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Dealing with Hot Button Issues

When someone says or does something that drives you crazy, you may be dealing with a hot button issue. In this episode, we discuss insights to help you identify the deeper emotions that get triggered from hot button issues, understand why the issue is so important to you and learn how to resolve the conflict well.


Transcript

Chris Grace:

Hey, welcome to our podcast on The Art of Relationships, we're your hosts. I'm Chris Grace.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I'm Tim Muehlhoff, and were with the Biola University's Center for Marriage and Relationships, and we're here to talk all things relationships.

Chris Grace:

In today's episode, we want to talk about hot-button issues.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Hot-button issues.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, the things that drive us crazy. Like, the other day, I'm online and what do I do? I see that someone had spent a $150 ... a lot of money at a place nearby. Let's say, it's Marshall's, and I say, "Hey, Alisa. Is this you? Did you spend money? and she's like, the little bubble above her head says, "Of course, I did. What do you think you're seeing on our credit card?" And really, what I wasn't asking was, "Did you spend this money? Is this you?" instead of saying, "Wow! What's going on here? How come I didn't know about this big expense going on and now, all of a sudden, guess what happens?" We're not talking just about money being spent, we're talking about other things that a deeper level, all right? That are really there. Like, feelings like, "Wait a minute. We should talk about this. That's a big expense. How did you end up spending that one without talking to me?" and now, we're starting to tap into things like issues, values, security, being controlled, whatever it is.

Tim Muehlhoff:

And you don't need to be married to experience these hot-button issues. My goodness. Roommate situations are rife with these kind of hot-button issues. I remember, when I was Eastern Michigan University as an undergraduate, I had a roommate of mine, great guy, you would love him, just a great guy. He would unwrap something and just put it on the edge of the counter when the garbage can was right there. Chris, I would walk past it and see that wrapper and I wanted to hurt him. I'm like, "Dude, it is right there. All you got to do is lift it. There is even a little footy thing. You hit the foot thing, the top comes off. Just take and put it in."

 

His response was, one, "Wow! Dude, it's fine." That's interesting because ... I don't even know what to feel, to be honest with you. It was like emotional nails on a chalk board, every time I saw that.

 

We all have these hot buttons.

Chris Grace:

We do and they hit at the oddest times and then we can come up with some wacky conclusions. I would come home and the newspaper, for example, or the mail would be in the trash and I would say, first time, "Hey, Lise, would you not throw away the mail or the newspaper until I get the chance to read it." She says, "Of course. That would be great. No problem." Three weeks later, what happens? The mail and the newspaper is in the trash, and I come home and I go, "Well, that was weird. Hey, Lise." Then I have this conversation with her. "Alisa, would you mind not throwing away the newspaper and the mail?" She goes, "Oh, yeah. No problem." Three weeks later? It's back in the trash, and I'm thinking, either she's evil and is communicating something to me, which I know she's not, or we have something going on here that's starting to really begin to unpack this as time went on. Because you know what? We just didn't do it at that point.

 

This kind of went on for a little bit of time and eventually, one of the only ways that helped me not to figure, not to start going and thinking crazy wacky things about this person that I love was, it took some time to unpack what was really going on there. What was I feeling and why was I feeling this?

 

That's what we're going to talk about today. Listen, we are designed this way. We're designed and to recognize, in relationship, that there are going to be things like emotions and emotional struggles and conflicts. In fact, they're central things to marriages and all relationships, right? We have that. Fascinatingly, the mind and the heart and the soul are so good at recognizing emotions. There's something to them that I think is fascinating. We have been designed with over 42 muscles in our face and they are designed primarily to express emotions and convey them to other people. We have over 600 words in the English language just to describe emotions.

 

Our capacity for this is so great, but here's the problem, and this we're going to talk about today on this podcast. I want to get your opinion on this and hear more about it, but it goes like this. Some of us are really good at naming and knowing our emotions. We can kind of look at this, at least, it could say things about sometimes the way she's feeling or I might be able to express something but there are times in which I don't always know, I'm kind of lost, like you said, this roommate throwing that away. Why you felt that way is almost a mystery, right?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah.

