An important, even essential, part of protecting your marriage in a blended or foster family is to be certain that you and your spouse have agreed on ground rules in several common problem areas. Managing (and minimizing) these conflicts requires clear communication and solid agreement between the adults in the family. In this blog post, we'll explore the most common areas of potential conflict where parents need to be on the same page in order to cultivate resilient family relationships and get through difficult times.
How To Reach Agreement
I’m not a marriage counselor, or any sort of mental health professional. I’ll defer to those experts for detailed suggestions about how to resolve conflicts in the areas I discuss below. In my experience, however, there have been a few skills that have been essential to staying on the same page with my spouse.
1. I’m Not Always Right. The hardest lesson for me to learn, given my personality and lawyerly skill set, is that my way of doing things isn’t always the best way. I’ve been a single foster parent and a married foster and stepparent, and in some ways, single foster parenting was easier. I was the sole authority in the house, and I didn’t have to get anyone’s agreement to the house rules. When I married, I suddenly had to work in tandem with another adult, one who had a closer tie to my stepchildren than I did. I had to deal with the fact that my wonderful, intelligent, and reasonable husband didn’t always agree with me. He thought his way of doing things was perfectly fine. I had to learn to understand his point of view. Even harder, I had to admit more often than I wanted to that his style worked better than mine in a given situation.
2. Respectful and Open Communication is Key. Every article about any conflict in blended or foster families, or any other relationship for that matter, talks about the importance of positive communication. That’s because it’s a foundational principle. You simply cannot avoid or resolve conflict without clear and respectful communication with each other. Spend a lot of time talking to each other and get whatever professional help you need to help you do the hard work of developing healthy communication patterns.
3. We Have to Be Consistent. One of the most frustrating things that spouses can do to each other is agree on boundaries or house rules, and then not follow through. And of course, if we are the one who changes, there’s always a good reason. The kids needed more money for their allowance, or it’s important for them to go out with friends on this one special occasion, or we found a great deal that we couldn’t pass up. Whatever the reason of the moment, the fact remains that we told our spouses they could rely on us, and then they found out they couldn’t. When we unilaterally change the rules, whatever the reason, we are communicating that we are not trustworthy, and that message is toxic to a relationship.
4. Keep the First Things First -- and Let Go of the Rest. We will have a lot of stress in parenting children who have suffered trauma. The best way to limit our conflicts is to limit the number of things that we fight about. Concentrate on the bedrock principles — safety, respect, emotional support, a nurturing environment, and essential structure — and let go of the rest. Like the story about how to fit rocks, pebbles, and sand into a jar, put first things first and get the rest if and when you can.
Areas That Require Agreement
As with communication skills, a full exploration of the areas of potential conflict would take far more words than a single blog post. These issues, however, are the ones that I’ve seen cause problems most often for the foster and blended parents I’ve known over the years.
1. Parenting Styles. Differing parenting styles are one of the most common conflict areas when blending families. Each adult and his or her biological children have developed styles that, whether or not they work well, are familiar. No one gives up familiar coping mechanisms easily. When a new partner points out problems with our style, we naturally get defensive and perhaps double down. It’s also easier to see flaws in someone else’s style than in our own. All of these dynamics can create a conflict spiral that creates hard feelings and damaged relationships.
Parents must agree on a unified approach to discipline, rules, and expectations for the children. We must have rules and consequences that we both can be consistent about. More than any given decision in any given situation, we need to present a united front. Strong agreement not only strengthens our relationships but has the positive effect of giving our children a sense of security in this new family.
This area usually causes the most conflict because the stakes are the highest. When I married, my brother predicted that my husband and I would fight most often (and perhaps exclusively) about the kids. When I pointed out that my husband and I are both strong-willed people used to managing our own lives, my brother said, “No, the children will be the only things you care enough about to dig in.”
Looking back, it turns out that he knew me better than I knew myself. My husband and I have had disagreements and vehement discussions about many topics, but the only real conflict has involved our parenting styles. Decisions mattered most there, and thus it was the hardest area for us to find a compromise. And it was the most important area to find a compromise. In your family, be certain to make agreeing on parenting styles one of your highest priorities.
