When Jake looks at the latest bank statement and begins complaining about how James, yet again, spent more than $200 on clothes without discussing it with him, it’s pretty clear what the issue is.
But when Kristi begins cursing out Steve because he is running late to their couples therapy appointment due to work, the harsh comments cover up the hidden issues of Kristi feeling less important to Steve than his work. Her fears that he could care less about her and the relationship are masked by the topic of tardiness. Thus the real issue is covered up by the surface issue.
According to the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage, a hidden issue includes “unexpressed expectations, needs, or feelings that, if not attended to, can cause great damage to your marriage [or committed relationship].”
A telltale sign that a hidden issue is present in your relationship is when a conflict erupts with an emotional intensity that does not match the degree of the seemingly unimportant event that occurred.
That’s because this eruption has less to do with the actual topic and is more about the importance of the hidden issue. These hidden issues reflect relationship themes as well as core values each partner holds about the relationship.
I know that when I erupted over a conflict about running errands, I found myself shocked at the intensity of my reaction.
The emotional intensity indicated that I had some unexpressed needs that were important to me. As I took my time-out, I began reflecting on what I needed to shift in the relationship.
Then I sat down with my partner, apologized and took responsibility for my behavior, and began to express to my partner some needs I have in our relationship. The underlying issue got dug up and used to strengthen our marriage.
One of the main reasons romantic partners struggle with hidden issues is because most of us are not taught how to express or understand these needs, feelings, or unspoken expectations in ourselves or others. Rather, we have experiences of being shamed and thus feel embarrassed or even scared of our needs.
According to the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage, there are six hidden issues that couples are most likely to experience in their relationship. Four of these hidden issues are:
- Trust & Commitment
- Influence (Power Struggles)
What you’ll come to learn about these hidden issues is it’s not so much about the topic but how it touches our deepest fears and core needs for connection.
Treating these hidden issues as something important and talking to each other in a safe and kind way using the speaker-listener technique will not only help protect your relationship but actually enhance your bond.
If you’re unsure about whether or not these hidden issues are present in your relationship,
check out my Lasting Love Checklist.
The Underlying Issue of Caring
Feeling like your partner doesn’t care about you or your needs hurts. Hidden issues of caring are unexpressed feelings of being not cared for or loved by your partner. These issues are triggered by a felt sense that your emotional needs are not important to your partner.
Let’s look at an example of how expressing the hidden need strengthened the relationship:
Peyton was really upset one morning when she woke up to her car covered in snow because her partner Jeremy didn’t go out and start the car for her while she was getting ready.
When she confronted Jeremy about this, he got angry, “I have my own stuff to do in the morning, you can’t demand for me to do that too.”
What we found out during a session was that Peyton wasn’t upset that her partner didn’t do an act of service for her, but rather the gesture, to her, was a symbol of care. She told the story that when she was younger, her father always started the car for her mother when the weather was bad. To Peyton it was a sign of love and affection.
When her partner didn’t start the car for her, Peyton’s unexpressed expectations convinced her that her partner didn’t care for her. Not to mention, her partner’s turning against response further made her feel uncared for.
It was recommended to Peyton to discuss the meaning of what starting the car in bad weather was to her and where she learned that message.
Peyton and Jeremy were taught how to use the speaker-listener technique, and this is the summary of their conversation:
Peyton: Help me understand something. I noticed you seemed upset when I brought up not starting my car when it was snowing. What was going on for you?
Jeremy: It felt like you were telling me what to do, and like I was being expected to do something when I was already stressed out about making it to work and this important meeting I had.
Peyton: I hear that you feel like I was telling you to do something and that you were very stressed out about getting to work and your meeting. Did I understand that?
Peyton: That makes sense to me. Can I share something I became aware of and why I got so upset?
Peyton: Well, when I was younger, my dad would start the car for my mom when the weather was bad, and I could always see how happy that made my mom, and so I see it as a way to show someone you care for their wellbeing.
Jeremy: Okay, so, me starting the car shows you that I love you, not necessarily you controlling my actions or what I do or don’t do?
Peyton: Yes! And I can definitely see how not knowing that could make you feel like I was trying to control you.
Jeremy: I appreciate you explaining that to me. It did feel like you were trying to control me, which is a trigger for me because of how my dad used to manipulate me.
Peyton: Yeah. We’ve talked about that before and I can completely understand why that made you feel that way.
Jeremy: Exactly, and like we talked about before, I want to be your partner, not your servant.
Peyton: Agreed. So what can we do?
Together, they came up with a strategy for asking for reassurance and signs of affection, without making Jeremy feel controlled, but rather that he was doing it because he wanted her to feel loved and cared for.
A hidden expectation was the reason that this conflict started in the first place, but being able to openly and honestly talk about the underlying expectation and hidden need led to a more constructive conversation that deepened Peyton and Jeremy’s relationship. They learned more about how each partner shows care and what certain gestures mean to the other partner. They ended the conversation feeling important to each other and cared for.