Chris Grace:

One of the things that I want to talk about, what we're going to do today is talk a little bit about ways we can thin-slice, that is, the ways we can get at this issue or problem and see what really is going especially when we get that button that's triggered, that hot button. Somebody says something or does something and it hits us at a deep emotional level, we're not always paying attention to it, so what I want to do is maybe talk a little bit more about that, see if we can dive in to that because we believe, at the end of the day, that couples who are in conflict are going to be able to manage their conflict better, the better they are able to understand what we call thin-slice or pick out what is really happening in this conflict.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I might not know, by the way. I remember the Book of Proverbs says, "A person's emotions, their thoughts are like deep waters." To be honest, if you were to ask me to articulate the wrapper by the garbage, this is a wrapper, it's like a granola bar wrapper. What's the deal, right? That's an interesting question that I might not even be able to fully answer. There are things that make me mad within my marriage or even within the classroom. If you were to stop and say, "Hey, what's going on here?" be very hard for me sometimes to articulate it and I think that's the language thing you were bringing up.

 

Isn't it Goldman who talked about the EQ, the emotional quotient? Can you identify your emotions and do you have a vocabulary to express those emotions? Some of us don't do a great job.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, we don't or we just simply, that's not a common way to talk. When something happens, we just say, "Hey, would you not do that?" Or, "Hey, this really bugged me." We kind of use more general broad language, like, "You really ticked me off on this." Instead of looking at some these maybe more deeper ways and things that strike us that could be related to a very different thing that happened maybe early on.

 

I maybe dealt with this idea of respect or being valued or being heard. Instead, I say, "Hey, why would you throw that away?" when in reality, I'm feeling disrespected or unheard, for example. Here's the thing, one of the ways that we find that couples, when they deal with conflict, can do better in managing it is to gain insight and use that insight into what your spouse's deeper issue or what yours might be. That hot button that is really going on, gaining insight into that and then using that for developing greater empathy and compassion for that person and that becomes one of the tricks, or one of the ways we do to get to a deeper level of understanding. As you said, those wells that water runs deep, and in there, getting an understanding of that.

 

Here's the point. An argument or disagreement about some event, maybe it's the laundry, or the kids, it could be anything, about being late, are oftentimes fueled by things like, deep down is about being unloved. If we're arguing about the laundry, it sounds weird to say it's about feeling unloved, but in reality, that could be the very issue that we're dealing with, or feel insecure or you feel betrayed or you feel controlled.

Tim Muehlhoff:

In some ways, I could see this being used in inappropriate ways as a defense mechanism. For example, let's say, Noreen's upset ... lets take a wild hypothetical that I fold laundry. I'm folding laundry and Noreen is upset with how I'm folding the laundry. She feels like, again, I'm watching TV, I'm distracted, I'm not doing a great job, and Noreen says, "Honey, seriously, don't do it if you kind of do it like that." I said, "Noreen, I think this is a hot-button issue for you because I think, deep down inside, you feel unloved." and Noreen is like, "No, no. It's about the laundry. It's about the fact that I don't think that constitutes being folded in a way that's kind of productive. [inaudible 00:08:39] take the clothes and just throw them in the dresser.

 

I said, "No, honey. Trust me. I have a friend who's a psychologist. I do a podcast with him. This is going back to deep feelings of feeling unloved." That's kind of interesting to say. Is it a hot-button issue? Clearly, it is. I mean, this bothers her, but I might be using it to say, "See, this really isn't the crummy job I'm doing with the laundry. This is your hot-button issue." How do you navigate that?

Chris Grace:

Yes, it's interesting because we could use almost any insight or any tool, either defensively or offensively. We can go out and attack somebody with this very kind of thing and say, "Really, this is about this. This is isn't [inaudible 00:09:15]." Now you're kind of taking a step above her, it's almost condescending. It's almost like saying, "Oh, this is what you're feeling, isn't it?" That's never going to go over very well. I think maybe the other way to think about this is there are times in which you might want to use it this way, instead, to say, "Can I try and figure something out? Can I learn a little bit more?"

 

Remember, Paul in Philippians said, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit." But also, the Psalmist has said, "Search me, oh God, in all my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts." But then he said, "See if there be any hurtful way in me and lead me in the everlasting way." I think if we take this with the right approach and add it the one that says, "Okay, God. We're having some conflict in this area. I want to learn a little bit more about this person and help me to see from their world, from their perspective. What does this mean? What does the laundry mean? Why is it that important to Noreen? It must be something there." Maybe it makes her feel like there's something about this and you could say something to the fact of, "Noreen, can I just ask a little bit, what is it about this? Why does this bother you? Am I doing something and do you feel like maybe I'm not listening to you or that I'm being too flippant or I don't take care of this and that I don't value you or whatever it is?"

