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This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles which aim to
your relationships. Benefitting from these articles depends on your
progress with self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 3.
This article describes three common
interpersonal stressors -
loyalty (priority) conflicts,
and relationship triangles.
It illustrates these using a courting couple's
disagreeing over child behavior
and discipline. These interrelated stressors occur in all social settings at all
levels (personal to national). They also occur between the dynamic
that comprise your
offer more perspective and practical resolution options for each
this article focuses on stepfamilies,
these ideas apply to all families and social groups.
This article assumes you're familiar with...
the intro to this ad-free Website and
Can you define a "values conflict," a
"loyalty conflict," and a "relationship triangle" out loud now?.
Most of my hundreds of
students and therapy clients could not do so. In my experience, typical
adults are unaware of...
these three common relationship
stressors and their effects,
how to identify them, and...
how to avoid and resolve each stressor effectively.
describe your family adults?
article overviews the first three of these. Other articles provide practical
options for avoiding and resolving each
Let's see these stressors in action:
Example - Arguing
About "Child Discipline"
follows is a composite of many real stepfamilies I've worked with. For
clarity, many factors are omitted. If you're not a stepfamily now and
don't expect to be in one, think of a stepfamily you know and keep them
in mind as you read.
Susan (33) divorced her first husband
Jason (36) about three years ago,
after 14 years of increasing frustration and dissatisfaction. When she was young, her father was often gone at
work and her mother had been inconsistent at setting behavioral and
scholastic limits and consequences for her and her two sisters. Sue now
teaches seventh graders at a local public school, and is the custodial
parent of Rick (13) and
was a "surprise" conception, and Molly was planned. After
Susan and Jason
separated, they had major trouble evolving a stable
and child visitations. Jason lives alone in an apartment about 15" away.
picks up both kids for weekend visits twice a month, and occasionally
for a mid-week dinner. His widowed mother maintains active contact with
Rick and Molly. Sue's parents live nearby, and her mother has often
watched the two kids since their parents separated.
(38) has never married or raised kids. He grew up in a blue-collar
second-generation home with a father who was rigid, vocal, critical and
demanding. His mother usually went along passively with the rules that
her husband set. Mark's father went to work at age 12 to help support
his family, and expected his son to "pull your share" of family
responsibilities without complaining.
Mark has two years of college, and
works as a systems analyst for a major corporation. He's dated
several other women over the last 20 years, one of whom had several kids
- but those relationships "just didn't work out."
Mark met Susan at work, and they have dated for seven months. They're
talking about his moving in with her and her kids. He now usually stays
with Susan on weekends that the kids are with their father. Jason
strongly disapproves of this, causing major
conflicts among the three co-parents, and anxiety in Rick and Molly. Mark has also spent time with
Sue and both kids at their home and on some weekend outings.
Neither Mark, Sue or their relatives consider the couple
+ her kids +
her ex, Jason + their relatives, as a "stepfamily," so
all the adults assume that the child-raising and other rules that worked
in their respective biofamilies should work well enough among
Sue, Jason, Mark, and the kids. None of the three co-parents or their
six parents grew up in a stepfamily, though Mark's mother dated several
men after her husband died from a stroke in his mid-40s.
the months, Mark has grown uncomfortable with...
the casual way Sue sets
limits for her kids without defining and enforcing consequences
(a values conflict), and that...
she seems to tolerate their ignoring her limits
(another values conflict).
He has become specially
bothered by Sue allowing her son to talk disrespectfully and
sarcastically to her (e.g. "That's a really stupid question, Mom.")
Until recently, he has kept quiet about these dislikes because he felt
"It's not my place to tell her how to raise her kids." However, his
frustrations are mounting, and he has begun to comment to Sue, like...
let your kids get away with murder;"
"You let your kids walk all over
"Why do you put up with having to ask your kids six times to
has begun telling Rick what to do without checking
with Sue first. For example, he chides the boy for hogging the
TV, dropping his clothes on the floor, and leaving snack-remains around
the house "because your mother has to clean up after you."
Rick complains to his Mom about this, saying "He's not my Dad - do I
have to (do what Mark says)?"
This puts Sue in the middle of a
Mark seems to
be more critical of, and reactive to, the boy's behavior, compared to
his sister. Mark has tried to compliment Rick at times ("Nice going on
acing your math test!"), but the boy just shrugs his praise off
without eye contact.
