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Hidden Issues: What Are You Really Arguing About?

Do you and your partner continue to have the same argument over and over again and seem to get nowhere, no matter how hard you try? For example, every night you get into an argument about who is going to take out the trash. What if maybe you really aren’t arguing over the trash being taken out? What if that is just a topic that represents a deeper, hidden issue, like who has more power in the relationship, or one or both partners feeling unappreciated by the other?

What are Hidden Issues?

Hidden issues represent unexpressed needs and feelings that partners are unable to talk about (Dattilio, 2009) due to things such as fear, uncertainty, and lack of trust and safety, to name a few. Individuals may not even be aware they have these needs and feelings under the surface. Some examples of hidden issues include control/power (Does one partner have more of it than the other?), acceptance (Do you feel like your partner accepts you for who you are?), and commitment (Do you feel secure in your relationship?). Oftentimes, these hidden issues come out in arguments about seemingly unrelated topics, like in the example given above.

Dr. John Gottman takes this idea a step further and says that when couples come to a gridlock on a specific issue, it is often due to the issue representing a hope or dream of some sort, a concept he calls dreams-within-conflict (Gottman, 1999). Each person becomes stuck in their position, unable to hear the other person’s perspective, because their stance represents a deeper meaning, or dream. For example, in a couple arguing over finances, one partner wants to spend their paycheck on large, expensive items because this represents success to them, something which was expected of them in their family growing up, while the other partner wants to save more, a position which represents safety and security, something which they did not experience as a child and vowed they would have as an adult.

How to Identify Hidden Issues

Hidden issues may exist when a couple continues to get stuck in the same argument over and over again with no movement from each other’s positions. Also, if the reaction seems out of proportion to the issue at hand, the argument may be about something deeper (Dattilio, 2009).

An important thing to consider is that this may be a perpetual issue, meaning that it will always be a part of your relationship without any solution (Gottman, 1999). According to Gottman, the goal is not to solve the problem, but to learn how to have productive conversation about the issue and be able to hear and validate each other’s perspective, possibly even coming to a compromise.

Couples therapy can be a great place to work on hidden issues. These types of conversations can often be difficult, and there needs to be trust and safety between partners in order for them to be effective, which a therapist can help you to build. A therapist can also help facilitate a conversation exploring each other’s positions on an issue in a way that is productive and helps you grow closer to and better understand your partner.


Dattilio, F. M. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy with couples and families: A comprehensive guide for clinicians. Guilford Press.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically-based marital therapy. WW Norton & Company.

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