Author and speaker Ron Deal offers couples in blended families advice on how they can assess the strengths of their marriage and improve on areas of weakness in light of the particular challenges they face in parenting stepchildren. (Part 2 of 2)
Ron Deal: I'm thinking of a stepmom who we recently had a conversation and she said to me, "Ron, I keep becoming the wicked stepmother. It's not who I normally am, but I'm so frustrated with some of the circumstances that take place with my husband's ex-wife and how we have to deal with her and the frustrations that creates for us, that I find myself getting quick-tempered. Now listen to that.
Jim Daly: But she's not traditionally that way.
Ron: Right, right.
Jim: That's interesting.
Ron: So, the context is bringing that out in her, whereas she's not normally that way.
End of Teaser
John Fuller: That's Ron Deal and he often counsels and teaches remarried couples about managing stepfamily life better and we're going to return to this important topic on today's "Focus on the Family" with Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim: John, last time we started hearing about the unique challenges that stepcouples—husband and wives with their children—face in a stepfamily situation. And I know it was helpful to so many. We've already heard from you through e-mail. We are grateful for that response. Stepfamilies aren't like other families and there's lots of reasons for that and you know, there are, I'm sure, people who are thinking, why are you touching on this subject? You need to talk about first-time marriage and traditional marriage. The reality is in our culture this happens. It happens for biblical reasons. It happens for unbiblical reasons and I'll acknowledge that, but we've gotta pick up the pieces with these families in their present situation and we want to strengthen where they're at so they don't go through another divorce.
I'm tellin' you what; my passion is too much divorce in the Christian church. We have got to stop finding that easier way out and I know some of you are sayin', well, you haven't lived where I'm livin'. I get that, but we have got to do everything we can do to seek the Fruit of the Spirit, as Ron Deal, our guest talked about last time, to pursue humility in our relationships and to be bold and blunt, we don't do that well today. We're such an entitled culture. We've got to find a better way to deal with relationship.
And I'm sayin' that as much to me and Jean as I am to everybody else. This is imperative that we work on our relationships, so that they are an example of Christ in us and we're gonna continue that discussion today. We said last time that the principles we're talking about are geared toward stepfamilies, but I'm tellin' you what, all of us who are married will benefit from the discussion.
John: And Ron Deal does marriage conferences. He's written a number of books and one that is really the backbone for the discussion today is called The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family. And we've got that and details about that couple checkup that Ron talked about last time and a CD or a download of the conversation at www.focusonthefamily.com/radioor call us and we'll tell you more. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY.
Jim: Ron, for those that are picking up today that didn't hear last time, we talked a lot about fear and getting a handle on fear, the idea of pursing humility as a great way of conflict resolution and dealing with those unique pressures that are in the stepfamily.
Let's talk about expectations to kick it off today. I would think that, you know, again for whatever reason, the first marriage or the previous marriage has ended and a wife or husband is going into this marriage with expectations, probably some negative expectations, too. In fact, you refer to that as "ghost buster." Talk about the ghost buster analogy.
Ron: Well, we all have a little residue on our hearts after we go through a terrible loss, by a death or by divorce. It leaves something with you. It makes you blink. What I mean by that is, trust is just a little bit more difficult. And so, the residue creates this, the ghost of marriage past, as we like to say, that just leads people to wonder if they can fully trust their partner.
Jim: What does that ghost say to you?
Ron: For different people it says different things. For example, for the person whose spouse just turned and walked out, had an affair and the marriage is over, bam, you didn't see it comin' and there it is, the ghost says, "Boy, life can turn on a dime. Don't lean in too far."
Jim: Well, I think for women, it's worse. They'll hear, "I'm not good enough."
Ron: And there you go, so the ghost for them is a shot to her self-esteem and who she is and how valuable she is. And so, she's left wondering if in her second marriage, she's wondering, "Am I as valuable to him as I would like to be? Because that's where my security's gonna come." So, all of which, just leads to that guardedness that we've been talkin' about.
And my message to couples and stepfamilies is you cannot let that guardedness control you because you will lean away from your spouse rather than leaning in. You will share some of who you are, but you won't share all of who you are. You will make assumptions when they say things. You will assume the worst in their words, what they really mean, right. That's what you're thinkin'. "Oh, what he's really saying, I'm not valuable," when he may just be pointing out something that irritates him. But an irritation is not, "I reject you," right and that's the difference. You take a little thing. You take benign comments and turn them into malignant comments, and that erodes the relationship.
