Ron Deal: Too many people determine, you know, engagement and marriage based only on their coupleness, only on what’s developing with them as a unit. They have to also include the children, because the reality is, once you get married, the success of the home and the marriage is more determined based on the stepfamily dynamics than it is necessarily even on the couple dynamics.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: That’s Ron Deal describing the unique dynamics of marriage within a stepfamily or a blended family context. Uh, you’ll hear more from Ron today on Focus on the Family, and your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: Uh, John, we’re well aware that a significant portion of the people listening to us right now, uh, don’t fit in to a traditional marriage or family or stereotype. Uh, there may have been a divorce, or the death of your first spouse, or maybe you were a single parent and now you’ve gotten married again and are trying to rebuild a family. If that’s your situation, we want to acknowledge you, that you exist, and offer you all the help we can to strengthen your marriage relationship, and address some of the unique challenges you may be facing.
John: And Ron Deal is a frequent guest here on this broadcast. Uh, he’s an author, speaker, and family counselor, who specializes in helping stepfamilies. Ron is the director of Family Life Blended, which is a part of, uh, the Ministry of Family Life. And he’s written a book that will form the basis of our conversation today. The title is, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family. And we’ve got copies of that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast or call 800-A-FAMILY.
Jim: And for some of our listeners, if you’re not in a blended family, a lot of the encouragement and advice Ron provides is certainly applicable to every marriage. How to be a good spouse, being sensitive and humble, it all applies. So, I encourage you to keep listening.
John: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And here Jim is now, how you began that conversation with Ron Deal on today’s Focus on the Family.
Jim: Let’s talk about those uniqueness’s right from the get-go. What are those things that make stepfamilies unique compared to traditional family?
Ron: Uh, w- well, let me give an example. Um, w- w- this book is based on a study that Dr. David Olson and I did together, uh, using, uh, research that he’s done for years, and years, and years. And we looked at literally thousands of couples and a relationship profile and examined them to try to understand what predicted health in stepfamily marriages. The number one thing on the list, sounds general and applies to everybody, and that’s, do I like you?
Jim: (laughs). That’s pretty basic.
Ron: Do I really like who you are? Uh, the qualities and attributes that you bring to the relationship and the marriage. Uh, um, the opposite that would be, you know, you got some bad habits, or you got some things about you that make it hard to love you, right? But the absence of those things, you know, I call them the fruits of the spirit, right? If you’re a person who just exudes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, wow, it is just, uh, great to be married to you. And-
Jim: Or to be your neighbor, actually.
Ron: … and that applies. Yeah. Or to be your neighbor, or your friend, or your extended family member. Now that applies to all marriages, right? Everybody listening right now who is married or knows somebody who is married or wants to be married, that applies to you. But here’s what was really unique when we got underneath that and took a little, uh, deeper look at step-couple marriages. We found that the absence of those things creates a fear that drives the couple further and further apart. And, you know, here’s what I mean by that, um, if I’m not sure I can trust you. Uh, uh, I mean, if you’re love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, I can trust you. And if you’re not those things, if you’re critical, if you’re angry, if you got a quick temper, if you’re stubborn, if you’re controlling, we found unhealthy couples in stepfamilies were seven times as controlling as healthy couples in stepfamilies. I mean, that creates an environment where I can’t trust you.
Jim: Uh, that’s interesting Ron, let me ask you about that, because are those some of the antecedents that created the, the difficulty, perhaps even in the first marriage? Now, I wanna acknowledge that-
Jim: … many, uh, stepfamilies are formed through, uh, the death of a spouse-
Jim: … and other circumstances. Biblical circumstances. So, we’re not just speaking to those who divorce for unbiblical reasons. So always with that disclaimer. But as you described that, that may be, really, the core problem, is, um, you know, how a person behaves.
Ron: I think it’s a yes, uh, but, uh, for sometimes, that’s who somebody is. They just kind of have a quality about them, they’re a little quick tempered, and that’s something that’s been a part of their life forever. But what’s unique here, Jim, is that sometimes people, when they find themselves in a stepfamily situation, the context creates in them things that they would n- not normally do. So, for example, I’m thinking of a stepmom who we recently had a conversation. And she said to me, “You know, Ron, I keep becoming the wicked stepmother. It- 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: 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.
