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Hidden Relationship Issues

Difficulties in relationships may come from problems the couple is not aware of.

Key points

  • Couples can get stuck in repetitive patterns that do not resolve anything.
  • Sometimes there are hidden issues that are the source of difficulties.
  • Identifying and discussing hidden issues can prevent a lot of damage to relationships.

Sometimes, couples can feel stuck, repeating the same pattern of interaction over and over again, with no apparent end in sight. One pattern that lots of couples experience is called “pursuer-distancer.” This is when one person wants to engage their partner in some way, and their partner avoids them. They want to talk about their budget, and their partner finds excuses not to. Or one partner wants to talk about their sex life, and the other avoids it.

Sometimes, it’s quite overt, as the partners literally chase around their home, pursuing and distancing. Now, a certain amount of one person being more likely to initiate is not uncommon. It becomes a problem when it is a rigid, repetitive pattern.

Another pattern that occurs is “over-functioner/under-functioner.” This is when one partner finds themselves doing the lion’s share of the work (e.g., budgeting, bill paying, keeping track of investments and other finances), and the other partner kicks back and lets them. Again, it is not a problem until it gets rigid or someone gets resentful.

Both of these patterns reflect what systems therapists call circular causality. There is no starting point unless one chooses to go looking for it. Why does the pursuer pursue? Because the distancer is distancing. Why does the distancer distance? Because the pursuer is pursuing. And so they go, round and round. And these patterns are not restricted to couples: They can be seen in parent/child relationships or even friendships.

How can people trapped in these rigid patterns escape?

One of them has to stop. That can be very hard. The over-functioner will worry that the bills won’t get paid, or checks will bounce, or even that electricity or water will get cut off. If the distancer stops running, the pursuer may just collide with them.

I have worked with couples trying to break these patterns, and it can be very difficult. Sometimes the partner of the person who has stopped will be surprised and actually try to get them to re-engage in the pattern (not consciously, of course). I use an analogy to help couples understand this: Their relationship is like a rubber band that has a certain amount of tension in it. If they move apart, the tension increases and they drift back to the original tension. If they move closer, the tension is reduced, and someone will do something to restore it. But I have seen couples successfully break these patterns and develop much more satisfying relationships.

Sometimes, however, these patterns have an additional meaning. Sometimes people have conflicts about “hidden issues.” These are issues that are not recognized overtly but underly other conflicts.

How can couples recognize and deal with hidden relationship issues?

Sometimes the cycles I described above are really about one of these hidden issues. For example, maybe the arguments about money aren’t really about money, but are about “Do you love me?” or “Will you take care of me?” Until the couple recognizes what the real issue is, they will keep repeating the same thing over and over again. Often, hidden issues come from unconscious expectations. These expectations can derive from our own families of origin, or our culture, or our prior relationships.

There are, in fact, a number of indicators that suggest there may be an unaddressed, hidden issue besides what I described above. Scorekeeping is when someone keeps track of who does what how often. Wheel spinning, like the above cycles, occurs when a couple keeps talking about the same problem over and over again without any resolution. Avoidance is another possible indicator. And finally, having trivial triggers for conflict suggests there is something more going on.

Of course, the problem is that hidden issues are, well, hidden. We are not aware of them. So, if any of these patterns are occurring in your relationship, there may be a hidden issue behind it.

So, what can you do? The first thing, of course, is to recognize that there is a hidden issue. Once you identify it, you can begin to address it directly.

Because hidden issues often touch very vulnerable places, you must proceed with caution. Find a time to talk when you won’t be disturbed. If things start to get heated, take a break. Let each of you express your feelings about the issue in non-accusatory ways: “I feel...” instead of “You always....” A lot of relationship damage can be prevented if you take the time to understand the hidden issues, and go gently and cautiously into these tender feelings.