Jim: Well and what strikes me, Ron, it seems that the fruit of the Spirit is an uphill achievement—
Jim: --and the fruit of the other fruit is really a downhill. And let me ask you this question. Why is it so easy for us, as human beings, to fall downhill into that ugly fruit of division and disunity, and lack of love, lack of humility, all the things that are listed there in Galatians? It's so hard to reach. It's like the fruit of the Spirit is in the top part of the tree--
Ron: Uh, yeah.
Jim: --and it's hard for us to get to as human beings. Why is that?
Ron: I got a couple thoughts. I think one of 'em is 'cause we're fallen, okay? But along with that is, I can do it. I think we spend far too much time in marriage ministry and education and parent training and whatnot with building families, talking about all you can do to grow who you are. That's an important thing. I need to have an attitude about Ron that says, "I need to grow and I need to learn."
But that needs to be rooted in my dependence on God and the Holy Spirit working in my life. If I'm not rooted there, I'm never gonna find the strength to overcome my frailties and my faults and there's gonna be some things that just plague my marriage with Nan for our entire life.
But if I don't have humility, I'm not hearing. How many times did Jesus say to people, "You have eyes to see, but don't see. You have ears to hear, but you don't hear." Just because you're around Jesus doesn't mean you actually see Jesus. And all of us who are living and breathing parents, husbands and wives, we've gotta really open ourselves to what Jesus is saying to us about me. Then I can grow. Then I can change. Then I'm empowered by the Holy Spirit to be more.
Jim: Well, I mean, that is excellent and that's where it all start is that relationship with Jesus Christ. Let me talk about again, those expectations though, especially with kids, because that can be all over the map what the kids are expecting out of the stepparent, what the stepparent's expecting out of the children and his or her new spouse. Talk about that kind of wild environment where expectations are all over the place.
Ron: Yeah, you know, it was interesting. When we went into this study, I really thought that most of the couples had never really anticipated that the stepfamily dynamics might bring stress to their marriage. I was proven wrong. I love that when I'm proven wrong. (Laughter) Actually I hate that.
Jim: Okay, that sounds more honest. (Laughter)
John: But what can you do?
Ron: That's right. There's the humility. I gotta own it. Eighty-eight percent of couples going into a marriage with kids anticipate there's gonna be some stresses and strains. Well, they're right; there are, but here's what we learned. Just because they anticipate the stress doesn't mean they know what to do about it.
Ron: A full 50 percent of the couples in our study. In another study, 75 percent of the couples never had a conversation about how to parent. So, here you are asking about the expectations of parenting, but couples hadn't really thought through it enough to even have a conversation around it before they got married. What that says is, their expectation is that because you and I love each other, the parenting thing's just gonna work out just fine. We'll figure that out as we go. And my message to people is, whoa, whoa, whoa. You've gotta understand that this should be so big that it determines whether or not you get married. If you can't see eye to eye on the parenting things, raising the kids, then you really need to rethink the timing of a marriage or a decision to even get married. It's really important.
Jim: What I'm hearing you say is, the intentionality for a stepcouple is critical.
Jim: You're more mature.
Jim: You know the pitfalls. You've perhaps come out of a bad situation. You've got to redouble your efforts to understand what those expectations should be.
Ron: We're talking about conflict and couples and stepfamilies. I'm thinkin' about a woman who just wrote to us on Facebook and what she said is, you know, "I've held my kids to the standard of A's and B's in school. I married a man who, his standard is whatever, right and his ex-wife kinda has a "whatever" standard for their kids. And so, you know, his daughter brought home C's this semester, for two semesters in a row, and I'm sittin' here tryin' to figure out how do I keep holding my kids to the standard of A's and B's?"
All right, we can talk about standards in education. That's one thing. But obviously, they're not together in their home. It's a home divided. This is not only a parenting issue. It is now a marital issue and for couples and stepfamilies, this just stirs up the fear.
Jim: Ron, in your book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, you talk about that closeness and flexibility, the need for that in a stepcouple. You encourage them to take a relaxed view about change. That caught my attention because that's hard for people to do, because temperaments come into play.
Jim: To me, that's a temperament statement. If you're a Type A person, driven, you're organized, you have a task list, you're workin' out every day, I mean, all that kind of thing that usually comes with a task-oriented person. To tell them that they need to relax toward their view about change is like pushin' water uphill.
Ron: You're right.
Jim: How does a person who's got that temperament hear that advice so that they can be more successful in the step-couple relationship?
