By Dr. Steve
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Smoke Theres Fire
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.
hope its becoming clear that theres 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?
lies the key--being open to whats 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.
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 its important
that you begin to understand yourself better.
is the prescription I write for anybody whos 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 Im suggesting in order to
effectively make molehills out of mountains?
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? Thats 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.
you get what I mean by being an expert on everybody but yourself? Is there anybody reading
this book that doesnt 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
partners head? I have never, ever, not once seen anything good come from one person
getting into another persons head. But let me tell you what I have seen work time
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?
see, were 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 partners
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 Ive made a compelling enough case that self-knowledge is the foundation upon
which resolving conflict is based. So with that as a premise, lets explore what the
underlying relationship issues are and how they uniquely present themselves in your life.
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, lets discuss more broadly what an underlying relationship issue
is and why it dwells silently beneath the surface of your relationships.
easy to understand why you would prefer to leave the underlying relationship issue hidden,
isnt it? Typically, the underlying relationship issue is much more volatile than the
circumstance thats 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 hasnt shown any interest in sex with you in the last twelve months?
this conversation I had with my friend, Max. Theres a special beach in the park
where everyone goes to exercise their dogs called the doggie beach. We take Maxs
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 wed thrown into the lake, Max and I got to talking.
really did it this time, Max said in a dejected tone.
did you do this time? I asked Max.
stuck my foot in my mouth. I dont think that Teddy will ever forgive me for this
one, Max admitted.
did you say? I asked.
voice was coated with remorse. What did I say, what didnt I say? In fact,
thats the whole problem. I said everything but what I wanted to say. But boy, oh
boy, what I did say, hoooo, shes never going to let me live this one down.
I hope you wont be offended if I tell you,
dont know what the hell youre talking about, I said.
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.
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.
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 didnt
want to risk having such a huge separation.
not exactly, Max said.
what exactly did you say? I asked insistently.
in my defense I thought all those things that you just said, I just didnt say any of
those things to Teddy.
only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, I said with as much support as I could
I sure detonated one hell of a hand grenade, Max meekly replied.
please, Im begging you, please tell me you didnt do what you usually do.
pretty much so, yea, Max slyly admitted.
would be your seemingly innocuous statements that leave everyone guessing at what
youre upset about, but no one understanding what it is youre upset
about? I growled at him.
that would be, Max responded, equally exasperated.
just what is it that you told Teddy?
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.
dont remember all that she said, I just remember more of how it was said to me.
Thats what always seems to stay with me the longest.
now I was practically scolding Max. Max, how many times do I have to tell you about
this little habit of yours. You cant keep going through life being cute when you
have something important to talk over with somebody.
know, Steve, believe me I know. But I just cant come out and say what Im
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 couldnt
possibly tell her how important our relationship is to me, afterall, if she doesnt
feel the same way, then where am I?
dont know, Max, but it doesnt seem that you could be any worse off than you
I never thought of it that way before.
know the weird thing was, Maxs 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.
who isnt an expert at making things worse than they already are? Who hasnt
stuck their foot in their mouth because they didnt want to go there? And just where
is go there? Its the dreaded V word. Vulnerable.
of us doesnt twist ourselves in knots to avoid feeling vulnerable with another human
being? Who hasnt 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.
the kicker, isnt 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?
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 dont want to feel so exposed, you dont want to feel so at
risk, you dont want to feel so out there.
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 relationships 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.
look at another reason you may choose to leave the underlying relationship issue
hidden beneath the surface of the circumstance. Its a means by which the
relationship doesnt 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.
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.
reminded of two old friends of mine who in the end couldnt 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
dont understand why you wont admit it, Elly said.
what? Sandy asked.
truth. The truth about why you spend so much time at work. We go over and over it, and
none of it rings true.
not true? My job is demanding. I want to hold up my end of things with you, Sandy
voice had an edge to it, a weird mixture of hurt, frustration, and hate all rolled into
one as she said, I dont believe a word of it. It feels like youre
avoiding me, putting me off. Lately, it feels like you dont even want to be around
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 doesnt make it appealing
to come home.
make this about me. This is about us. This is about your half-baked excuses. This is about
whether youre in this relationship or out, Elly pointedly said.
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! Whats 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--youve really lost it now!
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 wasnt going to be with Sandy, well, so be it. But the
dance was going to stop.
now Elly was screaming, No, not this time. Youre not going to do it to me
again. Youre not going to flip the tables on me. I dont have to prove anything
to you. Im tired of avoiding this, all the ways we avoid it. Im asking you
point blank. Are you in or out?
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 dont need to keep wasting
each others lives on this half-assed attempt at a relationship. All I want is the
was taken aback by Ellys 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
if you put it that way, I guess I should say, I dont want to do this anymore,
what? Elly said fearfully.
us, you and me. I just dont feel safe doing it with you anymore. It doesnt
feel right. I guess thats what Ive avoided saying for so long. No, youve
been right all along. Im just too afraid. I dont know how to explain it any
better. I dont know what it would look like if I put both feet into the
relationship. I dont know how to do it any better than Im already doing it.
is the best Ive got, or its all that Ive got, or I dont know, I
just dont know. In fairness to you, youre 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.
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 youre
doing battle with one arm tied behind your back.
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?
about if we get practical for a moment. Lets 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.
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 whos 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, its my
bet that theres an underlying relationship issue that needs to be resolved.
see if we can understand whats 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.
take a look at the list you just made and put a magnifying glass to it. What issues lay
beneath the surface? Dont worry if you have a fancy label for them. Our goal right
now is to create an awareness that theres 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 thats out of proportion to the
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.
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 its
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.
order to create the best choices possible for you, its 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
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.