Is This a Pebble or a Boulder?

Not Understanding the Weight of an Issue Can Come Across as Dismissive and Uncaring

Mentors can help couples by asking them if a particular issue is a pebble or a boulder. They may have different perspectives. One person may see an issue as not very important and the other may see it as very harmful. In our conflict management training, we cover how you can ask about important an issue is.

Let me give you an example.

Megan and Ryan were becoming more distanced and detached. Megan was not a very confrontational person and it was difficult for her to bring up issues to Ryan. One day, after much thought, she told Ryan that she would like more non-sexual touch.

Ryan got was she was saying, but he didn’t understand the importance of it to her. The next day, he came up and said, “You wanted more non-sexual touch, here it is.” Then, he swatted her on the butt.

Megan was hurt. She felt that he was making fun of her and dismissing her. Ryan didn’t understand her reaction.

See, Megan had handed Ryan a boulder and Ryan treated it like a pebble. This issue was very important to her and Ryan made light of it. (You can joke about a pebble, but you can’t joke about a boulder.)

Their perspectives of the importance and weight of the issue were very different. I don’t think that Ryan meant to be mean. He didn’t realize that this was such a weighty issue for Megan. It caused Megan to become more convinced that Ryan didn’t really care for her.

When you are working with a couple, help them to understand how important an issue is to each other. We often ask, “Is this a pebble or a boulder?” Then, we explore the consequences of the action.

One time, Michelle and I were in a fight. Michelle shouted, “I don’t respect you.”

It was at a time in my life where I owned a business that wasn’t doing well and I was struggling with my own worth. I heard, “I don’t respect you. I don’t support you. You are incompetent. You are a loser.”

I was deeply hurt. When she said that it felt like the one person that I thought would support me was turning on me. Since I didn’t want to hear any more about how she didn’t respect me, I didn’t tell her my feelings. I kept that weight inside and it built up resentment.

A year later she told me, “I really respect you.”

My response was, “When did that change?”

She was surprised. She didn’t know what I was talking about. We finally had a lengthy discussion on how I had been feeling for a year. She barely remembered our earlier argument. Michelle immediately apologized. She didn’t really mean what she said when she was angry.

I carried that weight around for a year, hurting inside. If I had only told her how I felt, she would have apologized and corrected my misunderstanding. I need to own that I made it worse by not expressing how I felt. I put myself through a great deal of unnecessary pain.

Michelle threw a pebble and I caught it as a boulder.

Couples often have different perspectives of the weight of an issue. Is it a pebble or a boulder?

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Help couples to express how “weighty” an issue is – We often ask them to clarify how important something is.
  • Clarify the intent – Ask couples to clarify their intent. Misunderstandings can happen when couples read into their partners actions. Our reactions can come across as very dismissive or that we don’t care. It doesn’t mean that your spouse has poor intent.
  • Explore the trigger – Big issues are often triggered by deeper emotions. What’s making something such a big issue? Is there a deep insecurity that this is touching on?