Jim: Well let me ask you, what does a person do that’s in that situation? What is a way to get a hold of that so the better fruit of the spirit can come out?
Ron: Uh, you know, y-
Jim: I mean, we all battle with that.
Ron: That’s it.
Jim: I don’t care what the stage of life you’re in.
Ron: And the answer applies to all marriages, all right? Not just stepfamily marriages, but I think it’s humility. Let me explain. Uh, humility is the thing that allows us to look in the mirror and say, “I need to look at who I am, honestly who I am, and how I’m acting, and I need to take responsibility for that.” What we wanna do, human nature, is, we look at somebody else and we blame them, right? We look at the circumstances and we blame it. We get frustrated and we just say, “I’m the victim of this.” And so we kind of ignore the fact that we’re being quick tempered, or we’re being critical, we’re being controlling. And until you have a, the humility of heart to stop, to really consider what… Is this about me? That I need to get a han- Jesus put it this way, in the Sermon on the Mount, “You fool, uh, stop worrying about the speck in your brother’s eye and start dealing with the log in your eye.” That is a passage about looking at everybody else and blaming them, or at first dealing with yourself before the Lord. “Then, and only then,” he says, “can you help somebody else deal with the speck.”
Jim: Yeah, l- l- let’s talk about some of the parameters within stepfamilies. Uh, what are the stats in regard to failure, and all the things that you’re talking about.
Ron: When we look at the divorce rate for couples, it’s at least 10 to 25% higher than it is for couples in first marriages.
Ron: Depending upon their, their circumstances.
Jim: And it’s this effect of intensity, it sounds like.
Ron: … and we’ve talked in other broadcasts here about just the, the stressors. And there are multiple stressors that go on around the couple’s relationship, that, that create this environment where you start doing and acting in ways that are not loving.
Jim: And what we wanna talk about today, and we have, uh, talked in the past about some of those stressors being children.
Jim: And the difficulty of integrating. I mean, I love the analogy that I haven’t forgotten. And that is, stepfamilies need to aim more for being a Crockpot, a slow process of stewing together. (laughs).
Jim: So that the flavor comes out.
Jim: But today let’s concentrate on the marriage relationship, understanding, we know the, that the, the children bring a different dynamic. You talk about delayed honeymoon-
Jim: … for the step, uh, couple in your book. Wh- What were you getting at with delayed honeymoon?
Ron: Yeah, it’s kind of the function of the Crockpot that you were just talking about, uh, there is a honeymoon for couples. It often comes, though, once the Crockpot has done the work in bringing the entire family together. Now, now notice this, uh, this, is where couples get confused, because when they’re dating they’re really focused on each other and their coupleness, as I like to say. But once they get married, uh, the success of the marriage is a familyness issue. And that’s one of the things that we report in this book, that we found in our research is, before the marriage, couple satisfaction is more intimately tied to their couple relationship. Do they like each other? How well do they communicate with one another? Do they resolve conflict well with one another? But after the wedding, it’s tied, as much, to what’s going on around the couple, as it is to their actual relationship.
Jim: Right. You mentioned the research. Describe that research. It was a large sample size.
Ron: It was. Uh, David Olson created the Prepare/Enrich inventory that’s used all over the world. And he’s been collecting data, uh, for years, and years, and years. And we went into his stockpile, if you will-
Ron: 50,000 couple-
Ron: … profiles. 100,000 people in our data set. Uh, that’s just a massive study, and that’s his genius, not mine, okay? Um, but what it allowed us to do is look at lots of factors related to families, with a tremendous amount of statistical validity behind it. And so we really know, for example, when we were talking earlier, this idea of being afraid that this marriage won’t last. Okay. The, whether that’s prompted by my own fears, or something going on around us with the kids, or that your ex-spouse, or whatever the antecedent is to that fear, fear predicts, with 93% accuracy whether you have a great marriage or a lousy one. And it’s definitely-
Jim: How does a person know if they’re fearful in that relationship?