Another growing irritant is Rick's ignoring Mark when they first see
each other. He complains to Sue "Your son won't look at me,
and usually just grunts if I say 'Hey Rick, how'r you doing?' " Sue says
"Oh relax, Mark - he's just being a boy," leaving the
fledgling stepfather feeling unheard, disrespected, hurt,
and frustrated that she seems to condone her son's rude behavior.
This is a relationship
with Rick as "Persecutor," Mark
as "the Victim," and Sue as the "Rescuer."
Mark is also increasingly resentful that Sue's kids don't thank him after he
takes them all out for a meal, bowling, or a movie. When Mark complains about
this, Sue says "Your expectations are just unrealistic. You
know that kids don't even
thank their parents, right? Did you?" He again
feels unheard, second-best, and self-doubtful. Another divisive
triangle that the adults are unaware of.
None of these complaints (and responses) feel "major" to either partner
so far. Sue is beginning to feel Mark's criticisms of her son imply that
thinks she's a "bad mother," but she doesn't say this. Mark is feeling
unheard and disrespected by Sue, and is beginning to lose some respect
for her as a Mom. He finds it much safer to complain about Sue's
son than to openly criticize Sue for not providing effective discipline -
though that's what he really feels.
This is a typical stepfamily
courtship scenario. It shows the seeds of what can develop into
three simultaneous major couple and family stressors - specially if the
decide to cohabit.
The stressors are values and loyalty
conflicts, and Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer relationship
triangles. These occur in all families
and groups with or without kids.
As we explore each of these,
see if they describe dynamics in your past or present home and family...
1) Values Conflicts
YouTube video previews what you're about to read. The introduction
mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site: I've reduced that to seven..
values conflict occurs when two or more people have a significant difference of
opinion, preference, priority, or perception. There are no absolute right solutions to these clashes - just
differences. All people experience internal and social values conflicts as life unfolds.
They range from trivial to destructive. No one is wrong or bad when they
In this typical courtship stepfamily, Sue and Mark are beginning to
experience a set of inevitable values conflicts over child discipline and other
respect and obey their parents without debate
Kids should be taught to
acknowledge guests courteously each time they meet
Kids should want
to express gratitude when someone does something nice
Kids should be firmly taught
to pick up after themselves at home
respect and honor men's needs and opinions
In most conflicts involving her
kids, Sue should
side with him as her primary partner,
except in emergencies
man of the house should set the major rules and
consequences, and that he is becoming that man
Stepfamilies are not much
different than intact biofamilies. Standard rules about
discipline are usually good enough
Some degree of
backtalk and sarcasm from kids is normal and acceptable
Minor kids ignoring family guests
is normal - they'll learn courtesy eventually
providing nice things for their kids, and shouldn't need
Kids are forgetful and messy
by nature, and will gradually learn to value neatness
Men and women
should respect and honor each other's needs and opinions
Each conflict Mark
about her kids should be handled individually.
accept that at times her kids come first with her
should set the main rules and consequences in their home,
and suitors should respect that
Stepfamilies are unique in
ways that deserve study and discussion after
commitment - including agreeing on child discipline.
this courting couple doesn't intentionally acknowledge each of these
(and other) normal values conflicts, and seek mutually-acceptable compromises or agree to disagree; they risk increasing hurts,
resentments, frustrations, distrusts, and disrespects - i.e. a decaying
They also risk subjecting Sue's kids to chronic
double messages, which can promote
confusion, frustration, irritation, withdrawal, sullenness,
Finally, the couple may also may deprive each child from learning how to spot,
discuss, and resolve values conflicts effectively in their own lives.
don't already know how to resolve values conflicts, courting co-parents (and
any ex mates like Jason here) need to
mutually acknowledge their stepfamily
agree on what that
- e.g. that they'll have to spot and cope with many complex
values conflicts for years as they slowly
When values conflicts occur, the ideal solution is...
admit "we have a values conflict," without
shame, guilt, or blame;
clearly identify each person's value or
priority (like the table above);
avoid trying to "be right," and
the other person to change their values to yours,
agree to disagree, and seek viable
compromises as teammates with common goals.
How does this compare with how you react to
values conflicts? Unwillingness or inability to follow these guidelines
suggests that a false self controls one or more people - which becomes the
Check: Could you explain and illustrate a values conflict to
an average pre-teen now? Can you name several values conflicts among
your family members? How are they being handled? Do you think average
adults are aware of these universal stressors and what to do about them?