 

Really, it's kind of that attitude that we take, doesn't it? That approach.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, so if I'm hearing you correctly, this is how I'm interpreting it. I think it's okay for Noreen to be upset and feel like, "Honey, when you're watching TV and you're watching a game on TV an trying to fold the laundry, it sure seems like I'm getting half your attention and some of these laundry just is not folded." It's not the end of the world. It's just I don't think this right, the way to fold laundry. To me, that's not a hot-button issue.

 

A hot-button issue is Noreen looks at the laundry and feels deeply disrespected. Or for me, like lateness is just a hot-button issue for me. When students walk in late, or anybody walks in late, I find that deeply disrespectful. I have a friend of mine once kind of confront me on it. He said, "Listen, I get the promptness thing and I think, as a general role, promptness is really good, but man, what you're reading into their lateness is like a personal attack on you." To me, I think we just entered into realm of that's a hot-button issue.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, I think that's right, Tim. I think you have to make some decisions about places in which this is really going to be something that you want to make an issue of and something that you can say, "You know what? This really isn't the hill I want to die on." Knowing that is the better part of wisdom, and that is saying, "Okay, the laundry is there, I get it. Maybe, I just don't need to make a big deal of this." Somebody being late, okay, I get it, I understand and used to say, "This isn't the type." But then there are other situations in which what happens is I think this reason is when you start to realize your emotions are starting to show and come out in a variety of ways, that I think is very insightful and important information that God can use as a status and give you insight about your very soul, which, interestingly enough, guess what?

 

Close relationships, things like marriage, wow. It they are truly designed to make us holy, this is God's access to our very heart, very being and emotion can kind of point to that and say, "There is something here. What does it mean when somebody is late?" I think that could very well be some ways in which we can begin to learn how to transform and to become more like him by listening and being thoughtful about what that means when these come up, instead of ignoring them or blasting out with somebody.

 

The other thing about this is we sometimes don't realize when these come into play and we get this pointless arguing. We argue with our spouse about maybe who's more wasteful, who's more lenient, who's more cautious, who fold the laundry and who thinks more about this, when really, we're just missing something. We're missing something that's at work and in some of those, really subtle unconscious clue, so when I say this to Alisa, when I say, "Wow, who spent the money?" Or, "Did you spend money at wherever?" That kind of subtle cue I'm giving is, "Alisa, you're wrong, you're selfish, you spend." and she translate that as what? She translate that as, "Chris, I'm angry with you." Or that I'm angry with her or that I don't like her and that is what begins to push her buttons.

 

Really, in reality, it's very careful for us to tread in this area and use it in a way that helps us kind of gain insight to who we are, what we are like because many times, these are unfortunately not brought to the surface and discussed.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It's funny when you follow a hot-button down the rabbit-hole. I've only done this a couple times, to be honest with you, but I grew up and I think, your father was like this a little bit, and again, this is a different generation, but to say no to my father, to even say to my father, "Hey, I'll get to it." I mean, could you do that with your father?

Chris Grace:

There's no way.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Oh, my lord.

Chris Grace:

You jumped and did it.

Tim Muehlhoff:

The belt came out so fast, and to this day, I can be an adult in a hotel room, by myself, and hear the sound of that belt coming through my loops. I drop it. It's like a Vietnam flashback. I'm like, "Aaah!" My kids wouldn't jump when I said something. I mean, jump or even say no, or jokingly say no. Noreen said, "Honey, the reaction ... again, you're not your father and I don't think your dad was always the best model of the roles." That was like one of those epiphany moments. Like, "Wow, okay. This is a ten-dollar reaction to a nickel event and that was really helpful for me to kind of see ... and by the way, the kids should do what I say and they shouldn't say no, but for me to take it so personally, that they wanted to finish playing a video game and then do it, I just took that personally. I though that was a really important moment for me.

Chris Grace:

It is. Those are the moments that I think where we stop and pause and go, "Oh, okay. There is something here and there's more here to explore. I need to figure out what that is." One of the things you can do, is as you said, as you kind of dove down into that rabbit hole, is you begin to realize, "Ah, this is tied into a way in which I saw the world through my parents' eyes or the way in which something kind of shaped me early on or the way I kind of view things now." As you take a conflict and think about that, it is really important that you kind of start to look at what's the self message I'm being sent, that I'm hearing? What am I hearing about me in this? And then I think that's where Psalmist just said, "Try me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there's any hurtful way in me," because oftentimes, I could come out wrong.