Ron: Well I think, what we see on the outside, and what they might just, you know, notice in themselves is, “Wow, I’m fretful, I’m anxious, I snap at you. I don’t trust you, so that I question, uh, were you really where you said? I find that I don’t share all my money with you. I- I’d rather us have a joint account for our, for the bills we pay together, but I want to make sure I keep my individual account.” Now, uh, first of all, let me just back up and say, that- that’s not necessarily wrong, to have an individual account, I’m not saying that’s wrong. I am saying sometimes people do that-
Jim: Depends on the, the personality behind it, right?
Ron: Exactly. Sometimes people do that because deep within them is this fear that you might leave me the way the last one did.
Ron: And I want to make sure I don’t get caught w- without anything in the bank.
Jim: Yeah. And some of that i-
Ron: And so I’m looking out for myself.
Jim: … some of that, Ron, is reasonable. I mean, especially, uh, you know, not to be stereotypical here, but a woman who was wounded by her husband that was, uh, you know, cheated on her.
Jim: Um, she could have that feeling that, you know-
Ron: Uh, she-
Jim: … you know, all guys are like this, and speak to that woman who has that emotion.
Ron: You’re exactly right. It would be very reasonable for her to have that feeling, to be guarded, in a way.
Jim: Right, it’s hard to open up.
Ron: And cautious.
Ron: And that’s exactly the point. Fear makes us guarded and cautious.
Ron: It makes me think a little bit more about protecting myself than surrendering myself.
Jim: We’re try-
Ron: N- Now just listen to that-
Ron: … we know biblical Christian marriage is about surrender. And so this thing that is within people that says, “Uh, I’m, I’m gonna withhold a little of me.” Is the opposite of where Christ wants to move us. And so this is a, a, a very important piece to building the strength of your marriage, is looking within yourself, seeing that fear for what it is, and then asking the Lord, “Give me strength to walk through this fear and do what love requires me to do, even if I’m not sure it’s all going to work out on the other side.”
Jim: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. That’s th- the stressor I was going to put there, is that that’s what the Lord requires of all of us-
Jim: … in our walk, whether we’re first time married or in a stepfamily situation when it comes to that trust in your spouse.
Ron: And back to this humility idea, I, I just really think this is so very important. We come to the Lord in, in a humble posture of, “I need you, I can’t do it myself.” We walk with the Lord throughout our entire life. Someday the Lord’s gonna come again and, uh, every knee will bow, and every tongue confessed. I think that’s a posture of humility, you know? And the same sort of dynamic really blesses our marriages. When I come with an attitude of humility about who I am, I need to learn, I need to grow, I need to look at myself and become a better husband, wife, whatever the case is. That posture helps me grow, and helps our marriage grow over time.
John: Our guest today on Focus on the Family is Ron Deal, and he’s sharing insights from his book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, and he coauthored that with David Olson. We’ll recommend you get a copy, at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And if you’re struggling with issues of fear, or surrender, or that posture of humility Ron was talking about, in your marriage, I’ll encourage you to contact us for help. We have resources for you, like a great team of caring, Christian counselors. And, uh, we also have, uh, a great program for marriages in serious trouble. It’s an intensive counseling session over several days at one of our premier retreat centers, Hope Restored can offer you hope in your marriage, and, um, when you attend a Hope Restored intensive you’ll have the time you need to focus on you and on your relationship. Call to learn more about Hope Restored, or how we can help through our counseling services. Uh, our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Again, our website, focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Let’s go ahead and return now to more with Ron Deal on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.
Jim: Uh, Ron, in fact, in your book you have, uh, a relationship checkup that you talk about. And in that research you’ve identified five types of marriages. Um, talk about the need for the checkup, and then kind of the big buckets, these five big buckets that you’ve identified most couples fall into.
