we would have to change the way we communicate. I may have mentioned something about perhaps using smoke signals, pony express, postcards, or perhaps the space shuttle.”


“I don’t remember all that she said, I just remember more of how it was said to me. That’s what always seems to stay with me the longest.”

By now I was practically scolding Max. “Max, how many times do I have to tell you about this little habit of yours. You can’t keep going through life being cute when you have something important to talk over with somebody.”

"I know, Steve, believe me I know. But I just can’t come out and say what I’m feeling. Afterall, what right do I have to feel so strongly about Teddy. She has repeatedly told me not to expect a thing from our relationship. Besides, I couldn’t possibly tell her how important our relationship is to me, afterall, if she doesn’t feel the same way, then where am I?”

“I don’t know, Max, but it doesn’t seem that you could be any worse off than you are now.”

“Ohhhhh, I never thought of it that way before.”

You know the weird thing was, Max’s dog, Kaybee, looked me right in the eye, winked, and shook her head up and down as if in complete agreement with what I just said.

Yes, who isn’t an expert at making things worse than they already are? Who hasn’t stuck their foot in their mouth because they didn’t want to go there? And just where is go there? It’s the dreaded V word. Vulnerable.

Who of us doesn’t twist ourselves in knots to avoid feeling vulnerable with another human being? Who hasn’t turned a relationship inside out, upside down, wreaking havoc, stirring things up with only one end in mind. Avoid feeling vulnerable. Avoid appearing vulnerable. Maintain a position of strength at all times.

That’s the kicker, isn’t it? Not wanting to appear weak. Not wanting to give an edge to your partner. Do you equate being vulnerable with being weak, setting yourself up to be hurt or taken advantage of?

What are the things that make you feel most vulnerable with your partner? What are the essential truths that you feel, yet are too frightened to reveal? And the basis of the fear is that you don’t want to feel so exposed, you don’t want to feel so at risk, you don’t want to feel so out there.

It’s important to take ownership of what those things are. You see, oftentimes, we put so much energy into protecting ourselves, we drain a lot of energy from the relationship itself. Can you can understand how important it is to learn how to balance your need for self-protection with your relationship’s need to be free of the energy invested in protecting yourself? More importantly, I hope you can see how avoiding expressing what needs to be expressed has its own way of creating problems between you and your partner.

Let’s look at another reason you may choose to leave the  underlying relationship issue hidden beneath the surface of the circumstance. It’s a means by which the relationship doesn’t have to grow, become more intimate, and frankly, many times, more scary. If you never discuss the underlying relationship issues, the relationship will stay stuck right where it is, focused on the reoccurring circumstances. Unfulfilling? Likely, but perhaps the familiar is safer than traveling into the unknown.

Consider this example for a moment. You or your partner are abusing drugs and alcohol. Much of your time and energy is invested in cleaning up after the fallout that inevitably accompanies alcohol and drug abuse. However, it might be safer to deal with the chaos created by substance abuse rather than focus only on the growth and development of your relationship and the resultant tensions that accompanies such growth.

I’m reminded of two old friends of mine who in the end couldn’t hold things together. I always believed that fear kept interfering with their ability to sustain their relationship. More importantly, I think their relationship was held hostage to their fears. Ultimately, they went their separate ways, never able to get beyond arguing about how much time Sandy spent at work. This is pretty much how things ended for the two of them.

“I don’t understand why you won’t admit it,” Elly said.

“Admit what?” Sandy asked.

“The truth. The truth about why you spend so much time at work. We go over and over it, and none of it rings true.”

“What’s not true? My job is demanding. I want to hold up my end of things with you,” Sandy patiently explained.

Elly’s voice had an edge to it, a weird mixture of hurt, frustration, and hate all rolled into one as she said, “I don’t believe a word of it. It feels like you’re avoiding me, putting me off. Lately, it feels like you don’t even want to be around me.”

Sandy had become equally defensive. Both of them had been down this road many times. But today, he was feeling especially boxed in, feeling as if there was nowhere to go with her. “When you keep harping on me the way you do, it sure doesn’t make it appealing to come home.”

“Don’t make this about me. This is about us. This is about your half-baked excuses. This is about whether you’re in this relationship or out,” Elly pointedly said.

That set Sandy off. That arrow had pierced the heart of the matter, yet he reacted the only way he knew how in order to prevent the truth from coming out--with a great deal of hostility. “In or out! What’s there about what I do that would make you even say such a thing? You need to spend more time getting your head examined and less time focusing on me! In or out--you’ve really lost it now!”  

Elly had dug in this time, determined to get an answer once and for all. There was no turning back, this lack of involvement had to be resolved once and for all. Unwilling to endure this suspended animation any longer, Elly wanted,  needed, was demanding a decision. She deserved more and if it wasn’t going to be with Sandy, well, so be it. But the dance was going to stop.