For more perspective on values conflicts and options for
resolving them, study thisafter you finish this article. To
discover how your family members handle values conflicts now, use
this worksheet after you finish
A special kind of values conflict is...
2) Loyalty Conflicts
Various values conflicts will cause this young
stepfamily another stressor that is potentially lethal to
Mark and Susan's relationship -
All human groups experience these priority or inclusion/exclusion
choices and their effects. They're specially common and emotionally complex
Loyalty conflicts occur whenan adult or child feels they must choose sides between two
or more conflicted people they value. Choosing either person risks hurting and being resented by the
unchosen one/s. Not choosing may upset everyone!
In this example, a loyalty conflict occurs as Mark semi-consciously expects Sue
to side with him in most disputes over her kids' behaviors and her disciplinary
style. Sue doesn't agree - a values conflict. Like most courting co-parent
couples, neither partner has clearly asserted
and discussed their needs and values (the table above) to their
partner to avoid potentially unpleasant disputes and marring their courtship
Each time Sue seems
to ignore, discount, or refute Mark's criticism of either child ("You
don't do anything about Rickie's whining and complaining or Molly's lousy
table manners.") or his
"suggestions" about effective parenting ("You need to give the kids
consequences for breaking the rules, and then follow up!"), he accumulates another hurt
from feeling he
comes second to the kids with Sue. At times he also resents Sue
putting her ex Jason's needs and opinions above his, and justifying or minimizing his discomfort
("After all, you're supposed to be the adult here, Mark.")
The common other half of the loyalty-conflict stressor is beginning to
manifest with Sue - feeling criticized by Mark as a mom, and like"I'm always
in the middle between Mark and someone. I don't like having to choose
people I care about!"
If this courting couple doesn't
decide to evolve an acceptable strategy to avoid or resolve their (inevitable) loyalty conflicts together, each partner will grow
increasingly discontented, frustrated, or numb - and the kids will
probably take advantage of the strife.
Note that in blended ("complex") stepfamilies where each partner has one or more prior
kids, it's often easier for both parents to empathize with the other
stepparent's feelings. That's often not so in "simple" stepfamilies like this one, where the
bioparent doesn't have a stepparent role.
As exasperation over unresolved values and loyalty conflicts grows, the kids
are apt to feel increasingly insecure.
They will repeatedly test to see who's
really in charge
of their custodial home.
They naturally expect their Mom to side with them in conflicts with Mark.
Having little knowledge of stepfamily realities and dynamics, Sue's relatives,
her ex husband
Jason, and her key supporters probably expect the same.
This YouTube video previews what you're about to read.
The best solution to
typical loyalty conflicts in anyfamilyis for the adults
involved to (a) admit them
without blame or guilt, and (b) seek acceptable compromises as partners
When no acceptable compromises appear, the next best solution is for the bioparent in the middle (Sue,
here) to accept that by putting her partner's needs and opinions ahead of
her kids' often enough (except in emergencies),
she's really putting her
kids' long-term needs first by nurturing the couple's relationship and
guarding the kids against another traumatic family breakup.
This solution is
most attainable if all co-parents are usually
guided by their
true Selves, and know how to use these communication
skills. This seems rare in our current society. In my clinical
experience, many widowed or
bioparents like Sue are unable to genuinely rank their new partner's needs first often
enough because of unacknowledged psychological
about their kids' pain and deprivations + uninformed social pressures.
Eventually the stepparent wearies of feeling less important to their
partner than other people, and/or the bioparent tires of having to choose,
and feeling anxious, guilty, and frustrated. Result: the couple compensates by an
addiction, "numbing out," denial, getting sick and/or depressed,
and/or over-working. These add relationship stress, and promote
psychological and legal (re)divorce.
Loyalty clashes involving kids differ from other values conflicts in that there is
an absolute best couple solution (in my opinion): when viable compromises
aren't found, partners must adopt a long-term outlook (e.g. the next 30
years), honestly examine their true priorities, and
agree to usually put...
all else third - even if that hurts, disappoints, or frustrates kids
and/or other people.
The rationale for this scheme is protecting
the couple's relationship, and guarding their minor kids against
another set of divorce losses.
Loyalty conflicts between
ex mates and
stepsiblings are not so simple.
