Shelley J Whitehead

What is a pseudo-issue?

16 December, 2022

When you’re in conflict with someone, do you ever get a sneaky suspicion that the subject you are arguing about isn’t the *real* problem? If you do, that might mean that  you are upset about a pseudo issue. 

Pseudo  issues often really get in the way of genuine connection and are big blockers of intimacy, so it’s helpful to keep a beady eye out for them in relationships! 

The first thing to know is that… pseudo issues tend to arise as a kind of fear response. They are ways of masking our deepest insecurities, as they help us stay distracted by something else rather than focusing on the issues that make us the most uncomfortable. 

One type of pseudo issue in relationships arises in the shape of triangulation. Triangulation is when a third person is brought into a relationship, often as a kind of distraction. 

An example of a  pseudo issue

I’m going to give you an example of a  pseudo issue, so you can start to get clarity on the traps associated with pseudo issues and, ultimately,  get below the surface to what is *really* going on…

I had a couple who I was working with in couples coaching. I’m going to call them Betty and Michael. This couple spent a lot of time talking about their issues with their young son Freddy who had been frequently getting into trouble at school. Betty felt that it was because Freddy wasn’t getting enough attention at home from Michael and would frequently berate Michael for not being present, both physically and emotionally and for spending too much time at work. Michael, on the other hand, expressed that he thought that Betty mollycoddled Freddy and had turned him into a spoilt child. In Michael’s eyes, the issue was that Freddy had been given unrealistic expectations about getting everything he wanted and that he needed to be given a bit of healthy grounding at school by not always getting his own way. Michael felt that the discipline of school was a good antidote to Betty’s overprotectiveness and would help Freddy to become a more rounded individual  and Betty was upset by the fact that Freddy was getting into difficult situations at school in the first place. Michael blamed Betty. Betty blamed Michael. And the more Betty accused Michael of causing the problem by not being around enough, the more Michael retreated into his work and avoided being at home. The more Michael said that Freddy should be disciplined at school, the more Betty felt inclined towards overprotection. They went round in circles, reinforcing the behaviour of the other. 

As I worked with this couple, it was clear to me that the issue in their marriage wasn’t Freddy. The real issue was their inability to communicate effectively with each other. They were both so stuck in defending their positions, that they were unable to communicate their underlying fears and insecurities and the fact that they had been drifting apart over the years. 

Freddy’s problems at school and the different approaches Betty and Michael had towards Freddy were a pseudo-issue. When we collectively started addressing some of the real problems in their marriage, things started to shift for them in a really positive way. As I worked with Betty and Michael in getting them to look at how they viewed support and how they had experienced this in their childhoods it became apparent that Michael had been put into boarding school when he was 6 years old and had to fend for himself. His mother had died from cancer when he was 5 years old and his father was consumed with grief. Betty’s mother had favoured her sister and Betty had never felt seen or heard. 

In their marriage Betty and Michael were doing the best they could with the knowledge that they had available on how to get their needs met, how to be in a relationship and how to parent but they were repeating their fears of the past and doing what their parents had done or the opposite of what their parents had done. 

So in our sessions together they became aware of their deepest longings and unmet needs and how to address their vulnerabilities instead of blaming one another. They learnt to dialogue differently so they both felt heard and understood. 

How to avoid arguing over a pseudo issue

If you want to avoid getting stuck in non-productive conflict about a pseudo issue, my advice is to that if you  find that you are often arguing and there is a particular issue that often comes up, ask yourself: 

  • What is it I really need, in order to feel better? 
  • What does this situation mean to me? 
  • What might be going on beneath the surface? 

The more you practise looking beneath the surface, at what’s really going on, the more you will find yourself able to confront the genuine challenges you have in expressing your needs and getting them met.   

It takes courage to look at real issues but it also brings great rewards! The rewards of being properly seen and heard and being able to express yourself: the rewards of genuine connection. 

Shelley J Whitehead


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