Loyalty conflict resolution options, continued...

The Web address of this page is https://sfhelp.org/fam/lc_sf.htm

Updated  3-16-2015

  More Options for Divorcing Families and Stepfamilies

      Recently, it's estimated that over half of American biological families divorce legally or psychologically. My research as a family-systems therapist for 36 years suggests five reasons for this personal and cultural tragedy. Few average people can describe them. Can you?


      Loyalty (and other) conflicts in typical divorcing families and step families are significantly more frequent, complex, and stressful than in intact biofamilies because...

  • divorce suggests that mates and their family members are significantly wounded and unaware - and most stepfamilies evolve after one or more divorces (vs. mate death);

  • divorced parents may be hostile and distrustful of each other for months or years, and are forced to relate because of their kids. Effective co-parenting may be hindered by up to nine relationship barriers they don 't know how to resolve. This promotes major conflicts and relationship triangles among ex mates, kids, relatives, and supporters.

  • the multi-year process of  divorce inevitably creates major losses (broken bonds) for all adults and kids. Paradoxically, forming a stepfamily creates more significant losses for most members. Can you name some?

  • Wounded, unaware people often have trouble admitting and grieving their losses well. This promotes relationship conflicts and triangles

  • Typical dating single parents must choose - often - "Who comes first with me - my child, or my new mate?" Non-step people often can't empathize with the agony of this (usually unexpected) forced choice. Grandparents must prioritize loyalties between new and former in-laws and bio and step kids and grandkids.

  • Children in  divorcing families must often choose which bioparent to side with. When either or both parents find a new partner, kids must choose between two bioparents and a new stepparent - or between biosiblings and stepsiblings. This creates webs of overlapping loyalty conflicts and triangles.

  • Typical stepfamilies are composed of more people than intact biofamilies. They evolve from merging three or more unrelated multi-generational biofamilies with different values, traditions, and customs. New stepfamily adults and kids have ~30 adjustment tasks to master that biofamily adults don't face. Negotiating them guarantees major conflicts and triangles among adults and kids.

  • Normal stepfamilies may have to 15 alien new roles to define and stabilize - usually without informed, empathic help. This promotes overlapping conflicts and triangles among all family members.

      And loyalty conflicts are more stressful because...

  • Wounded, unaware adults and kids often deny, minimize, or reject their identity as a normal stepfamily. This fosters unrealistic expectations, conflicts, and triangles.

      How many divorcing and remarrying adults and their relatives do you think could clearly explain what you just read? How many mental health pro's, including clergy? Understanding these and related factors is essential in wise divorce planning and avoiding significant family stress and heartache!

      When workable compromises aren't found and stepfamily mates don't consistently rank their primary relationship second (after wholistic health and personal integrity), loyalty conflicts, triangles, and other factors undermine their family relationships and bonding over time. This promotes a low family-nurturance level (dysfunction) and psychological and legal re/divorce trauma.

      Typically, this is because stepparents weary of feeling second-place or lower to their stepkids and/or their spouse's ex mate. Conversely, bioparents tire of feeling endlessly in the middle of lose-lose stepfamily impasses. Without an effective strategy to prevent and resolve loyalty conflicts and triangles, mates lose hope of positive change, and begin to drift apart.

       Let's review some realities about typical divorcing and step family loyalty or priority clashes before seeing how to avoid and resolve them.


      Loyalty conflicts are built in to the structure of typical multi-home divorcing families and stepfamilies. When they happen, no one is "wrong" or "bad"!

      Courtship experiences are usually not a reliable guide to the frequency, nature, and outcomes of typical loyalty conflicts and associated triangles. Major conflicts often start to bloom around cohabiting, and/or commitment announcement and ceremony. Or they may first start to appear when a courting couple takes their first vacation or has their first group holiday celebration with their stepkids and kinfolk.

      Starting in courtship, stepfamily bioparents must choose often who's needs are more important to them at the moment. "Choosing not to choose" is not an option, for it leaves all people feeling unclear and undervalued. Because this is often an agonizing reality to accept, many bioparents are creative in finding ways to avoid it.

      Stepparents have a right to ask their bioparent-mates to choose between "siding with" (supporting) them vs. their biochild, ex mate, or ex-mate's kin. Insecure stepparents who are confused in their family role can feel painfully guilty ("it's my fault - I am being selfish in forcing my mate to choose...")

      if their mate accuses them of being "selfish" or "childish" in complaining about feeling "second place." Wounded stepparents from low-nurturance (traumatizing) childhoods are specially at risk of this misplaced guilt and shame and/or of overreacting with blame and outrage.

      One exasperated biodad earnestly assured his new wife and biokids "You're all first with me!" (implication: "Wife, you're not getting my reality, so your 'feeling second-place' is your fault"). His wife didn't feel first, and wasn't feeling heard, respected, or reassured.

