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Improving Your Marriage as a Blended Family Couple (Part 1 of 2)

Air Date 10/28/2015

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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 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


John Fuller: This is John Fuller and on today's "Focus on the Family" with Focus president Jim Daly, we're gonna be looking at the wonderful relationship husbands and wives can have in marriage, but we're gonna offer a slightly different perspective and here's an observation by marriage and family counselor, Ron Deal.


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 then it is necessarily even on the couple dynamics.

End of Teaser

Jim Daly: John, we know a significant portion of the people listening to us, don't fit the traditional stereotype of what marriage looks like and we hear from you. We know that we're talking often here at Focus on the Family about traditional marriage, but we know there are many, many stepfamilies in this country, in this world and certainly, listeners to this ministry. So, we want to talk to you today.

But one of the great things is, the tips and the helps that we're gonna talk about today can be applied to all marriages. It's not just stepfamilies. I think the issue in the stepfamily situation is that these things, these weaknesses can be accentuated because of the unique stresses that are on the relationship and we are gonna talk about how God can work through your relationship to make you stronger than you are today.

John: And Ron Deal from whom you heard just a moment ago, is our go-to expert in this area of stepfamilies and stepparenting and today he's going to help us better understand these dynamics. Ron is the director of FamilyLife Blended and that's a ministry of FamilyLife. He's written a number of books and one that forms the basis for the discussion today is called The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family. And we've got details about that and a download of a CD of the program and our mobile app so you can listen on the go, at we'll tell you more when you call 800-A-FAMILY


Jim: Ron, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."

Ron: Thanks, Jim. It's always good to be with you guys.

Jim: Well, it's good to have you, because you have such great insights and I'm excited about your new work here, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage. What I said a moment ago is true though. These principles can apply to every marriage, can't they?

Ron: Yes, that's exactly right. We learned some things in the study that's the basis of this book that apply to all marriages. And there are some things that are very unique about stepfamily marriages.

Jim: Let's talk about those uniquenesses right from the get-go. What are those things that make stepfamilies unique, compared to traditional families?

Ron: Well, let me give an example. This book is based on the study that Dr. David Olson and I did together, using 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 No. 1 thing on the list sounds general and applies to everybody and that's do I like you? Do I—

Jim: That's pretty basic.

Ron: --really like who you are, the qualities and attributes that you bring to the relationship and the marriage? The opposite of that would be, you know, you got some bad habits. 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 great to be married to you.

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 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. If I'm not sure I can trust you, 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've 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 stepfamilies, I mean, that creates an environment where I can't trust you.

Jim: That's interesting, Ron. Let me ask you about that because are those some of the antecedents that created the difficulty perhaps even in the first marriage? Now I want to acknowledge that many stepfamilies are formed through the death of a spouse 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, you know, how a person behaves.

Ron: I think it's a "yes, but." For some times, 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 not normally do.

So for example, 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: 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 ahold of that so the better fruit of the Spirit can come out?

Ron: You know--

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. 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 want to 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 the humility of heart to stop, to really consider what is this about me that I need to get a hand[le on]? Jesus put it this way, all right, in the Sermon on the Mount. "You fool. 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 first, dealing with yourself before the Lord. Then and only then He says, can you help somebody else deal with a speck.

Jim: Yeah, let's talk about some of the parameters within stepfamilies. 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 percent higher than it is for couples in first marriages, depending upon their circumstances.

Jim: And it's this effect of intensity it sounds like.

Ron: Yeah and we've talked in other broadcasts here about just the stressors and there are multiple stressors that go on around the couple's relationship, that create this environment where you start doing and acting in ways that are not loving.

Jim: And what we want to talk about today and we have talked in the past about some of those stressors being children and the difficulty of integrating. I mean, I love the analogy that I haven't forgotten and that is, stepfamilies tend to aim more for being a Crock-Pot, a slow process of stewing together (Chuckling) so that the flavor comes out.

Ron: Right.

Jim: But today let's concentrate on the marriage relationship, understanding we know the children bring a different dynamic. You talk about delayed honeymoon for the stepcouple in your book. What were you getting at with delayed honeymoon?

Ron: Yeah, it's kinda the function of the Crock-Pot that you were just talking about. There is a honeymoon for couples. It often comes though once the Crock-Pot has done the work in bringing the entire family together. Now notice this. 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, 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: Is that unique to a stepfamily?

