It seems as though with each passing year, the world gets busier and busier. New apps abound, “fresh” TV content is always available, and then there’s the crazy-making political landscape, which can be wholly consuming. This is all in addition to the nuances of daily life, which might include work and/or school obligations, meal preparation, exercise routines, childrearing, pet care, and relationship maintenance. And armed with my years of experience as a couples therapist, I can confidently say that when the going gets tough, the couple relationship is often one of the first aspects of daily life to suffer.
Acute cases of relationship distress (such as that which often accompanies the birth of a child) can often be managed successfully if the couple has a close bond and a basic foundation of trust and friendship. Chronic distress, however, typically portends the advent of significant relationship issues. When couples put their relationship on the back burner, their overall dissatisfaction may manifest in a variety of ways. Perhaps one of the most common maladaptive coping mechanisms is establishing one or more red herring issues and focusing on them relentlessly, to the detriment of the relationship.
In the event that you’ve never heard of a red herring, what’s most important to know is that it doesn’t exist. Originally, herring (that were not actually red in nature) were used to throw wolves off of a scent, and so were conceptualized as distracting or misleading targets. Adapting that to the couple relationship, red herring issues are ones that seem important—tantamount even—to the success of the relationship, when in fact, they are only tangentially related to the fundamental problems undergirding the partners’ dissatisfaction. They also serve a key function in helping partners avoid the true issue(s) at hand. Example red herring topics might range from management of household chores to hobbies, opposite-sex friendships, each partner’s preferred extracurricular activities…and everything in-between.
What’s most critical to realize about red herring issues is that they inherently distract from true underlying ones. For example, a person yells at their partner about not doing the dishes when what they really want to say is, “I’m overwhelmed by everything that we have going on and I’m sad that we haven’t been able to spend much time together lately. I feel disconnected and I miss you.” Unfortunately, all that the partner on the receiving end hears is a complaint about the dishes and responds in kind, further cementing the wedge between them.
In order to stop chasing the red herrings in your relationship, it’s necessary that you first protect the time and energy required to carefully reflect on what they may be. This can be difficult work, so the support of a couples therapist is often both critical and invaluable here. Next, uncover the core underlying issues at play, as well as the thoughts and emotions associated with them. Ask yourself, “What is this really about?” and perhaps examine your role in its development and maintenance. Keep in mind the importance of a soft approach. Having an open and honest conversation with a partner about latent issues—particularly after an extended period of time avoiding them—can be extremely challenging. Thus, a mediated, safe space is often very important in unpacking and resolving whatever they may be. Finally, work to understand and empathize with your partner, while simultaneously working collaboratively to create solutions to core concerns. One of the key tasks at this point may be re-establishing a basic level of friendship and trust.
Left unattended, red herring issues have the potential to foster a slew of negative emotions, including loneliness, hurt, distrust, resentment, criticism, and contempt. If you are feeling dissatisfied in your relationship, take a moment to slow down and identify what’s happening for you underneath your anger and frustration. In doing so, you begin the process of reconnecting with your partner in a meaningful way.
Shy Porter, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office. Call 240-752-7650, or email firstname.lastname@example.org today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Shy.