Ron: So, the principle is flexibility. Flexibility helps you find alternative solutions to stepfamily dilemmas that you may not have just seen on the surface. And without flexibility, sometimes you won't find those solutions, but the person as you described, who just tends to be a go-getter, let's take the hill and charge, is not very flexible sometimes, right? They're pretty rigid in their thinking about how things should be done.
I think we're back to, here's how we apply humility and I coach couples to say this. Okay, what I know about me, imagine this guy, we're talking about a guy and he's standing before his wife and he says this out loud to her. "What I know about me is that I'm that Type A guy and I'm ready to take the hill by charge, but what I know is that if I don't slow down, we'll get ahead of ourselves and then you and I will end up in different places and we'll have more conflict. So, I need to just pause, because the truth is (Sigh), we can probably take a deep breath and be okay."
And what he's just done out loud is think through and talk himself into a different attitude. What he's also doing in this in the meantime is showing his wife that he's managing who he is in that moment, which means she doesn't have to manage who he is, right? 'Cause we often find that couples get into that little bind, right, where she's tryin' to make him different. But when he takes responsibility, we're right back to Jesus, you know, you own the log in your eye, right? That comes first. Well, then it softens the interaction between them. Then they're more likely to find a new solution.
Jim: Now I'm pickin' on the Type A person. Let's go the other direction and it's you know, the stepcouple and the wife feels like her husband's not stepping up. He's so relaxed about change that he's not participating in it. You know, he's just out of the picture. How does that spouse address that issue that you're not engaged?
Ron: Great question. Let's assume there's a history here that in the past when she was frustrated with him not taking action, that she would come and criticize him or you know, "coach" him would be the word she would use. He would use the word "control me," right? They see it differently. And so, let's just apply the very same principle to her.
Imagine her coming to her husband and starting the conversation with this. "Honey, what I know about me is, that sometimes I get critical of you and I make you feel like you're inadequate. And I want you to know I'm not doing that right now. As a matter of fact, I'm trying to manage that part of me and I'm trying to speak with respect. And I do have a need for you and I to figure out how we can take action on something. And I'd like for us to talk about that, but please know I am not telling you you're bad or it's all your fault."
Ron: Now just imagine her—
Jim: That's much more motivating.
Ron: --oh, my goodness, right and now he is going, "Oh, look; she's just dealing with the log in her eye. I don't have to deal with that log in her eye. I can now just deal with me. And what I need to do is, I need to just kinda say, 'Okay, I gotta step up and I'm gonna try to challenge myself a little bit.'" It calms the interaction. It slows the interaction. It invites. See 1st Peter 5:5 says, "Put on humility towards one another because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble." There's a principle here even for marriages.
When I come with you with harshness, you will oppose me, just like God opposes pride. But if I come with humility and softness, you will have grace for me. And now we have two people outdoing each other with grace. That always leads to a better outcome.
Jim: Well, these are lots of great spiritual truths for every one of us and whether you're in a first-time marriage or a stepfamily marriage, as we've been talking about on today's "Focus on the Family: with Ron Deal. I'm Jim Daly and we recommend you get a copy of Ron's book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage. And while you're at it, get the CD or download of this program and listen to it with your spouse. It's a good conversation starter.
John: Yeah, we have these resources and more at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY. And if you 're really struggling in your marriage relationship, maybe to a point where there's more harshness than humility, we'll urge you to contact us so we can help you begin some restoration steps. There's always hope and we have a team of Christian counselors here who can talk with you and pray and refer you to someone in your area for some ongoing counseling help.
Jim: We also have Focus on the Family's National Institute of Marriage in Branson, Missouri, where we offer intensive counseling for couples who are on the brink of divorce. I mean, this is it, the last stop. And it's not too late for your relationship. That's what you need to realize, that if you have an ounce of hope that God can restore your relationship, you need to go that extra mile and we would like to help in that journey. And I'm so proud of the effort there, because they have a great success rate and that's what matters. Two years post counseling, almost 85 percent of those couples are still married. I think it's the best investment in the country.
John: Well, please let us tell you more about the National Institute of Marriage and other helps when you call 800-A-FAMILY. And Ron, I'd like to go back to the illustration you had, because I'm still thinkin' about this. We experience a little bit of managing expectations about grades in our home, so I can imagine the difficulties (Laughter) —
John: --when you've got two sets of kids and parents with differing perspectives. So go back to that illustration and talk about the wife's expectation for higher standards; the husband's kids have it easier. How do I deal with all that? Weave in this idea of flexibility that we mentioned a moment ago and some conflict management, as well. What can she do in that situation?
