Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Master Three Common

Do They Affect You Now?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

 The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/stressors.htm

Updated  02-21-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles which aim to optimize your relationships. Benefitting from these articles depends on your progress with self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 3.

      This article describes three common interpersonal stressors - values and 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 subselves that comprise your personality. 

      Linked articles offer more perspective and practical resolution options for each stressor.

Though 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 the premises underlying it.

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • how to assess and resolve common relationship problems


      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,

  • what causes them,

  • how to identify them, and...

  • how to avoid and resolve each stressor effectively.

Does this describe your family adults?

      This article overviews the first three of these. Other articles provide practical options for avoiding and resolving each stressor.

      Let's see these stressors in action:

Example - Arguing About "Child Discipline"

       What 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 Molly (11).

       Rick was a "surprise" conception, and Molly was planned. After Susan and Jason separated, they had major trouble evolving a stable parenting agreement and child visitations. Jason lives alone in an apartment about 15" away. He 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.

       Mark (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 values and loyalty 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.

       Across 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...

"You let your kids get away with murder;"

"You let your kids walk all over you;" and

"Why do you put up with having to ask your kids six times to do something?

       Mark 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 loyalty conflit.  

       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 triangle, 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 he 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.

      Neither partner is aware of how they communicate, or knows the difference between win-win prob-lem solving and the ineffective alternatives they use.

      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 partners 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

      This 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..

      A 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 happen!

      In this typical courtship stepfamily, Sue and Mark are beginning to experience a set of inevitable values conflicts over child discipline and other things:

Mark believes...

  • Kids must 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 for them

  • Kids should be firmly taught to pick up after themselves at home

  • Women should 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

  • Generally, the 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

Susan believes...

  • Some degree of backtalk and sarcasm from kids is normal and acceptable

  • Minor kids ignoring family guests is normal - they'll learn courtesy eventually

  • Caregivers enjoy providing nice things for their kids, and shouldn't need thanks

  • 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 equally

  • Each conflict Mark about her kids should be handled individually. Mark should accept that at times her kids come first with her

  • Single moms 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.

      If 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 relationship.

       They also risk subjecting Sue's kids to chronic double messages, which can promote confusion, frustration, irritation, withdrawal, sullenness, and/or rebellion. Finally, the couple may also may deprive each child from learning how to spot, discuss, and resolve values conflicts effectively in their own lives.

       If they 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 identity, and agree on what that means - e.g. that they'll have to spot and cope with many complex values conflicts for years as they slowly merge their three multi-generational biofamilies.

The Solution

      When values conflicts occur, the ideal solution is...

  • put your true Selves in charge of your personalities (your other subselves);

  • adopt an attitude of mutual respect, and maintain a 2-person awareness bubble;

  • 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 to convince 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 primary problem.

  Reality 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 this after you finish this article. To discover how your family members handle values conflicts now, use this worksheet after you finish here.

      A special kind of values conflict is...

2) Loyalty Conflicts

      Various values conflicts will cause this young multi-home stepfamily another stressor that is potentially lethal to Mark and Susan's relationship - loyalty conflicts. All human groups experience these priority or inclusion/exclusion choices and their effects. They're specially common and emotionally complex in typical  dysfunctional, divorcing, and step families.  

      Loyalty conflicts occur when an 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 dreams.

      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 between 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.

The Solution

      This YouTube video previews what you're about to read.

      The best solution to typical loyalty conflicts in any family is for the adults involved to (a) admit them without blame or guilt, and (b) seek acceptable compromises as partners vs. adversaries.

      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 divorcing bioparents like Sue are unable to genuinely rank their new partner's needs first often enough because of unacknowledged psychological wounds unawareness + incomplete grief + unresolved guilts 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 affair, 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...

  • each adult's wholistic health and integrity (self-respect) first,

  • the couple's relationship second, and...

  • 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.

      In "ours child" 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 a well-meaning false self and/or was ambivalent about two more decades of maternal responsibilities and sacrifices.

      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...

3) Relationship Triangles

      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 Persecutor who 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 hurts, resentments, guilts, confusions, distrusts, frustrations, and anger. These are usually compounded by concurrent loyalty and values conflicts.

      Unresolved triangles usually polarize other group (family) members into more loyalty disputes and triangles. This growing stress inexorably lowers the family's nurturance level, which inhibits adult wound-healing and promotes false-self formation, and wounding 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."

      Variations: young 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?

The Solution

      Tailor these steps to fit your situation: The ideal family solution is for all involved adults (including relatives) to...

  • put their true Selves in charge of their personalities (other subselves);

  • adopt an attitude of genuine mutual respect, and maintain 2-person awareness bubbles;

  • 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 - values 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:

  • psychological wounds in one or more people, plus...

  • unawareness and igtniorance of key topics; and....

  • a lack of informed help locally and in the media.

The article links to articles which propose practical options for avoiding and reducing each surface stressor. Lessons 1 and 2 show how to master the first two core stressors above.        

        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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  Also see this article on resolving interpersonal power struggles.


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