Steps to Explore and Express Hidden Issues of Caring:
Use the speaker-listener technique.
- When you’re upset and feeling like your partner doesn’t care about you, ask yourself what it is you long for. What’s your hidden wish?
- Think about why this way of care is important to you and where you may have internalized that message. What is the meaning your mind creates when you don’t feel cared about in this way? What is the meaning your mind creates when you do feel cared about in this way? This meaning often boils down to attachment needs such as feeling loved, important, and valued.
- Share with your partner using “I” statements and what you want/need in a positive and actionable way that gives your partner a recipe to be successful at winning your heart.
- Share the story behind why this gesture or version of care is important.
- Check in with your partner to see if they understand.
- Switch into the listener role and let your partner express themself.
- Work with your partner to create a new ritual or plan that works for both of you.
The Issue of Not Feeling Seen or Recognized
Hidden issues of recognition have less to do with feeling loved and more to do with feeling valued for the contribution you’re making to the relationship, as well as who you are as a person. It’s about feeling seen.
Most of the time, these hidden issues pop up when one partner feels as though the other isn’t proud of them for their accomplishments or doesn’t acknowledge the effort or hard work they’re doing with their extracurricular activities, kids, or the relationship.
When partners of all genders work hard to provide for their family, take care of the home and children, work hard at their job, or sustain and nurture a connection with their partner, and it goes unrecognized and unappreciated by their partner, it’s fairly likely that that partner will become burnt out and feel unseen.
“Showing appreciation and affection for your partner regularly, talking together at the end of each day, giving each other a kiss hello and goodbye—these are all elements of a happy and healthy relationship. Your relationship is built out of these small and simple moments together each day.” – Eight Dates
It’s important to make sure that you are expressing your gratitude and appreciation to your partner for the things they do for you, your relationship, your home, and for themselves. Also sharing what you admire about your partner or what you’re proud of them for doing is a great way to help them feel seen and loved.
If you don’t feel that your partner is expressing this, it’s important to be open and honest about your longing for more appreciation and admiration in the relationship. Talk about how it makes you feel closer to your partner.
Strong and stable relationships are often a result of both partners creating a culture of appreciation, admiration, and affection in their relationship.
- They look for things their partner is doing well and verbally express it.
- They acknowledge small acts their partner does and say thank you for doing that or “I appreciate you doing [x].”
- They share what they admire or cherish about the other person. “I love how playful you are.” “I admire how much you take care of the kids. You’re an amazing parent.” “I’m so proud of you for doing [y].”
- The Magic 6 Hours That Make Love Last
- The 7 Day Emotional Connection Challenge
- The Love Tank Theory: How to Make Love Actually Last
The Issue of Commitment & Trust
Hidden issues of commitment and trust occur when there is a concern about the security of the relationship. The driving fears of being left and wondering if the other person will leave drives these conflicts.
What we know from research is a truly happy relationship is impossible without trust and commitment.
“When we make our relationship a priority by showing that it’s a priority, we build trust and demonstrate our loyalty far beyond any words we say in our wedding vows.” – Eight Dates
Commitment is about being emotionally invested in the future of the relationship. This commitment can be demonstrated by working through conflicts together, supporting your partner in tough times, cherishing them (see above), and being there for them. And if they do this for you, then you have a win-win relationship.
The problem is sometimes arguments about the issue of commitment get lost in the content of the conflict.
For example, after getting married, Jessica and Elizabeth didn’t combine their finances. Nor did they talk about a financial plan and what works best for them. Instead, whenever the topic of finances or money came up, Jessica would passive-aggressively whine about their separate bank accounts.
On the surface this appeared to Elizabeth to be about bank accounts and to her, since they were paying the bills, it didn’t really matter.
Under the surface of Jessica’s whining was a fear that Elizabeth wanted a separate bank account so she could quickly escape if things got “bad.”
But Jessica never openly talked to Elizabeth about this fear. She bottled it until they had a nasty fight and found themselves in couples therapy.
When discussing this issue, Jessica highlights that her step mother had a secret bank account and one day just left without a trace. Her father was devastated and shocked. She felt blindsided. Jessica remembers those days vividly and was terrified to repeat it in her marriage.
But not openly discussing it also made it appear in her mind that Elizabeth was bound to walk out on her one day.
As they discussed each of their perspectives and validated their experiences, Elizabeth shared, “I had no idea what this issue meant to you. I wish you would have told me earlier as I am invested in us.”
They left feeling more connected. Despite having one shared account and each their own separate bank accounts, the hidden issue of commitment was out in the open. During their three-month follow-up they said they continued to talk about commitment and what it means to them. For them, discussing the hidden issue actually became a gateway into a deeper and richer relationship.
“When your commitment to one another is secure, it brings a deeper kind of safety to your relationship than that which comes merely from good communication.” – Fighting for Your Marriage
To explore this hidden issue, I would recommend going on Date 1: Lean on Me: Trust & Commitment in Eight Dates.