Ron: David Olson and his team, through the years, have identified five different types of couples. In other words, if you look at a couples relationship across a number of domains, for example, communication, and managing conflict, and sexuality, and how they manage their finances, and their family and friends, and their leisure activities. And you look across those, and you find, for example, the couples that tend to have very high scores across most of those domains, we call those vitalized couples
Ron: They’re extremely happy, they hardly ever think about divorce or separation, they just are going and blowing, right? I think God intends all of us to be vitalized couples, ideally. Next comes couples who they call harmonious. These are couples that have many strengths, but there’s a few areas in their relationship that they could grow in. The mid range we call conventional couples. And let me tell you, we have a ton of these sitting in churches every week. They don’t necessarily get along real well, they don’t communicate real well, but they have a high degree of spiritual commitment to marriage and the idea of marriage. This is the couple that sits in the restaurant and doesn’t talk, but they’re never going to get divorced, because God said don’t.
Ron: And we know from research that churches are full of these kinds of couples.
Ron: All right?
Jim: What, what percentages-
Ron: Not particularly happy.
Jim: … do these break down to? Um…
Ron: Uh, eh, well, I don’t actually know percentages. But what we do know, um, from doing… I do live marriage conferences, for example, for churches. And I can tell you, I have the couples take this profile before they come to a marriage enrichment event, and the vast majority of the couples that come to the event are actually unhappy. You know, up to two-thirds. And this is in a church, couples attending a marriage enrichment conference.
Jim: Okay. So we’ve talked about vitalized couples, those that are really living a joyful, um, relationship. Then you have harmonious couples, conventional couples, you just described. What are the other two?
Ron: The two bottom ones are called conflicted couples, uh, obviously, that carries the idea they’re really struggling. They’re arguing about some things, they’re not getting along. And then devitalized couples, uh, really are in a tough, tough situation. They have the highest divorce rate. In fact, half of those couples divorced within three years.
Jim: I, I wanna be a little careful, because as, as you just described conflicted couples, you know, not agreeing on some things, I’m sure that could be part of the vitalized couple-
Ron: It is.
Jim: … trait as well.
Jim: I mean, I… Yeah.
Ron: Um, but we what we know-
Jim: But it’s, but it’s a pattern.
Ron: But what we know about vitalized couples is that the, when they have conflict they resolve it. So it’s not the presence of conflict.
Ron: It’s whether you find your way through it together or if it puts you at odds with one another. That’s what separates vitalized couples, for example, from conflicted couples.
Jim: All right.
Ron: Now in this book, we built in this couple checkup profile. So it… There’s a code in the back of the book that allows couples to, uh, look at their own relationship. Now, here’s the point of the five types, you just kind of wanna get a sense of where you’re at, and you can take this profile and get this snapshot of your relationship. A quick story, uh, about two months ago I went into my audiologist. I had worn a hearing aid on my left ear for about over a decade, about 12 or 13 years. About the age 35 I started losing hearing in my left ear.
Ron: They did another test, my a- audiologist did, and she found an anomaly in the results. And she looked at me and she says, “I think you can get this fixed.” I went and had, long story short, I went and had surgery and I am sitting with you today without a hearing aid for the first time in well over a decade, hearing at normal levels.
Ron: Without that snapshot of the hearing, I would’ve never known I had an option that I didn’t know I, uh, was available to me. And I would not have known the steps to take to improve my hearing. Couples need a snapshot of their relationship on a regular basis. Once a year. And just eyeball and go, “Look, we’re doing great here, great here. Way to go honey, high five. But look, here’s some areas we can grow in our relationship.”
Ron: And that’s what we’ve encouraging couples to do, as they read this book, to get a sense of where they are, and then get a sense of how to improve.
Jim: That’s good. And it- it’s right there. How many questions, (laughs), do you have to go through?
Ron: Well, the prof-
Jim: That’s a guy’s question right there. (laughs).
Ron: Yeah, that’s right.
Jim: How many questions.
John: How long is it gonna take?
Ron: I’ll tell you how long. (laughs).
Ron: It takes about 30 minutes.
Ron: For you and for her-
Jim: That’s worth your marriage.
Ron: That’s worth your marriage.
