3 Things You Must Clarify to Keep Your Conflict Healthy

3 Things You Must Clarify to Keep Your Conflict Healthy

You already know how important it is to maintain peace with the Ex for your children's and step-children's sake.  

But, what about the conflict within your own home?  How well are you dealing with conflict in your current relationship?

Last week, Kim pointed us toward research that showed children living in low conflict environments adjust more successfully to adulthood than those in high conflict environments.  Managing conflict well within your home is just as important as managing conflict between and your Ex.

Stuck in Toxic Conflict

About ten years into our marriage, Kim and I experienced a very dark season.  We had just come out of a three year legal battle with her Ex which had taken its toll on our relationship.  Conflict within our home was erupting at every turn.  Annika (Kim's daughter) went from experiencing conflict between her divorced parents to being subjected to the conflict between Kim and me.  Facing the possibility of divorce, we knew something had to change.

You're probably experiencing conflict in your home too.  Maybe not at the same level that Kim and I faced during this difficult season, but conflict none the less.  The fact is, common stepfamily dynamics create pressures that separate us rather than draw us together.  That means we're going to experience conflict.

The key isn't to eradicate conflict.  (That's an unrealistic expectation.)  The key is to move from toxic conflict to healthy conflict.  

Here's three things you need to clarify in order to develop healthy conflict:

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Clarify Your Goals

You probably didn't enter your relationship thinking, "One of my goals is to make sure we can fight well!"  Conflict management isn't usually a top priority when we're falling in love.  But learning to 'fight well' is critical to healthy conflict.

There are three types of goals that promote healthy conflict:  Personal, Relational and Behavioral. 

Personal goals help you get clear on what you really want.  Here's some questions you can ask:

  • What do I want to feel during and after a conflict? 
  • What do I want my partner to experience from my words and actions? 
  • What do I want my kids and step-kids to learn from witnessing our conflict? 

Relational goals help you get clear on what you want for the relationships within your home.  Here's a few more questions:

  • How will the way I handle conflict reinforce trust?
  • How will my words and actions during conflict support connection with my partner?
  • How will I show my step-children that I'm committed to respecting their parent? 

Behavioral goals require one simple question.  Ask yourself:

  • If I have clarified my personal and relational goals for conflict, then how will I actually behave to make sure I reach those goals?

Take some time to answer these questions or others like them when you are feeling calm and connected.  Answer them for yourself and then talk with your partner to clarify your goals together.

Clarify Your Stories

You've heard the phrase 'love is blind'.  It's not true.  Love is actually just a really good story teller.  When couples are falling in love, they always want to believe the best about their partner so they tell the best stories:

  • "His house is just messy because he works so hard and doesn't have time."
  • "She wants to look good for me, it's ok that we're late sometimes because she's still getting ready."
  • "His little guy is kinda cute when he throws fits like that, I probably wouldn’t get after him either."

It doesn't take long for stories to change once we're living under the same roof and the euphoria of early love starts to wear off:

  • "He can't do anything around here…all he cares about is his work!"
  • "How can someone take so long to get ready…she doesn't even care that she's making us late!"
  • "His kid is such a little brat and he's too lazy to do anything about it!"

Our stories will impact our conflict.  They cause us to make assumptions about our partner's motives and judgements about their character.  Stories can help us overlook annoyances or stay stuck in frustration.  Stories are not reality…they're just stories.

Clarifying your stories means you need to look at the facts.  To clarify your stories, you need to get curious about what's really going on inside your partner.  Chances are he cares about more than just work, she isn't trying to make you late and he's not just a lazy parent.

The authors of Crucial Conversations call this "Master Your Stories".  You may want to check out their book to learn more.

Clarify Your Agreements

Disappointment is a result of unmet expectations.  When you are expecting something from your partner and you don't get what you expect — you experience disappointment.  That's a breed ground for conflict.

When it comes to the "business" of stepfamily life, you need to clarify your agreements.  Every step-couple has business to attend to that is separate from building a romantic relationship.  You are partners in raising all the kids.  You are partners in creating a peace filled home.  You are partners — and partnerships require agreements.

As you negotiate agreements about things like scheduling, parenting or chores consider asking:  Who will do What by When?  

Answering this simple question when you are doing "business" will keep your expectations realistic, reduce disappointment and keep you both on the same page.  

The Road to Healthy Conflict

Kim and I haven't eliminated conflict in our marriage.  We've just learned how to move from toxic conflict to healthy conflict.  You can too by clarifying your goals, your stories and your agreements.

QUESTION:  Which do you need to clarify today — your goals, stories or agreements?  Leave a comment below…

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