 

Maybe this wasn't overreaction and I tend to do the same overreaction in this situation, as I do in my marriage as I do with the kids, and sometimes, even with my friends or my colleagues at work. This same kinds of things get put pushed in similar manner. Who breaks the tie?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Go back to you and Alisa, [inaudible 00:16:24] to my marriage. I think there's a lot of [inaudible 00:16:27] for you and Alisa.

Chris Grace:

It can cost a lot of money for you to go ahead at pre-therapy.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Go back to the newspapers. Who breaks the tie when a couple is at a stalemate? In other words, one spouse could say, "Hey, you reading into the newspaper thing, that's on you, because to read into that, that is honestly not my intent. That's mostly you and I think you sort of kind of need to get over it because, I'm telling you right now, don't read into what I'm doing because that is not my intent." Who breaks the stalemate?

Chris Grace:

I think this is exactly what we're challenged to do when we grow and we decide that we want to become more like Christ. We want to grow in this. I think in this particular situation, what is was is ... I would talk to Lise, I say, "Lise, can I just find out a little bit more?" I want to be curious and I kept an open mind. I did it when I wasn't upset, when this wasn't the case. We went out, we just talked and I just said, "You know, Lise. Let's talk about something. I'm not worried about, I'm upset about it right now so it's easier to talk but, when something happens, when the house gets a little bit messy, I notice something. I notice that you'll throw away things and is that right? Is there something about a messy house?"

 

She said, "Oh, Chris. You would not believe this. It is. This, for me, makes me feel out of control at times because I feel like I'm going to miss something. Like, we've got a kids' things to go to, we've got events to be at, we got people coming over, we got all these things going on and if the house is messy, it just feels like I'm not going to be able to maintain control of all these spinning plates." For her, it wasn't as if there was any intention or whatsoever. She just simply was trying to keep a place and under control and that's why she was ending up throwing this thing away. In doing so, I started to realize, I had a role in that, because just because I like a messy place or doesn't bother me at all, she would say these tend to bother her. I think what breaks the stalemate, a little bit, is helping see and begin to take the perspective of somebody else.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I was just going to say that. From a communication standpoint, we call that perspective-taking. What's funny is sometimes I do perspective-taking but I don't ask Noreen to be part of it. Let me tell you one that kind of just rubbed me. We had to work this out early in our marriage. I remember literally getting back from our honeymoon and Saturday comes. In my house, Saturday, you watch pro football. That's just what you do. College football and then pro on Sunday, and Monday night. I mean, come on, are we asking too much?

 

I'm sitting there and Noreen ... I got my table, I've got my chips, baked because I care about my body. I'm sitting there and Noreen walks by with work gloves on and she says to me, "Hey, what are you doing?" I said, "Honey, I'm watching football." She goes, "Oh." and walks outside and starts to do yard work.

 

Chris, I sat there and did perspective-taking but never brought her in on it. I'm sitting there, going, "Listen, I worked pretty hard this week. I absolutely worked hard this week. Why can't I sit and watch two football games? What's wrong with that?" I'm doing it and not thinking the best of her. To bring her in, we had one of these 'aha' moments and I just said, "Hey, I'm just curious. With your family, how do you spend the weekend?" She said, "Oh, it was really fun to watch my parents pick a project in the weekend and go do it." For her, that's kind of a sign of marital unity and blessing. I call it sickness.

 

It's not interesting. Two competing visions. For me, Saturday is a time of rest and Sunday is the Lord's day. You don't do work in the Lord's day, Chris. It's the Lord's day. I don't even turn the stations. I just use a remote. [inaudible 00:20:21] This is a conviction I have.

 

Two competing visions, we're both pushing each other's hot buttons and when you learn ... what I do now is when I watch those two games, I'd pray for Noreen. I said I just want her to feel my love without me having to get up.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, which is why we have you on this program, on this podcast, because your whole approach to marriage is something that needs fixing and people, I think, I'm sure our listeners are going to say, "Wow, at least I'm better." Here's what I want you to ...

Tim Muehlhoff:

I wonder what the nerds called.

