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Section 7
Arguments Caused by Disengaged Couple Communications

Question 7 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed the Speaker-Listener technique for structuring conversations for couples on sensitive issues.

In this section, we will discuss five hidden issues that can drive frustrating or destructive arguments between spouses. The five issues we will focus on in this section are issues of control and power, issues of caring, issues of recognition, issues of commitment, and issues of integrity. We will also discuss ways to recognize hidden issues.

My clients, Kyle and Wendy, had been married for seven years.  In one of our earliest marital counseling sessions, Wendy stated, "You know, our most frequent fight has to be about the stupid orange juice container.  Kyle always expects me to be the one who makes more!  I don’t know why we always end up getting so hot about it, but it makes us both crazy!"  

I stated, "Most of the time, the issues that are triggered by daily events are very clear, for example when one partner notices a large withdrawal in a shared account, this event may trigger an issue surrounding money and start a fight.  But sometimes, fights, like when you fight about the orange juice, don’t seem to be attached to any particular issue. Usually, these are driven by hidden issues." I found that explaining the concept of hidden issues to Kyle and Wendy enhanced their utilization of more effective communication strategies.

Disengaged Couple Communication

♦ 1. Control and Power
I explained to Kyle and Wendy that I usually see five different types of hidden issues between couples. I stated, "The first type of hidden issues I frequently see are issues of control and power. Basically, this means that one or both partners feel like there is an inequality, and that their desires are not as important as their spouse’s. These issues tend to surface when decisions, even small ones, need to be made - like who will do a disliked chore, or decide how to spend money." Wendy stated, "I think the orange juice may be touching on a control issue for me. When Kyle always expects me to do it, and gets upset if I say I’m too busy, I feel like he’s saying he’s more important than me! Why should I have to do it all the time? Because I’m the woman? It isn’t the 1950s anymore!"

♦ 2. Caring
A second type of hidden issue I frequently see between couples are issues of caring. I stated, "The main problem in hidden issues of caring is the extent to which you feel loved and cared for by your partner. These issues are often triggered when a spouse feels that his or her partner is not meeting their important emotional needs." Kyle stated, "I understand this one. I guess I never really thought about it before, but I always remember my mother making orange juice for me, and it made me feel special and cared for. I guess I’ve come to associate the two, so when Wendy won’t make juice for me, I feel like she’s saying she doesn’t care about me!"

♦ 3. Recognition
In addition to issues of control and power, and caring, the third type of hidden issues I explained to Kyle and Wendy was issues of recognition. As you know, recognition issues revolve around feeling valued by a partner. Kyle stated, "I get so frustrated with Wendy sometimes. She’ll go on and on about how stressful it is to work, do papers for her master’s degree, and do her share of the chores, but when I offer to help out she always turns me down. Then when she’s got a big assignment due, she’ll scream at me for not helping out around the house more!" Clearly, both Kyle and Wendy were struggling with hidden issues of recognition. Wendy felt Kyle did not appreciate how much she had to balance in her life, and Kyle felt that Wendy did not recognize his efforts to make her life easier.

♦ 4. Commitment
The fourth kind of hidden issues I introduced to Kyle and Wendy were issues of commitment. I stated, "Hidden commitment issues usually reflect concerns that you are going to be together as a couple no matter what, in other words each partner’s sense of the long-term security of the relationship. It is normal for couples to worry about their partner’s long term commitment to them and to the marriage, and it is important to talk openly about your concerns."

♦ 5. Integrity
In addition to issues of power and control, caring, recognition, and commitment, the fifth kind of hidden issues that I frequently see in my practice are issues of integrity. I stated to Kyle and Wendy, "Integrity issues are triggered when you think your spouse is questioning your standards, motives, or values. Whether they are or not, one partner, or both, ends up feeling judged, and becomes defensive." Wendy stated, "I think that happens with us sometimes. When I’m feeling stressed and lose my cool, I’ll blow up at Kyle for not taking the trash out. Next thing I know, he’s yelling ‘how dare you say I don’t care about you or this marriage!’ and I get so confused!"

♦ "4 Signs of Hidden Issues" Technique
Because Kyle and Wendy were dealing with several hidden issues, I asked them to try the "4 Signs of Hidden Issues" technique. I explained to Kyle and Wendy, "There are four signs that can help you start recognizing when an argument that you’re having is related to a hidden issue. The first of these is wheel spinning. Wheel spinning happens when you start an argument thinking, "Here we go again"; If you never really get anywhere with the argument, you probably are not discussing the real issue.

The second sign to watch out for is trivial triggers. As you know, the argument between Kyle and Wendy over the orange juice container is a good example of a trivial trigger. Although the event itself is a small one, the orange juice container triggered powerful arguments driven by issues of power and caring.

In addition to wheel spinning and trivial triggers, I explained that a third sign of hidden issues to watch for is avoidance. As we have discussed in previous sections, avoidance begins to occur when couples fear rejection from each other, and can be a clear sign of hidden issues.

I stated to Kyle and Wendy, "A fourth sign to look out for is scorekeeping. Scorekeeping can mean that one partner does not feel recognized for their efforts, or that he or she feels controlled and is keeping track of all of the times they have felt their partner has taken advantage of them. Whatever the underlying issue is, scorekeeping can be a sign that there are important issues that each partner is documenting instead of discussing."

I then explained to Kyle and Wendy that once they began to recognize the signs of hidden issues, they could ask each other to "pause" the argument, and use the "Speaker-Listener" technique, as we discussed in Section 6, with each other.

Do you have a client like Kyle or Wendy who would benefit from learning to recognize these 4 signs of hidden issues? 

In this section, we have discussed five hidden issues that can drive the really frustrating or destructive arguments between spouses. These are issues of control and power, issues of caring, issues of recognition, issues of commitment, and issues of integrity. We also discussed ways to recognize hidden issues.

In the next section, we will discuss three key assumptions that can help couples approach learning steps to solve problems together. These three assumptions are all couples have problems, couples who approach problems as a team are more effective at problem solving, and rushing to find answers does not produce lasting solutions.

- Hammett, J., Castañeda, D., & Ulloa, E.(Feb 2016) The Association Between Affective and Problem-Solving Communication and Intimate Partner Violence Among Caucasian and Mexican American Couples: A Dyadic Approach. Journal of Family Violence, 31(2), 167-178.

- Orathinkal, J., & Vansteenwegen, A. (Feb 2006) Couples’ Conflicts: A Territorial Perspective. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 21(1), 27-44.
Reviewed 2023

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Barry, R. A., Barden, E. P., & Dubac, C. (Apr 2019). Pulling away: Links among disengaged couple communication, relationship distress, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(3), 280-293.

Briñol, P., McCaslin, M. J., & Petty, R. E. (2012). Self-generated persuasion: Effects of the target and direction of arguments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 925–940.

Korobov, N. (2020). A discursive psychological approach to deflection in romantic couples’ everyday arguments. Qualitative Psychology. Advance online publication.

Maaravi, Y., Ganzach, Y., & Pazy, A. (2011). Negotiation as a form of persuasion: arguments in first offers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 245–255.

Robison, M. K., Miller, A. L., & Unsworth, N. (2018). Individual differences in working memory capacity and filtering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(7), 1038–1053.

What are five kinds of hidden issues between spouses? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 8
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