Hidden Issues of Influence (Power Struggles)
“When power prevails, love fails.” – James Hollis, Psychiatrist
Power struggles can result over anything in a relationship: finances, parenting strategies, sex, accepting each other’s input, compromising. In a monogamous relationship, the power in a relationship can be divided into four ways according to the authors of The Couple Checkup:
A research study on 815 dual-career couples discovered that how power was shared in the relationship impacted each individual’s wellbeing, as well as the health of the relationship.1 The findings concluded that marriages based on equality (partners sharing power, accepting influence, and compromising) had higher relationship satisfaction, less depression, and increased intimacy for both partners.
In comparison, unequal sharing of power leads to more issues. For the more powerful partner this led to less relationship satisfaction and intimacy. For the partner with less influence, it leads to low self-esteem, depression, and hostility toward the more powerful partner.
When partners work together as a team and honor each other’s needs, feelings, and decisions, they are more likely to have a better relationship. They are less likely to blame each other because they more readily accept responsibility and they also make decisions that are in the best interest of both partners, not just one.
Sometimes when partners feel like they have less power, they will make threats about ending the relationship to gain more power and influence by saying things like, “I can’t take this anymore, I’m leaving” or “I’m going divorce you if you keep doing that.” This rarely works, and when it does, it often creates lower satisfaction because it doesn’t address the hidden issue of not being able to influence one another. Not being able to work like a team.
The key to a healthy relationship is working together to find solutions that keep both partners’ interests in mind. When we work together, it not only makes the relationship happier but it also leads to less negativity in conflict.
Dr. John Gottman’s observational research on heterosexual couples indicates two things regarding sharing power that he shared in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:
- “We did find that the happiest, most stable marriages in the long run were those in which the husband did not resist sharing power and decision making with the wife. When the couple disagreed, these husbands actively searched for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way.”
- “The wives of men who accept their influence are far less likely to be harsh with their husbands when broaching a difficult marital topic. This increases the odds their marriage will thrive.”
Telltale Signs That Hidden Issues Are Wrecking Your Relationship
Hidden issues block the development of healthy relationships because we often fight about the surface issue and not the deeper meaning and symbolism behind them.
Luckily, the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage indicated that there are some warning signs that you can look out for that signify a hidden issue coming up.
- Broken Record: If you’re the partner listening and your first thought is “here we go again,” then you may have a hidden issue at play. If you’re the partner complaining, you feel like the issue is never really addressed, and so you repeat yourself hoping it will get better. But it doesn’t.
- Trivial Triggers: Little things lead to big blowout fights, indicating that something bigger, the hidden issue, needs attention.
- Scorekeeping: If you find yourself keeping score about anything in the relationship, it often means something deeper and more meaningful such as commitment and trust or feeling unrecognized are at play. It reflects that you’re in a competition against each other, rather than learning how to team up to tackle problems together.
Action Steps: What Can You Do?
Step 1: Proactively set aside time to talk using the speaker-listener technique.
Step 2: Pick a speaker and listener following the ATTUNE model below. Focus on getting to a point where each partner can say “I can understand your perspective.”
These ATTUNE skills, as outlined by Dr. John Gottman, are helpful for conflict and emotional connection-building conversations.2
- A = Awareness: Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps
- T = Tolerance: There Are Two Views to Every Conflict and Both Are Valid
- T = Transforming criticisms into wishes and positive needs: Transform Criticism into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict
- U = Understanding: Understanding Must Precede Advice in Relationship Conflict
- N = Nondefensive listening: How to Listen without Getting Defensive in Relationship Conflict
- E = Empathy: Stop Trying to Fix Your Partner’s Feelings: Connect with Them Instead
The key to remember is to not problem solve until both of you feel understood. If you attempt to problem solve without understanding the hidden issue from your partner’s perspective, you’ll only get caught in a conflict or have a solution that fails. It’s like building a home with an incomplete blueprint and not enough material, the house is bound to fall apart.
Step 3: Come up with temporary solutions and schedule a time to follow-up with each other.
Often these hidden issues tend to be unsolvable problems. They may not have solutions because they can relate to one’s enduring vulnerabilities and sensitivities. The goal is to be able to help your partner with their sensitivity
Learning to discuss these hidden issues openly and vulnerably can allow couples to understand one another, validate each other, and enhance their emotional connection.
When couples understand each other’s hidden issues and concerns, they can work together to learn how to soothe these issues while also keeping these emotional triggers in mind. As a result partners become better experts on each other and are more gracious and compassionate with one another.
These hidden issues, as difficult as they are, can be used as material to build a stronger and more stable relationship. In fact, they can give you the opportunity to learn about and understand your partner more.
To be used alongside of this is my workbook “Traveling Into Your Partner’s Inner World” which provides a series of questions and prompts to help you along the process of exploring each other.
- Steil, J. M., & Turetsky, B. A. (1987). Is equal better? The relationship between marital equality and psychological symptomatology. Applied Social Psychology Annual 7, pp. 73-97. ↩
- Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2013). What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal. New York: Simon & Schuster. ↩