Learning how to manage conflict and disagreements in a healthy way is vital for stepparents and their partners. Meeting anger with hostility (or vice versa) only continues to destroy trust and is also not a good example to set to the children about effective communication, how to manage big emotions or to resolve conflict. Sometimes, just changing how you try to communicate with the other side can help improve cooperation.
The reality is that there are varying levels of problems in every relationship as a result of differences in values, personality and lifestyle. Some of those relationships (and marriages) end because of those differences. The challenge for people that are separated and who have children (and for stepparents that join the party), is that they have to continue to find a way to work together or at least tolerate one another for the sake of the children. The grown ups involved have to try to shift from explosive arguments that lead to hurtful comments, anger and resentment, to more effective communication skills – other wise, let’s face it, life will be pretty miserable for both adults and the children alike!. Poor communication between parents and stepparents can also increased the chances of the children missing out on things because decisions cannot be made or cannot be made in a timely fashion.
Marriage expert, John Gottman, identified some specific patterns of behaviors that he reckons are divorce-causing and disastrous to having a long term, happy and healthy marriage. I think that these behaviours, described by Gottman as the “four horseman of the apocalypse”, are also very damaging to co-parenting relationships.
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse
Criticism:blaming or attacking the other parent’s personality or character (e.g. “You never help the children with their homework, you are so lazy and uncaring!”)
Contempt: speaking to your co-parent from a position of superiority by undermining or devaluing, which also includes negative body language, such as eye rolling, and hurtful sarcasm (e.g. “I’d never do that, you’re such an idiot!”)
Defensiveness: self-protection through playing the victim or self-justifying to defend against a perceived attack (e.g. “I wouldn’t have yelled and hung up the phone if you didn’t push my buttons first”)
Stonewalling: shutting down or withdrawing (emotionally) from the interaction (e.g. after a parent criticizes the other parent, the other parents refuses to respond to any text message or email asking for clarification of upcoming holiday arrangements).
Typically, we engage in criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling because we’re flooded by emotions. Something the other person did (or didn’t do) has gotten you upset. It is after all human nature to get angry or frustrated when something is important to us, and it’s either misheard, invalidated, or deemed unimportant by the other person. However, when you communicate by engaging in one of the four horsemen, the other person will usually respond to this negative behavior, rather than to the core issue that’s important to you and that you are seeking to have addressed.
THE THREE STEP-APPROACH
The next time you’re wanting to raise an issue with your child’s/step-child’s other parent, be mindful of any automatic harsh response, and try starting a gentler conversation, phrasing it by using the following three-step approach:
I FEEL… (name emotion)
ABOUT… (describe the situation that is creating the feeling, rather than describing the other person’s flaws)
I NEED… (describe how the other parent can address the problem and help you to feel better about the issue)
For example: I have two parents (who have been separated for 18 months) who are coming and seeing me in order to work on and improve their co-parenting relationship. Laundry, specifically the children’s laundry and who should do it, was the hot topic during their most recent consultation. The mother, who typically has the children in the weekends, has a more carefree attitude to life and parenting than does the father who has the children during the week and who (by mutual agreement) is primarily responsible for the children’s education. The children’s weekends with the mother are typically spent outdoors, foraging for mushrooms, playing in the dirt and riding horses. They return to the father’s care on Monday mornings before school, happy and relaxed with all their belongings, which generally includes a rather large bagful of dirty clothes.
On top of everything else he has to do, including helping the children with their homework, having to do loads of laundry at the beginning of the week to ensure the children have a clean uniform and clothes to wear, was making the father feel overwhelmed and burdened. On the other hand, the mother lived on a farm, has a less structured routine (due in part to it being the weekend), regularly lost track of time and encouraged the children to join her outside and engage with nature — neither side was right or wrong it’s just personal preference.
With encouragement, the father has been able to acknowledge it’s a difference in lifestyle rather than assuming the mother was doing it maliciously to push his buttons. Instead of just yelling, demanding, and criticizing the mother for the situation, (which both parents had already done) the father was supported to try a different, more softer approach. He said to the mother, “I feel annoyed when the children come home with all their clothes, dirty and needing to be washed. I feel like I can’t spend as much time with the children after work and school, helping them with their homework or just hanging out and reconnecting with them, because I am trying to get the washing done. I need you to please try to do just one load of washing on weekends they are with you, so that they at least have a clean school uniform to wear at the beginning of the week.”
The mother, to her credit, apologized. She also expressed her appreciation to the father for being so organised and for making sure the children got to school clean and tidy. She said that she would try.
Now we know that it is not always going to go that smoothly. But by not making it personal, by being able to talk about how he was feeling about the situation (as opposed to about the mother, personally) as well as clearly identifying what the mother could do to help, the father created space in which he and the mother could listen to one another without getting emotionally flooded and defensive. They were then able, together, talk about the problem at hand in a softer, more solution focused way.
As much as the words you use are important in getting your message across, it is also important to think about the timing of when you raise an issue or concern. At a changeover when everyone is rushed and trying to get kids buckled into carseats, in order to get to soccer on time, may not be the best time to raise the issue of school fees or press for an answer about whether you can take the kids to Canada this Christmas. You also don’t want to raise an important issue when you are frustrated or upset about something completely unrelated, say something that happened at work that day. In this way one of the simplest things you can do to try and avoid discussions with the other parent becoming heated is by being more conscious of how (and when) you start up a conversation.
Slow down your initial response. When an issue is raised you feel strongly about, more often than not your first response to something – the one from your “gut”, is usually the emotional and angry one. If you don’t say anything (immediately) you buy time to let that initial attacking reaction fade or pass.
It is always important to try to remain mindful of your tone of voice. Aim for a calm neutral tone which, trust us, takes a lot of practice, especially when you feel strongly about something, or are feeling annoyed, frustrated or even upset.
It’s also helpful to communicate a timeline of when you would like a response or for the action/behaviour to be completed, as well as what might be assumed if no response is received. For example, “If you could get back to me by the end of the week with your answer, that would be great. If I do not hear from you, I’ll assume that you are fine with me enrolling the children in band camp during the upcoming school holidays”.
Always take care to remember that no one is a mind reader, so you have to put your expectations out there, negotiate and agree upon them.
Your goal should be to try your best to stop engaging with the other parent/household with hurtful ways of communicating. You want to increase the positive interactions, remain open to influence, validate everyone’s experiences and, where possible, support each other in terms of parenting the children. It won’t always work out the way you want it to. It certainly won’t be easy. But ultimately, you all care about the children’s happiness and want to be involved and contribute to their upbringing. Trying to address parenting issues in a softer way that minimizes conflict, is one way you can help make life a little easier for everyone, including the children.