Ron: You really want me to solve that dilemma in two minutes (Laughter) or less, don't you?
John: I think it would be helpful. (Laughter)
Jim: That is so specific. You must have a friend that's going through this.
Ron: No. it's a great question and really, life is full of those really hard dilemmas sometimes. And so let me talk around it, because I've looked all throughout the Bible and I haven't found the answer for what grades should be, all right, in terms of expectations for a parent. So, parents have to do what parents have to do. We have to make a decision with the best wisdom we have available to us, with what we know and we have to try to move forward with that in our home.
What I would encourage this couple to move toward is unity. Now does that mean exactly the same? Does that mean they both buy into exactly the same philosophy? Not necessarily. It just means that they come up with a standard that they can both live with.
John: Yeah, but flexibility here means perhaps to her, I have to give up.
Ron: That's right and it could mean to him, he has to give up the expectations—
Jim: Or give a little.
Ron: --give a little. I mean, my guess is, cooperation on both sides will really be helpful, for both of them to understand, hey, this is where I come from and this is why it matters to me that you get all A's and B's. This is why it matters to me that we not worry about a C. They both need to know what's going on inside them around that and talk it out and share with that.
I also think there's a matter of what's good parenting? What's good education? You guys have Cynthia Tobias on here a lot talkin' about that sort of thing and you know, go to other standards like those people and understand what a good philosophy is in general for helping kids.
Ron: That becomes a backdrop that informs you in your conversation with one another. At the end of the day you have to find a way to be more together than apart. You simply cannot lead the home as a couple from two different places. And so sometimes it means calling grandma. Sometimes it means, pullin' in your small group for, you know, input. Sometimes you gotta go to a pastor or a counselor and really hash this out. I tell couples they may take two minutes to make a decision like this. Sometimes it takes two months of really deep conversation and pulling in all your assets. But at the end of the day, you've gotta come out with a similar standard.
Jim: Hm. Ron, last time we really concentrated on the marriage relationship. John's introduced the children. Let's talk about the need for guarding the marriage. And this is applicable to first-time married couples, as well.
Ron: It is.
Jim: And I see it even for Jean and myself. We've gotta be mindful that the kids move on, but you're with your spouse, hopefully, for the rest of your life.
Ron: That's right.
Jim: And where do we make a mistake in maybe overpursuing, overindulging, overdoing the parent-child relationship in a stepfamily context? And how does a spouse help the other spouse see that it's a little over the top and we're damaging our relationship? And what are some of those circumstances that lead to that?
Ron: Yeah, couples in stepfamilies have to guard their marriage just like couples in first marriages. They just have more stressors; honestly they do. They have more internal and external stressors—the kids, the ex-spouses, the ex-mother-in-law who wants to see the kids at Thanksgiving and Christmas and you know, every other Friday. And how do we work that into our calendar? What's your expectation of that, versus mine? There are so many things that can kind of pull and drain on the couples' relationship.
So, guarding their marriage and finding that leisure time for example, to just take a walk around the block and hold the hands and just decompress the day and just be together and just kind of just be calm. (Chuckle) Try to find that little place of respite with one another, those things really matter, even if it's a five-minute walk, because it says, all right, we're here. We're together and we're gonna continue to ride this out.
Jim: You use a term, "committed love" in the book. It sounds great. We all want that—
Jim: --especially from our spouse (Laughing).
Jim: Talk about what you meant by "committed love."
Ron: Well, it's that covenant attitude that says we're in this thing for life. For couples in stepfamilies, that means declaring to everyone around you, we're in this thing for life. I mean, in the beginning, now this is really important for couples in stepfamilies to hear me say this, all right? In the beginning, your children are not nearly as invested in the success of your marriage as you are.
Now that's very different than in a first marriage. In a first marriage, biological, traditional family, everybody's invested in the success of mom and dad's marriage. If they're not happy, we're not happy. If they're separated; we want 'em back together again. Everybody's invested equally. But in a stepfamily, on day one, the couple's invested in their marriage, but the kids, well, maybe, you know, take it or leave it, be okay if you didn't stay together.
That's different; that's very different. So, you as the couple have to be committed to that long-term relationship even if other people around you are not.
Jim: Including your kids.