      Everyone in an average divorcing family and stepfamily will feel "caught in the middle" from time to time, including kids, relatives, ex mates, stepparents, bioparents, and supporters. The most common example is a bioparent wanting to (or feeling expected to) please their new mate and a biochild, and feeling unable to do that.  Do you know anyone who's experienced this? How did they cope?

       Usually there are more than two people pulling on the person in the middle. If you were the biomom below, how would you feel? What would you do? To anyone in the middle of such a tangle, any choice seems sure to displease someone important to them. This typically promotes guilt, frustration, self-doubt, ambivalence, indecision, and perhaps anger - specially if it's the "500th time" they've felt n this impossible position.

  A Typical Eight-way Stepfamily Loyalty Conflict

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       People not in a stepfamily, including most mental-health professionals, usually won't be able to empathize or effectively advise on resolving these complex emotional dilemmas. Because of wounds, pride, and/or unawareness, they often can't acknowledge that.

      There is a best way for divorcing-family and stepfamily adults to cope with these inevitable dilemmas, but many find it hard to do! .


      Here's how this process sounds in a typical stepfamily loyalty conflict, where all three members feel that they're OK, and co-equals in worth. Here's the scene: Bill, 14, finishes dinner before his mom Sarah and new stepdad Sam do. As the boy starts to leave the table, Sam asks him to stay until the adults finish. Bill looks at his mother and says...

Bill: "Do I have to Mom?" (stay per Sam's request);

Sarah takes charge, and calmly names the problem: "Bill, sit down a minute and help us, please. We've got another loyalty conflict here. You want to leave right now (respectfully affirms him). How come?"

Bill defines his needs: "I want to call Carl about the game tomorrow, and I have a ton of homework. Be-sides - excuse me, but listening to you guys is not always the most exciting thing, you know? And you eat so

      Here many adults - specially shame-based survivors of low-nurturance childhoods - would semi-consciously feel attacked and disrespected, rather than decoding Bill's message as information about legitimate needs?

      Without Self control and awareness, feeling attacked by someone (and/or by your Inner Critic) causes hurt, irritation, defensiveness, blaming, blocked listening, and escalating power struggles ("fights") about (a) who's right and (b) who's going to get their way (win/lose).

Sarah (grinning): "So you want to check in with Carl, get at your work, and not get bored, eh? OK, fair enough (affirms his needs with empathic listening without agreeing, judging, arguing, or commenting). Hang in here a few minutes and help us, please. Sam, why do you want Bill to stay?"

Sam: "Well, dinner's one of the few times we're all together. It just feels good to me that no one leaves until we're all done. That includes me! I always had to stay at the table when I was a kid - I guess it just doesn't feel right that people scatter. I feel it's, uh, disrespectful."

Bill: "But Mom, I've never had to stay before (Sam came)...";

Sarah: "I know, Hon. This is new for all of us! (Her Self listens without taking sides, and stays focused on the process). So Sam, you need us to feel like a family, and sticking together at dinner is an important way of doing that, for you" (uses empathic-listening skill to affirm his needs, without agreeing, judging, or commenting);

Sam (feeling heard and respected): "Yeah. I feel like we're all always racing around, and this is one of the few times we can all be together and catch up." He isn't aware of his underlying primary need to feel like an ideal "normal" (bio)family.

Sarah (smiling, without sarcasm or blame): "Guess what, guys. I'm feeling caught in the middle again. I guess we need to find some kind of new rule for mealtimes, huh?" She pauses to reflect, and then says "I need each of us to feel clearly heard now, and to find some way to make this work for each of us so I can get out of the middle. What choices do you see here?" (Mutually-respectful assertion).

       As Sam and Sarah finish eating, all three come up with several options for lower-stress dinner times. The adults' share an attitude of "our respective dignities and needs are of equal importance, now" They settle on Bill agreeing to usually stay for about 10 minutes, maximum, if he finishes dinner first.

      The adults agree to intentionally include the boy more (i.e. to listen to him with real interest) in their table talk, and save most "boring" adult topics for their own time. This is a double compromise acceptable to each of them

      Note: if Sam and Sarah have made too little couple-time, this resolution probably wouldn't work. They also all agree that there will be exceptions when Bill can leave quickly, and when the adults need to talk "boring stuff" with him present. This flexibility avoids stresses from rigid black/white rule-enforcement.

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       This simplified example shows a co-parent respectfully negotiating conflicting needs nonjudgmentally, and three family members forming a tentative new household rule together. Sam could have initiated and led this process too. Bill's "job" here is to...

  • identify and assert his current needs,

  • accept the adults' needs as equally legitimate;

  • participate patiently in this win-win process, and...

  • learn how to lead it himself.

       All three people felt heard and respected enough, and no one felt blamed, guilty, or defensive. This discussion took about 10 minutes, which Bill could tolerate. It strengthened everyone's experience and faith in their problem-solving ability, and increased their feeling like a win-win team. They had done this process before, together, so all had some trust it could work for each of them.

