Every relationship has its inevitable difficulties, and conflict goes with the territory. Sometimes remarried couples avoid conflict because it signified the end of their first marriage, or led to bitter disputes that never got resolved.
Conflict in a Stepfamily
Avoiding conflict backfires in intimate relationships. Bottling up negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t give your partner a chance to change their behavior. However, one of the secrets of a good second marriage is learning to choose battles wisely and to distinguish between petty issues and truly important ones.
It’s also important to communicate your concerns with a “win-win” solution in mind rather than trying to prove someone is right. For instance, Stephanie, 52, and Tim, 54, have been remarried for three years and they argue a lot about who does chores in their stepfamily. While Tim is committed to helping Susan raise her two teenage sons from her first marriage, he feels frustrated when they don’t clean their rooms or they leave dishes in the kitchen sink.
In their home, the “chore war” usually starts at 5:00 pm as Tim is returning home after working as a software engineer, and Colin and Tyler are struggling to do homework. Both boys have a tendency to resist following their stepfather’s directions to clean up.
Tim put it like this, “I didn’t raise my own three kids this way, they didn’t leave their crap around, and they made their own breakfast and did dishes. I think Susan spoils her boys because their dad expects them to do a lot of chores at his house on weekends. This co-parenting plan is supposed to be good for kids but I think my wife lets them off the hook. It’s starting to put a wedge between me and Susan, and our house is a mess.”
Susan reflects: “Tim is just too uptight about the house. It infuriates me that he’s so hard on my boys. He’s just going to have to relax his expectations of Colin and Tyler if we’re going to get along. I refuse to spend my days yelling at them. There’s too much tension in our home. Tim forgets what his kids were like as teenagers because it was a while ago.”
In this exchange, it’s clear that both Susan and Tim feel they must defend their positions. They both have a strong need to prove they’re right and have developed an unfortunate attack-defensive pattern of relating. It can happen in the most mundane of conversations in a stepfamily when the reality of joining two distinct worlds sets in.
For instance, you and your spouse are discussing chores, finances, or who will prepare dinner, and suddenly your partner says you (or your child) are not doing your share or living up to your end of the bargain. That’s when knee-jerk reactions are easy, and full-blown arguments typically follow.
At the beginning of their relationship, Susan and Tim were so elated to have discovered each other that they focused more on their similarities than differences. After a while, emotional baggage from their first marriages caused them to overreact to triggers (such as a messy house) and they started becoming more critical, defensive, and argumentative with each other. They lost sight of the loving feelings that brought them together in the first place. Also, Tim was prone to feeling like an outsider, a common issue for stepparents who feel excluded from family matters in a stepfamily or blended family.
However, conflict doesn’t mean the end of your remarriage and can actually make it stronger. There are always going to be disagreements and stepfamilies (and blended families) have complex issues. You cannot avoid them entirely. What you can do, however, is become skilled at recovering from disputes by talking about your perspectives afterward. You can learn how to have an effective recovery conversation. A general principle of recovering from conflict is to avoid focusing on being “right,” and to approach conflict with a collaborative versus an adversarial approach.
Stop Trying to Prove a Point and Make Repair Attempts
Second marriages can pose more challenges than first marriages, so it’s essential that remarried couples develop a “we’re in this together” mindset. When each partner asserts his or her position and differences are addressed and respected, a resolution is possible, and a partnership is formed. What matters most is preserving love and attachment and bouncing back after a dispute.
For example, a few hours after a heated argument, Tim approached Susan and offered her a hug and a brunch he prepared. While they ate, they had a calm recovery conversation which allowed them to process their earlier disagreement about Colin and Tyler’s refusal to do chores. Both of them owned their part in it, and expressed their views on how to deal with household responsibilities. Rather than rupturing the bond in their relationship, Tim’s repair attempt helped bring them closer.
3 Ways to Compromise During Conflict in Stepfamilies
- Use a “Gentle Start Up” during conflict. When tension is building in your relationship, be sure to use “I” statement rather than “You” statement to express how you feel and what you want your partner to change. According to Dr. John Gottman, you can manage conflict more effectively if you tell your partner any feelings you have about the issue you’re discussing, why you feel that way, and one thing you’d like to see change. Avoid statements that begin with “You,” such as “You always criticize me.”
- Establish common goals that you can agree on. Listen actively without making evaluative comments to your partner’s point of view. Validate their feelings and thoughts by saying something like, “I understand why you would feel frustrated with Tyler and Colin not doing their chores.” When your partner identifies an inflexible area of a need, ask for more clarification about why it’s important to them. Hopefully, by compromising you will come up with a win-win solution.
- Have arecovery conversation after an argument. This means that your focus after an argument needs to be on listening to your partner’s perspective, collaborating, building closeness, and diffusing negativity. Instead of pointing out your partner’s faults, focus on your common goals.
Practicing these three strategies will help you and your partner to manage conflicts effectively. Over time, it will become easier to repair disputes and to get back on track more quickly. If you find yourself stuck in feelings of anger and resentment, tell your partner what’s on your mind in a non-blameful way. For instance, say something like “I feel upset right now. I’d like to get back on track. Can we sit quietly on the couch and cuddle?” Most of the time, you’ll restore intimacy with your partner by using a team approach rather than trying to prove a point.