2. Financial Responsibilities. If arguing about children is the most common area of conflict, money runs a close second. Clear agreements on financial responsibilities, such as budgeting, expenses, and savings, are crucial. You need to openly discuss your financial situations, set realistic goals, and work together to provide a stable and secure environment for the entire family.
Don’t overlook where the top two conflict areas intersect, specifically spending that involves your children. It’s easy for us to overspend on our kids, whether out of guilt or overcompensating, or because we think they really need a particular item. All the ground rules about parenting styles apply here as well. Discuss your budget, agree on it, and then stick to it.
3. Treating All Kids As Part of Your Family. Your foster and stepchildren come from different families with different traditions and styles. It’s hard for them to feel part of a new family, and sometimes they don’t want to have anything to do with this family. You and your spouse have to create a safe space for them where each feels included in the family and treated fairly.
Of course, we can’t treat every child exactly the same, any more than biological parents can treat biological children the same. Every child has unique needs and personality traits. Older children need and are entitled to more independence than younger children. Foster youth have been through more than one traumatic experience by the time they come to us, and children with special needs can require more resources than our other kids. Meeting our children's needs will require different treatment for each of them. However, we can do our best to be sure that every child gets a fair share of our time, attention, and resources, as well as the most supportive relationships that we can establish.
We also need to insist that our children treat each other fairly. It's a normal part of child development for them to form cliques that create “insiders” and “outsiders.” They also can be cruel to each other until we manage to teach them empathy. Even the most positive sibling relationships have some degree of conflict. The effects of trauma can compound these natural tendencies. Whether we are trying to make foster children a part of our family or encourage positive relationships between step-siblings, we have to recognize that even the kindest child can treat another child badly. We must actively watch for those traits. We need to set firm ground rules and insist that our children treat each other with respect. We can’t demand that they like each other; close and healthy relationships have to grow organically and take time. But we can enforce house rules that require respect, fairness, and polite interactions.
4. Dealing with Biological Parents. Navigating relationships with a child's other parent can be challenging, and it’s an area where we have to be on the same page with our spouse. We have to agree on healthy boundaries, communication, and protocols. We also need to agree on who handles the primary communications. Sometimes that will be our spouse, and sometimes it will be us who has the most functional relationship. Either way, we have to agree on who says what and stick with that agreement.
We also have to keep in mind that our primary goal is to help our children have a strong parent-child relationship, or as close as possible, with their birth parents. If we can have a good relationship with bio parents, then it helps us help our kids. Sometimes we can’t do that. I actively disliked most of my foster kids’ parents, always because of the way they treated those children, but fortunately, my opinion didn’t matter to anyone. More importantly, I still had the same job to encourage the relationship between those parents and my children.
We also need boundaries that safeguard our new family. Bio parents are not our enemies, but they have their own concerns and goals for their relationships with their children. We can’t expect those goals to align with ours, and we can’t change their goals. All we can do is work with them, and at the same time not sacrifice our values and goals. It’s a delicate balance that we must work out with our spouse in order to have any hope of success.
5. House Rules. This final area is intertwined with all the others. Like all parents, we have to agree on what rules we expect our children to follow in our house and how we will enforce the rules. Children need structure, and they always push against it. They always search for ways around the rules, and some of them can be positively brilliant at finding loopholes. I have parented more than one budding lawyer who tried to convince me that I had the wrong interpretation of a rule that I had set. We cannot leave any daylight for them between the adults in charge.
The principles I discussed above apply just as strongly here. Concentrate your house rules on the big issues of safety, respect, and privacy among family members. Keep lines of communication open with both your spouse and your children. Agree with your spouse on the rules and stick to them. If you think that any given situation warrants an exception, have an honest and respectful discussion with your spouse — where the children can’t hear you — and decide together. Remember that presenting a united front is almost always more important than a particular decision in a particular situation.
Building a strong relationship in a blended family requires commitment, communication, and a shared vision for the future. We must actively communicate on these critical topics to create a stable, nurturing environment for our children and take the first steps to forging close relationships. Start sooner rather than later, and you can build lasting bonds that transcend the challenges of your family’s journey together.
Share with me your experiences, thoughts, and suggestions about how we can all strengthen our marriages and avoid or resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise when we are raising other people’s children.