       Other co-parents who didn’t have awareness or a mutual-respect attitudes might have had either adult "pull rank" and impose their needs without mutual discussion: "Bill, sit down and stay here 'til we're done. Period."; or Sarah saying "Go ahead and leave, Bill. I'll straighten Sam out." Both responses  promote stressful lose-lose-lose relationship triangles. 

      When all family adults see loyalty and other conflicts as shared family problems rather than battles or power struggles one member must fix or win, working together patiently to meet everyone’s primary needs enough grows strong couple and family bonds over time. Do you agree? If so, do you do mutually-respectful win/win compromising like this now?

       This example is ideal. What if the boy had pressed his needs? For instance:

Bill: "But Mom, Carl's leaving tonight for the weekend, and I have to call
right now!"

      Either co-parent could flex, respect Bill's immediate needs, and say ...

"Well, OK, Bill. We'll work on ideas for a new dinner guideline for us while you do that. We'll pick this up tomorrow night at dinner." (a win/win compromise). Or ...

"OK, call Carl, and then please come back and join us for a few minutes while we work on this together."

      An impatient, distracted, or inflexible adult might use lose/lose power tactics, and say "No! 10 minutes won't kill you. Now stick around 'til we finish." Implication: "My needs are more important than yours now - I'm 1-up!"

      Bill would probably feel disrespected (a victim), hurt and resentful - specially if this was a regular pattern. He'd hardly feel like cooperative problem-solving or a co-equal family team member.

      In real life, all people can't always get their key needs met well enough. Notice which members of your family or organization usually seem to get their key needs met most often over time. When people consistently feel genuine respect for themselves and each other ("your dignity and needs and mine are equally legitimate and important now"), win-win compromising is most likely.

     If members of a family or other group are significantly wounded and unaware, consistent win-win problem solving will be elusive until their true Selves lead their personalities, and their self and mutual respects improve.

      Useful Questions

          When you have trouble achieving win-win problem-solving, research questions like these to help raise your success:

  • "Who among us has been getting their needs met most often, recently? The least? Is that OK with everyone?";

  • "Who needs what right now - specifically?"

  • "What are our options here?"; and…

  • "If we can't find a win-win way together, what choice is best for our adult relationship?

      Loyalty clashes are a kind of values conflict.  Values conflicts are inevitable, and occur when two people hold different beliefs, perceptions, and/or priorities. One co-parent is firm with kids, while the other is permissive. A child likes rock music, while a co-parent likes symphonies. No one is right - we just have different tastes, opinions, and preferences.

      Relationship stress blooms when one adult or child feels another is imposing their values, preferences, and/or local needs in a way that disrespects, hurts, or deprives them and/or another important other person of equal consideration and respect.

      When two co-parents feel and assert "I’m right (1-up), and you’re wrong (1-down)," kids get trapped in the middle, creating a loyalty conflict and probably one or several relationship triangles. When an adult tries to manipulate, shame, reason, or force their partner into adopting their parenting values, problem-solving vanishes, and toxic loyalty conflicts and triangles flare.

Internal Conflicts

      Notice that it’s easy for you to have values conflicts all by yourself! One personality subself can say "C’mon - fight to convert Bill to our way of doing household chores. Don’t give in!"; while another inner voice (subself) says "Hey - if you compromise and give in some, the long-range payoff is a happier marriage and family. That’s worth a lot more - so cool it!"

      Who usually wins your internal values conflicts - your "immediate gratification" subself, or your wise "long-range-payoff" subself? Do you like the results?

      If you find your subselves in an abstract values conflict, vs. disagreeing over something tangible like a car, phone, or pet, stay aware that "agreeing to disagree" and mutually-respectful compromising strengthens relationships and Self respect. 

      Trying to sell or convert someone else to your values is like a Catholic and a Baptist trying futilely to convince each other that their way is better and "the truth." Parenting values are a kind of religion (a set of beliefs), based on early experience, faith, and ideals; and motivated powerfully by love for one or more kids, and adult self-respect.

       Part of a stepfamily's challenge is that there are usually three or more co-parents who usually have very different parenting "religions." Some far-seeing co-parenting teams can learn to live together in respectful disagreement, or even harmony (!). 

      For five reasons, millions of U.S. (and other?) co-parents ultimately seem to be happier living psychologically or physically apart. Numberless others silently endure depleting, frustrating family relationships because they see no viable options. They don't know about these Lessons. 

      Note that Lesson 4 in this Web site includes resources for divorcing couples, and Lesson 7 provides resources for stepfamily adults and kids.


      This two-page article offers perspective on a common relationship stressor - loyalty conflicts. It proposes a long-range strategy for resolving them in any family, and then adds perspective on why these conflicts are specially common in divorcing families and stepfamilies. The article closes with additional resolution options for members of those families.  

Next - Learn how your family handles loyalty conflicts now. Then review options for resolving values conflicts and relationship triangles.

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      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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