Managing the Flames of Conflict
“We are best friends and talk things out. If there’s a problem, we discuss it and come up with a solution together.” Tara – age 49
After a quick phone conversation confirming a location at a nearby café, Erin and Ron, who you met previously, agreed to meet me for a follow-up interview. As you might recall, theirs is an unusual love story since they were childhood sweethearts, drifted apart in college, and reconnected over social media after their subsequent marriages and divorces to others, and their unlikely reunion.
Erin reflects: “We’ve been married a couple of years now and when I saw you at the mall and you asked how we were doing, it was hard to keep it short. I’m so glad we could get together and explain what we’re going through with Tommy and Cole since we don’t want to let it pull us apart.”
During our interview, Ron was forthcoming about their recent problems related to raising Erin’s two teenage sons, who he referred to as good guys who are just plain lazy. The “chore war” usually started at 6:00 am as Ron was returning home after working third shift as a night auditor at a large resort hotel, and Tommy and Cole were struggling to get ready for the morning bus ride to their high school classes.
Ron says, “I just didn’t raise my two kids this way, they didn’t leave their crap around, and they made their own breakfast and did dishes. I think Erin spoils her boys because she feels bad that she initiated the divorce. I’m not trying to be their dad, but I can’t take much more of their disrespect and chaotic lives. It’s starting to put a wedge between me and Erin, and our house is a mess.”
With intensity in his voice, Ron explained that he raised two children who turned out to be successful adults and he feels justified in his complaints about his two stepsons’ behavior. On the other hand, Erin was laid off six months ago and says she doesn’t mind cleaning up and making breakfast for her sons.
Erin reflects: “After being a single mom for a few years, it’s nice to be home for a change and be able to nurture my boys – they’ve been through so much stress with the divorce. Ron is just too uptight about the house. He was never like that when we were dating in college, and he’s just going to have to learn to relax his expectations of my boys if we’re going to get along. I refuse to spend my days yelling at Tommy and Cole to pick up.”
To this Ron responds: “Why can’t Erin see that we need to teach Tommy and Cole a lesson about being accountable. They’ll grow up to be irresponsible adults who rely on others to get by. Maybe if she worked like I do she’d see that productivity depends a lot on being organized, and our home is a disaster waiting to happen.”
In this exchange, it’s clear that both Erin and Ron 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 remarried family. 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.
Conflict doesn’t mean the end of your remarriage, and can actually make it stronger. There are always going to be disagreements; you cannot avoid them entirely. What you can do, however, is become skilled at recovering from disputes by talking about your perspectives afterwards. In this chapter you will 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 rather than adversarial approach by avoiding trying to prove a point.
About the Author
Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist, author, and college instructor who specializes in counseling children, adults, couples, and families. Terry is the owner of movingpastdivorce.com and is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, TheGoodMenProject.com, The Gottman Institute Relationship Blog, DivorcedMoms.com, and DivorceMagazine.com. Terry’s award-winning book, Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship, was published in 2016 by Sourcebooks. Her book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in in 2020 and was the winner of American Book Fest’s 2020 Best Book Award in the category Self-Help: Relationships.