Chris Grace:

Marriage from the couch.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think it could work.

Chris Grace:

And then, some titles would be like, "The Day the Batteries Wore Out" It's like, "Oh, dear Lord." What do you do then in this kind of situation, Tim? I think you guys started to identify that, right? All couples who are committed and make this commitment to each other say this, "Listen, at the end of the day, I want you to know that I have entered into something in which I vow to give you my best and I vow to look out for you and I vow to be and to show love and respect to you, and in so doing, here's what I want to do."

 

There's all kinds of solutions. You can say, "I'll tell you what, Noreen. Let's do this." And I'm sure that's what you guys had come up with is, "I'll do some yard work earlier on before the games."

Tim Muehlhoff:

And that word is compromise.

Chris Grace:

That's exactly it.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That will make a roommate relationship work. It will make a family reunion work and will make a marriage work. Compromise, I always say this to my kids, and it didn't go over well, in Latin, compromise means the middle way. If I was doing Saturday all by myself, this is how I would do Saturday. If Noreen was doing it, this is how she would do it, well, guess what? We're doing the middle way, which I think is great, to say, "Hey, why don't we do something before the game?" Or I always say to Noreen, "This is why God made halftime. Halftime is when we can do..." I think you're right, compromise is really important. Knowing how you're reading this, even though, I might think, "Boy, that's reading way too much into this." But knowing that it really sincerely bothers you, this is what Paul says, "Put the needs of another person above yourself." So, yeah.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, it's good. You can even do this even in areas in which you're maybe not dealing in conflict but maybe that you're dealing with, for example, just simple joys or the ways you experience fun things that maybe the spouse is a little bit different. Here's one for us. I love reading, For me, if you gave me a Saturday or a weekend and you said, "Man, you have 8-10 hours. You just got to go and pick a book and hang out and read." Ah, that would be heaven for me. While heaven for Alisa, where she actually, she would even say she feels closest to God is when she's out in nature taking a hike, or at the beach.

 

Those are very too competing ways, very positive events but we can sometimes be ... She's like, "Are you just going to stick around and read all day because ... " and I realize now that compromise is one of the things that has helped us in this. You know what we do now? One of the things we'll do is we'll pack up the beach chairs, we'll head down to the beach, she'll sit there and she'll just be in heaven. She'll just love sitting there, the surf, the smell, the people, the ocean, and I bring a book.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Does that work for you?

Chris Grace:

Well, it works because I can sit there and read and I feel like she's doing some things, but you know what? It's a compromise, because I'd rather be in a nice quiet place so that's one of the compromises.

Tim Muehlhoff:

And you get you get to see Alisa in a bathing suit.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, baby.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, baby, cowbell.

 

[inaudible 00:23:47] this comes up, Chris, that it just occurs to me and we maybe should do a whole podcast on this. If ever there was an issue that has hot-button issues written all over it and misinterpreting each other, it's in sexual intimacy.

Chris Grace:

It is, yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Because what man read into when a woman says, "Hey, I'm just tired tonight." or "Tonight's not a good night." or the fact that she doesn't initiate as much as I would want her to initiate, that I always have to initiate, this is where compromise and that perspective-taking really is going to come into play.

Chris Grace:

These are going to be two new podcasts that we're going to do soon and they're going to be on this. We're going to be one specifically on the area of sexual intimacy, the way in which we navigate this but within marriages, and then, in our culture, its views on sexual intimacy and its impact on relationships. Those will be in upcoming, but also in addition to that, we're going to talk at length in our next podcast on ... now that these issues are coming up, now that we're dealing or getting some insight into these things, or these begin to plague as how do we communicate? How do we bring it up? How do we talk? What are some ways in which we can do this, because, guess what? A lot of couples say. "There are just some areas, unfortunately, we don't talk about and we don't have good communication on."

Tim Muehlhoff:

Ten thousand communications scholars surveyed at the National Communication Association Conference saying, "What is the number one reason couples actually call it quits?" They can't communicate about these issues.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, and it's really sad.

 

Well, listen, we've enjoyed having you guys with us. Tim, thanks so much. We are really glad for just an opportunity to hang out with you guys. If this has been helpful for you and want to find more resources on marriage and relationships, visit our website at cmr.biola.edu, even to get weekly updates. Subscribe to our email newsletter at our website, again, cmr.biola.edu, and we'll see you next time.

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