Ron: 30 minutes once a year, I think you can do that.
John: And, and what do you get after you take that test? I mean, do you get the, the five identifiers that you just brought up? Or, or what?
Ron: You’re gonna get a, about a 10 to 12 page profile that’s gonna tell you how you’re doing in your relationship regarding communication, resolving conflict, leisure and finances, sexuality, your spiritual face. Does that bring you together or does it not? You’re gonna get that snapshot a l- across a lot of domains, a personality profile is built into it. And for stepfamily couples who are then reading this book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, they’re able to say, “Oh, look how we compare to what health is. And w- we can now say, we need to work on this and this, but we can feel really good about that and that.” We all need that, from time to time.
Jim: Uh, with that test, again, we’ve talked about how these things are broadly applicable. What about a person that’s in their first marriage? Can they take that test and are the measurements geared for them as well?
Ron: Couplecheckup.com, let me tell you how cool this thing is. It actually figures out what kind of marriage you’re in, a first marriage, a second marriage, if you’re dating or engaged, and it tailors-
Jim: It knows?
Ron: … itself to your circumstances and gives you the right questions.
Ron: So it’s a very sophisticated tool.
Jim: That’s great. Uh, you also, in that research, you identified the top 10 strengths of healthy, uh, step couples. Let’s talk about some of those.
Ron: Okay. The first one, we’ve already talked about, and that’s that sense that I can trust you, and fear is low, if l- if fear is low, the quality of the relationship goes up high. That, there’s just a direct correlation there. But then the next couple of items that showed up on the list are things that apply to all marriages. Communication, and resolving conflict. Now, I know you guys have talked about those a lot on this broadcast-
Ron: … through the years. Turns out, couples in stepfamilies gotta know how to communicate well. They gotta be able to connect. They gotta be able to talk about life, and schedules, and making decisions about money, and parenting. But here’s what I want people to see right off the bat, back to this fear issue, fear cascades negativity down on communication, and resolving conflict, and sexuality, and managing our finances.
Ron: It cascades negativity. But the absence of fear cascades positivity, e- the trust issue is key to couples, in particular in stepfamilies. That- That’s true for all couples, everybody has to be able to trust their partner. But what we found is that this is more of an issue for couples in blended family situations. And if they get that part right, then the other pieces of the relationship tend to go well.
Jim: Mm-hmm. Uh, some of the others that are also in that list of 10, shared leisure activity, uh, strong flexibility and adaptability, good financial management.
Jim: You touched on that. Healthy physical intimacy and affection, positive shared friendships and healthy boundaries. You know, as I read this list, uh, Ron, it is, you can see the intensity. It’s almost, uh, the imagery I get is a burner.
Jim: You know, for a first time married couple, uh, you’re learning for the first time all these things, to work them out together. Uh, there is special intensities, like the burner is turned up, in a negative way, in a stepfamily.
Jim: Because these things, you, you have more deeply rooted habits and behaviors that maybe prevent you from a more natural progression in this regard.
Ron: That’s an excellent observation. Let me say something about leisure, because this was a little interesting to me, all right? When we compare couples in stepfamilies to couples in first marriages, l- leisure activities, that, that is, do we enjoy fun things together? All right? Leisurely activities together. It- It’s important to both, first marriages and, and stepfamily marriages, but stepfamily marriages, it was higher on the list. Statistically, it’s more important. And so we began to wonder, why is that? What is there… What is going on there? And this is how I make sense of it, if the fear factor drains a relationship, the fun factor helps build it.
Jim: Yeah, fills the tank.
Ron: And so it is really important for couples in stepfamilies to carve out time away from the kids, away from the pressures, away from the, the, uh, ex-spouse and the struggles that go along with whatever those dynamics are, and really just go on a hike, (laughs), you know? Spend time together, uh, play cards. My parents have been married almost 61 years, they play cards, they play games, they invite friends over, and even if it’s just the two of ’em, they do that nearly every day.
Ron: That sort of stuff brings couples together.