By now Elly was screaming, “No, not this time. You’re not going to do it to me again. You’re not going to flip the tables on me. I don’t have to prove anything to you. I’m tired of avoiding this, all the ways we avoid it. I’m asking you point blank. Are you in or out?

“I’m not doing this alone by myself anymore. No more presents to smooth things over, no more half-hearted attempts to be around more. No more drama to get you to say that you love me. Are you in or not? Are you out of here, if so when? We don’t need to keep wasting each other’s lives on this half-assed attempt at a relationship. All I want is the truth.”

Sandy was taken aback by Elly’s new found determination. It was slowly sinking in just how serious she was. So he considered very carefully what to say next. There was so much at stake, but the fight had drained from his  body. All that was left was a look of resignation.

“Alright, if you put it that way, I guess I should say, I don’t want to do this anymore,” Sandy mumbled.

“Do what?” Elly said fearfully.

“This, us, you and me. I just don’t feel safe doing it with you anymore. It doesn’t feel right. I guess that’s what I’ve avoided saying for so long. No, you’ve been right all along. I’m just too afraid. I don’t know how to explain it any better. I don’t know what it would look like if I put both feet into the relationship. I don’t know how to do it any better than I’m already doing it.

“This is the best I’ve got, or it’s all that I’ve got, or I don’t know, I just don’t know. In fairness to you, you’re right, I do hide. I hide at work. I hide here at home. There are days when dread just overwhelms me. About what, well you seem to be the expert. But the thought of doing this any differently is just unbearable.”

And so it goes. Slowly but surely as the excuses are stripped away, as the circumstances that a person hides behind are lifted, inevitably what crawls out from underneath the surface is some fear, discomfort, or smoldering resentment about the relationship itself. Left undetected, these corrosive elements slowly but surely eat away at the well-being of your relationships. Without focusing on the relationship issues, it must feel like you’re doing battle with one arm tied behind your back.

Let’s look at one more reason why you may choose to stay paralyzed by the circumstances of your conflicts rather than resolving the underlying relationship issues. Plain ol’ being afraid of the consequences of getting honest. Perhaps you fear that if you get honest with your partner, they may emotionally or physically abandon you. Have you ever tried to resolve an issue with somebody and the thanks you got for your efforts was the silent treatment or they just disappeared from your life altogether? How anxious would you be to explore the underlying issues that exist in any other relationships?

How about if we get practical for a moment. Let’s take a break from the theory by practicing for a moment. Take your time with this. You may even need to get some perspective from a friend or family member, but please whoever it is, make sure that they are safe and have only your best interests at heart.

Can you think of a time where you have found yourself in the same disagreement over and over again with your partner? It could be about how you decide where to go on your vacation. It could be how much time you spend on your computer rather than with your partner. It could be how you decide who’s going to clean the house. No matter the topic, nothing ever seems to resolve the problem. When you get to this place with your partner, it’s my bet that there’s an underlying relationship issue that needs to be resolved.

Let’s see if we can understand what’s percolating beneath the surface. How about switching our focus from all these ideas, to the real world.  Quite simply, all I want you to do for now is identify below what the circumstances may be that you and your partner continually get hung up on. See if you can identify at least three circumstances that you and your partner go over time and time again without ever resolving. Go ahead and make a list of those circumstances.

Now, take a look at the list you just made and put a magnifying glass to it. What issues lay beneath the surface? Don’t worry if you have a fancy label for them. Our goal right now is to create an awareness that there’s more going on than a missed dinner engagement, an inability to agree on what television show to watch, or any other seemingly innocent incident that has an emotional charge to it that’s out of proportion to the incident itself.

Hopefully, things are coming together for you. Remember, the process of making molehills out of mountains is predicated on one thing and one thing only--having new choices to create more options so that you may effectively resolve the underlying issues of your relationship rather than waste your time continually trying to fix the circumstances that precipitate the conflict. The relationship skill, pinpointing the issue, is the skill that will enable you to create more choices for yourself.

I hope that the most important choice you have is more clear to you now--focus on the circumstances of the conflict or the underlying relationship issues. I hope that it’s equally clear to you what is to be gained by executing that choice--staying stuck in endless frustrations, half-truths, and unspoken feelings or using the resolution of your conflict as a means to strengthen the connection between you and your partner.

In order to create the best choices possible for you, it’s critical that you have a strong grasp of what the underlying issues are that live beneath the circumstances of your conflicts. The next four sections will focus on each theme of the underlying relationship issues. I will discuss with you in depth what each issue is, as well as suggest some skills that can assist you in your quest to make molehills out of mountains by pinpointing the issue.



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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