Your blended family will have conflict

Blended family living is an environment rich with emotion and conflict. Conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship. Learning how to deal with conflict, rather than trying to avoid it, is crucial to a successful blended family. Mismanaged, conflict can cause harm to a relationship; when it is handled in a respectful, positive way, conflict can provide an opportunity to strengthen the bonds between people. Effective conflict resolution can help build strong blended family relationships, and keep them strong and growing.

Understanding conflict in relationships

Conflict arises from differences, both large and small. No two people can expect to agree on everything, all the time, much less husband and wife, step parents, step kids and step siblings, not to mention ex-spouses and the entire collection of extended step family members! Conflict occurs when people disagree over values, motivations, ideas, desires, or perceptions. Sometimes these differences trigger strong emotions, suggesting that a deep personal need is at the core of the problem. In the typical blended family, conflict may signal a need to feel safe and secure, a need to feel respected and valued, or a need for greater closeness and intimacy.

Conflicts arise from differing needs

Everyone needs to feel understood, nurtured, and supported, but how these needs are met can vary widely among blended family members. What feels comfortable and safe for one can be very different for another. The lack of understanding about differing needs can result in distancing, arguments, and break-ups. When you recognize and empathize with conflicting needs, you open pathways to creative problem solving, team building, and improved step family relationships.

Conflict 101

A conflict is more than just a disagreement. It is a situation in which at least one of the parties feels threatened, distanced, or wronged in some way.  Conflicts tend to fester if ignored, and stay with us until we face and resolve them. We generally respond to conflicts based on our own limited perceptions of the situation, influenced by our life experiences, culture, values, and beliefs. Conflicts trigger strong emotions. People who are uncomfortable with their emotions or unable to manage them in times of stress find resolving conflict difficult.

Do you fear conflict?

If your perception of conflict relies on painful memories from childhood or prior unhealthy relationships, you probably expect all disagreements to end badly. You may see conflict in a family relationship as dangerous, demoralizing, or something to fear. If you view conflict as dangerous, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you are already intimidated by the idea of conflict, it can be hard to focus on the problem at hand without in shutting down or exploding in anger.

Healthy ways to manage conflict

  • Face conflict head on with a goal toward resolution rather than who is right or wrong
  • Recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other person
  • React calmly, respectfully, and without being defensive
  • Be ready to forgive and forget
  • Seek compromise without being punishing

Unhealthy responses to conflict

  • Avoidance of conflict
  • Explosive, angry, hurtful, resentful reactions
  • Withdrawing love, rejecting, shaming, isolating
  • Inability to compromise or see another point of view

Skills for resolving conflict

  • Manage stress quickly while remaining alert and calm. When you are calm you more accurately read and interpret what is being said.
  • Control your emotions and behavior. When you control your emotions, you are less threatening, frightening, or punishing to others.
  • Pay attention to both feelings and the spoken words of others.
  • Be respectful and aware of differences. By avoiding disrespectful words and actions, you can almost always resolve a problem faster.
  • Learn to quickly reduce stress in the moment and remain comfortable enough with your emotions to be constructive, even in the middle of an argument or a perceived attack.
  • Learn to know when to agree to disagree.

Some blended family conflicts require outside help, and help with conflict resolution is available from many sources, including The Blended and Step Family Resource Center. Conflicts are an opportunity for growth. When you and your blended family members are able to resolve conflict successfully, it builds trust. If you and your blended family members can feel secure knowing your relationships can survive challenges and disagreements, conflicts lose their power to intimidate.