Ron: Including your kids. And that can feel strange sometimes. You feel like maybe you're betraying your kids. Sometimes parents report feeling like I'm doing something that has put them in a hard place in their life. Well, yes there are adjustments and yes, sometimes they're not necessarily excited about your marriage. But here's the good news. The honeymoon that we talked about in a previous broadcast comes at the end of the journey, later as the Crock-Pot is bringing you all together. Then it is something the kids celebrate. They do celebrate your committed love. You just have to be the ones to take the lead on that.
Jim: Ron, as we end the second day of this discussion—this has been really good and I think there's been so many good things for all of us in a marriage relationship, whether it's your first marriage or you know, a marriage that came after certain circumstances.
You have described for me (Chuckling) so many things. The one that I'm really caught on is communication, the way that you have today role-played that and for the spouse, either the husband or the wife, to communicate with the partner to say, here's what I'm feeling. I'm not wanting to come at you, but you gotta help me here. Here's where I'm at, coming in that spirit of humility. It's so wonderful. The question that I've got on that though is, if you look at communication in marriage as a four- or five-step process, why in the world are we so inept at the first step? It's like we go downline. We want it resolved. Of course, we want it resolved. We want to do the right thing.
But for us to simply say, "Here's how I'm feeling. This has wounded me. I need to better understand your heart. I don't want to strike back verbally. I don't want to respond to that." How come it's so hard for us to do that first step that you've role-played for us?
Ron: Well, I think it takes a lot of emotional intelligence, honestly, humility of the heart issue. I've told marriage educators for the last five years, I said, "You know, I've wondered for years why I could teach communication skills to some couples and they would use it and other couples would use it in rehearsal and practice, and walk out of the counseling room and never use it ever again in real life.
Jim: Right, go right back—
Jim: --to the fight.
Ron: --what was the difference? And the difference is the heart. The difference is, I am willing to deal with me before God and now before you. Without that attitude, I will just blame you. I will just defend myself. I will just get harsh and critical. I will just lash out and do all the things I know I'm not supposed to do.
It's human nature. It's in us. It's Adam and Eve in the Garden, for cryin' out loud. That's where it all started. Blame her. Blame him. Blame God for the woman You gave me. It's who we are unless we're willing to slow down, take a deep breath, say a prayer. I mean, I think that's where [you say], "Lord, help me see me." Now I can deal with me first. Then that affords me, I think, some influence and now I can deal with you and we can deal with each other, but we do so with a spirit of grace.
Jim: Well, that is so well-said and that's a good place to end this two-part series. I appreciate so much your effort and your co-author on TheSmart Stepfamily Marriage. There is a lot of good meat in here, the survey which I think would be interesting for all married couples to take and Ron, it's just been great havin' you. Thanks for bein' here.
Ron: Thank you.
John: And I think Ron, what I've appreciated so much is that spiritual training that you provide. We need a good relationship with God if we're gonna make our marriages work and work well. And Ron's book is one of those resources that can help you grow in your communication, in your relationship with each other and that relationship with God. And He looks at expectations, being flexible, finances in a remarriage and so much more and so, request your copy of God's book and a CD of this program when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; or look for those and the download or the mobile app for this program, so you can listen to it again on your phone or tablet at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
Now we're gonna be posting some information about something that's very important to Ron. It's an upcoming conference, a Stepfamily Summit, where a variety of Christian leaders are coming together to help you have the kind of tools you need as a leader, as a pastor or just a concerned caring couple, to reach out and do stepfamily ministry well. Now the summer's going to be in Irvine, California in just a couple of weeks, so check it out today. We've got details and we'll link over to registration information for you at the website.
And when you get in touch or you're online, please consider how you can support this family ministry. It's only because of generous friends like you that we can have conversations like we've done today and provide resources like Ron's book and our counseling services and the National Institute of Marriage and so much more. This all comes with a price tag and your financial gift helps support the work of Focus on the family. So, together we can help stepfamilies to thrive and we can help hurting marriages to heal. Joint the support team today with a monthly pledge or a one-time gift and we'll say thank you for doing so by sending a complimentary copy of Ron's book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage. Donate at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time. We're gonna take a look at selflessness, which is a lot better than selfishness and you'll learn the difference next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Ron DealView Bio
Ron Deal is the founder of Smart Stepfamilies and one of the most widely read and referenced authors on stepfamilies in the world. His best-selling books include The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepdad and The Smart Stepmom. Ron is also a popular conference speaker, the host of a 60-second daily radio feature and the director of FamilyLife Blended, FamilyLife's ministry to stepfamilies. He and his wife, Nan, are the proud parents of three sons. Learn more about Ron at the FamilyLife Blended website.