Family conflict doesn't equal dysfunction. Families aren't supposed to get along all the time!
When working with my nuclear families as well as my blended-family and divorced clients with binuclear families, I sometimes find myself saying, "You're not dysfunctional. Of course you don't get along, you're a family!" In this age of instant gratification, we seem to be under the impression that we should maintain a constant state of family happiness.
First, that’s impossible. Happiness is a transient state that we move into and out of based on a variety of factors, including life events, behavioral choices and personality style. Research has proven that it is impossible to always feel happy. Add to that the unique complications that parenting through divorce brings, and you are guaranteed that things will sometimes feel uncomfortable.
My clients frequently run away from emotional discomfort and hide in substances, food, work or other distractions. I encourage them to directly confront the discomfort and problem solve their way to happiness. Avoiding conflict and discomfort doesn't bring happiness, it brings numbness. So if you and your partner are arguing, find out why. If you and your kids aren't getting along, address it. But don't assume discomfort equals dysfunction.
Here are three key ideas for recognizing normal discomfort in a family:
- What is normal for your kids' development? "My teenage stepchildren argue with me when I give my opinion." OK, maybe they are arguing with you just to be difficult. Alternatively, is it possible that their inability to see your side of the discussion has more to do with the fact that they are teenagers, with yet-undeveloped brains, who are trying to find their own identity and differentiate themselves from authority figures?
- Sometimes it isn't about you. Haven't you ever just had a bad day? When you take a family trip, are you happy-go-lucky all the time? Don't assume that conflict is reflective of a larger issue. Look instead at the larger pattern. Is there always conflict? If so, then that may need a closer look. Otherwise, it is very likely just part of being in a family—blended or not.
- If you didn't have conflict, your kids would never learn how to deal with conflict effectively. And let's be honest, sometimes they still don't learn effective techniques. But reminding your kids that conflict does happen, that you'll always still love each other and that you'll keep on being a family no matter what will help them feel more secure, especially in bi-nuclear and blended families.
Being part of a family is complicated enough. Things can't be rosy and happy all the time. Those moments where you are connected should be cherished, and the times when you are experiencing family conflict should be considered growing experiences. Discomfort can breed growth if you let it. If you find yourself stuck in the discomfort, then please, reach out to a family therapist or family coach for support. Your big-picture can include a happy, connected family.