Whenever a family blends, conflicts are inevitable. Conflict converges around the new people who will be living together as well as the old family structure that the new one must be built around. How these conflicts are resolved will determine the success or failure of the stepfamily.
Why is there so much conflict in stepfamilies?
Conflict is more common in stepfamilies for a number of reasons:
A) You’re taking already developed people who are accustomed to two different ecosystems and two different styles of living and trying to merge them under the same roof.
B) The lack of biological ties can make everyone more suspicious of one another. This means there’s less leeway for mistakes before everyone becomes insecure and jumps into defensive mode and starts lashing out at the other person.
C) The lack of a shared history also means there’s less affection and less of a bond to fall back on.
D) There are typically exes and another family opposite to you who may insert themselves into the equation or even openly try to sabotage whatever you do.
E) Commitments toward the original family (alimony, child support, time spent managing custody exchanges, and so on) often become a source of bitterness and contention, especially in families with limited resources, which are most families.
F) Children of divorce are often damaged and scarred by the experience, which makes them harder to handle and more prone to discipline or psychological problems. They may even try to sabotage your new marriage.
G) Stepfamilies create a complex web of loyalty issues. This can result in what psychologists refer to as conflict triangles: A biological parent may feel torn between the needs of their children and the needs of their spouse.
H) It’s hard to share children. Transitions and custody exchanges are a hassle, and differences in opinion are bound to crop up.
These factors can combine to create conflict both within the family and surrounding it. Stepfamily conflict is the stuff of legend. It is filled with stories of murder threats made by family or allegations of child abuse from ex-wives. It is filled with parents who intentionally sabotage the parenting efforts in the other household and stepchildren who act more like step demons. One judge, who had worked both in family court and with violent criminals, stated that he was far more in fear of his safety when dealing with divorce cases than murder cases. (add ref) This is the type of heated environment you’re walking into.
Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman note that “The two major areas of warfare between exes are financial differences and child-related frustrations.” (1993, p. 134) These seem to be sharply divided by gender: Men by and large are more concerned with money issues, while females bicker more about stuff related to the children. The good news is that if the family can stay in tact, most of these problems will work themselves out within the first few years.
Resolving stepfamily conflict
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