Jim: Uh, Ron, let me ask you this as we wind up today. Uh, when you look at that, again, uh, there’s an in- instinct, it seems, in us, it’s a them and an us kind of approach.
Jim: Even with the kids. And that’s where that jealousy factor-
Jim: … I’m sure, is increased, because biologically, perhaps, there’s some lack of connection there, with those kids. How does a stepfather, a stepm- mother, see that, understand that, and then deal with it in a way that’s healthy for them? So that the kids don’t feel like, “I know you don’t see me as your own.”
Ron: Yeah, I think we’re back to h- humility again. The humility to w- look in the mirror and say, “You know, why am I so jealous of you? Why am I resentful of your time with my spouse or how this happens?” Uh, I’ve gotta know this thing in me that’s insecure. That wants to be central to my spouse’s life but I don’t feel like I am. So I need to take a deep breath and realize that it’s appropriate for you to spend time with your kids, in a balanced sort of way, you know, not e- entirely, but obvious in balance with your relationship with me and our marriage, and your relationship with your kids, all things are beneficial when they’re in balance. And I’ve gotta just breathe through and say, “This is all right, we’ll find our time. Uh, let me communicate to you my need that we spend a little extra time together but do so softly rather than anger-”
Ron: “… in anger or with critici-”
Ron: “… criticism and harshness.”
John: With humility, as you were saying earlier.
Ron: With humility, exactly.
Jim: Ron, we’ve talked a lot today about, uh, different aspects of the stepfamily, but these principles apply, as we’ve said throughout the program today, to all of us, uh, first married and, uh, stepfamilies. Uh, you mentioned the need for the fruit of the spirit, (laughs), man, again, a general principle, but that intensity of seeking the fruit of the spirit is so much more important in that stepfamily relationship, because you have so much, uh, potentially negative, uh, atmosphere that you gotta deal with. So you gotta pursue it with even greater zeal, is what I hear you saying.
Ron: That’s right.
Jim: Um, especially humility.
Jim: That’s come through loud and clear. That idea that the huge problem in marriage is fear.
Jim: Not trust. The exact opposite. Uh, you’ve said that so well. And that couples need, and I think it’s brilliant for all of us, that we need a snapshot of where we’re at. And how do we measure against healthy couples. And, uh, by taking that healthy couple profile, uh, people can get an idea of where they’re at. There is more to cover, um, we gotta get into some of the solutions, how do we apply these things. I think we’ve hit the issues really well, but let’s come back next time, if you’re willing, and talk about it.
Ron: Would be happy to.
John: This is Focus on the Family with Jim Daly and our guest is Ron Deal, talking about his book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family.
Jim: Uh, John, we ended our conversation with Ron on a positive note, and I’m glad there are so many great resources like his book to help couples who are thinking about remarriage or are already in a blended family situation. Let me encourage you, uh, keep working on your relationship, uh, good marriages don’t just happen. Uh, every day you have a choice, uh, to make, about loving and serving your spouse. I think that’s God’s point about marriage. And we want to help you keep your marriage strong. And that’s why we’ll send you a copy of Ron’s book when you send a gift of any amount to Focus on the Family today. And if not for you, uh, get a copy for another couple that you know. And let’s work together to strengthen these relationships.
John: You can donate and get the book when you call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459, or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: And John, for those couples who may be struggling in their relationship, whether it’s a first marriage or a remarriage situation, uh, we wanna help you as well. We’ve got our counseling team, and Hope Restored where we offer intensive counseling over several days for couples who may be on the brink of divorce. Don’t let your marriage fall apart. That’s the point. God’s got something better for you and your spouse. And we want to help you in any way we can. So contact us today, uh, set up a consultation with one of our counselors, or ask for more information about Hope Restored.
John: And once again, our number is 800-A-FAMILY, or online you’ll find us at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And coming up next time, more from our guest about dealing with the ghost of a past marriage.
Ron Deal: For the person who’s spouse just turned and walked out, had an affair, and let, uh, the marriage is over. Bam, you didn’t see it coming and there it is, the ghost says, “Boy, life can turn on a dime. Don’t lean in too far.”