Courting couples usually have high tolerances for loyalty disputes. If Mark and Sue commit to each other and/or have one or more "ours"
kids, that will probably amplify existing conflicts and create major new
ones: Mark's stepkids will feel hurt and resentful if he seems to
prefer their new half-sibling over them, which is primal and natural.
conflicts, Mark is "in the middle," and Sue also may resent his
favoring the new child over her older children, even though she
"understands it." This is specially likely if she is controlled by
and/or was ambivalent about two more decades of maternal responsibilities
If Rick and Molly's biofather Jason seriously dates or commits to a new partner (a
potential stepmother), that couple will experience their own loyalty conflicts -
specially if the woman has prior kids too.
Reality Check: can you
describe and illustrate a loyalty (or priority) conflict to an
average pre-teen now? Could your other family adults? Can you describe how
your family usually handles them?
Read and discuss these
articles for more perspective on
avoiding and effectively resolving loyalty conflicts
when you finish this.
In addition to their dynamic mix of values and loyalty conflicts, most
family members like Sue, Mark, Jason, and the kids
will be steadily stressed by an endless variety of...
This brief YouTube clip previews what you're about to read:
All social groups struggle with a universal dynamic described in 1968 by Dr. Steven Karpman.
He proposed that in conflictual group situations, three or more group
members unconsciously adopt one of
three roles: a
causes a Victim significant discomfort, which triggers a
Rescuer to protect the Victim against the Persecutor. In our example,
Mark is the Persecutor, criticizing Sue's son Rickie (the
Victim), causing Sue (in the middle) to side with (Rescue) her son.
As unresolved home and family PVR triangles accumulate, they promote growing
guilts, confusions, distrusts,
anger. These are usually compounded by concurrent loyalty
and values conflicts.
usually polarize other group (family)
members into more loyalty disputes and triangles. This growing stress
inexorably lowers the family's
which inhibits adult
dependent and future kids. Typically no one is aware this is happening.
For example, seeing Mark as critical of her daughter's parenting and her
grandkids' behaviors, Sue's mother can criticize or reject (Persecute) Mark
(the Victim) causing Sue to "Rescue" (defend) Mark ("Mom, he's never raised
kids before, and doesn't really understand yet.")
Molly can feel protective of her brother Rick, and defend him against Mark
when "Mom's boyfriend is so mean." Or Rick can feel like protecting his
mother Sue if it seems that Mark is attacking or disrespecting her. Or
biofather Jason can attack (persecute) Mark (the Victim) for "interfering in
our family when no one asked him to," causing Sue to defend (rescue) Mark.
Values and loyalty conflicts and related triangles usually occur in
groups, causing increasing stress unless the adults learn how to avoid or
separate and cope with them one or two at a time. Do the adults in your
family know how to do that yet? Who's responsible for showing them how?
Tailor these steps to fit your situation: The ideal family solution isfor all
involved adults (including relatives) to...
understand and expect (vs. deny,
ignore, or minimize) many values and loyalty conflicts and triangles;
identify values and loyalty conflicts and
resolve them separately (above);.
admit your triangles honestly. Then identify
(a) who is in each of the three P-V-R roles without blame, and
(b) what each person needs;
Use the Lesson-2
communication skills cooperatively to fill each person's needs well enough (problem-solve).
Common lose-lose-lose alternatives are fighting, arguing, debating,
lecturing, avoiding, attacking, blaming, denying, manipulating, whining,
placating, and punishing.
Do you know any family adults
that can describe and use these steps? Difficulty doing the steps usually
means one or more people are
unaware and dominated by false selves.
For more perspective on relationship triangles and how to avoid
and diffuse them, read, discuss, and apply
these ideas after you finish this
article Then teach
other family adults and older kids what you learn. For "extra
credit," then teach co-workers, neighbors, and church and
support-group members too!
Pause, breathe, and note with interest what you're thinking and feeling now. Then
recall why you're reading this article. Then think of your childhood and/or present
family. Can you identify significant values and loyalty conflicts and PVR
triangles now, and how they have affected you all? Did or do your family adults
know how to identify these stressors and what to do with them? Who's responsible for teaching them?
This article outlines three common stressors that may be
significantly affecting your relationships -
and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. It defines and
illustrates each of these surface stressors with a courting couple based on
hundreds of real-life families. The article then proposes three core
problems causing these stressors:
wounds in one or more