Ron: It is. I think it really is. Now all families deal with that on some level once children come into the picture for a first-married couple. You know, it affects their marriage.

Jim: But those are still internal kind—

Ron: Exactly.

Jim: --of issues--

Ron: Exactly and they're more—

Jim: --not external.

Ron: --unified in dealing with those things than are stepfamily couples.

Jim: Right. You mentioned the research. Describe that research. It was a large sample size.

Ron: It was. David Olson created the Prepare/Enrich inventory that's used all over the world and he's been collecting data for years and years and years. And we went into his stockpile, if you will.

Jim: Fifty thousand.

Ron: Fifty thousand couple profiles, 100,000 people in our data set. That's just a massive study and that's his genius, not mine, okay? 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 talkin' earlier, this idea of being afraid that this marriage won't last, okay? Whether that's prompted by my own fears or something going on around us with the kids or your ex-spouse or whatever the antecedent is to that fear, fear predicts with 93 percent accuracy whether you have a great marriage or a lousy one--

Jim: How—

Ron: --in a stepfamily.

Jim: --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, 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 were you really where you said? I find that I don't share all my money with you. I'd rather us have a joint account for the bills we pay together, but I want to make sure I keep my individual account.

Now first of all, let me just back up and say, 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 personality—

Ron: Exactly.

Jim: --behind it, right.

Ron: Sometimes people do that because deep within them is this fear, that you might leave me the way the last one did.

Jim: Right.

Ron: And I want to make sure I don't get caught without anything in the bank and so—

Jim: And some of that—

Ron: --I'm lookin' out for myself.

Jim: --some of that, Ron is reasonable. I mean, especially you know, not to be stereotypical here, but a woman who was wounded by her husband that was, you know, cheated on her, she could have that feeling that, you know—

Ron: She—

Jim: --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—

Ron: And plus—

Jim: --open up.

Ron: --yeah, and that's exactly the point. Fear makes us guarded and cautious. It makes me think a little bit more about protecting myself than surrendering myself.

Jim: Well--

Ron: Now just listen to that.

Jim: --yeah.

Ron: We know biblical Christian marriage is about surrender. And so this thing that is within people that says, I'm gonna withhold a little of me is the opposite of where Christ wants to move us. And so, this is 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 gonna work out on the other side."

Jim: Yeah, that's an excellent point. That's the stressor I was gonna put there, is that that's what the Lord requires of all of us 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 just really think this is so very important. We come to the Lord 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 every knee will bow and every tongue confess. 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.

Jim: Yeah, Ron, that is powerful. This is "Focus on the Family" and our guest is Ron Deal, talking about how to make a marriage within a stepfamily stronger and healthier. But as we said at the beginning, a lot of this is applicable to all of our marriages. And Ron has written a great book called The Smart Stepfamily Marriage with David Olson and I think you and I and everybody need to get a copy of that, along with a CD or download of our entire conversation with Ron, because it will help every marriage.

John: And you'll find details to do that at when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And if you're experiencing any of that pain or fear or guardedness in relationship, as Ron has described, please contact us here. We have a lot of resources at Focus on the Family that can help.

Jim: And I want to emphasize the counseling team here at Focus. We are staffed with counselors. They may have to call you back because of the volume, but that is one of the core ways that we want to help. And they are there and let me encourage you to take advantage of that. You know, donors have supported that area of the ministry and we want to be there is you need assistance.

We also have Focus on the Family's National Institute of Marriage, where we offer intensive counseling for husbands and wives who are ready to call it quits. Oftentimes these couples have signed the divorce papers. This is the last opportunity before they divorce. And I am pleased that they have an 84.7 percent success rate two years post intervention and that's a great thing. I think it's one of the best stories here at Focus on the Family.

Ron, you also offer some practical tools for married couples in your book and you have a relationship checkup, which is intriguing to me. And through your research, you've identified, I think five types of marriages. Talk about the need for that checkup and then the five big buckets that 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 couple's relationship across a number of domains, for example, communication and managing conflict, and sexuality, 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.

Jim: Okay.

Ron: They're extremely happy. They hardly ever think about divorce or separation. They just are goin' and blowin', right. I think God intends all of us to be vitalized couples ideally.

Next comes couples that they call "harmonious." These are couples that have many strengths, but there's a few areas in their relationship that they can 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 gonna get divorced because God said don't. And we know from research that churches are full of these kinds of couples, all right, not—

Jim: What percentage--

Ron: --particularly happy.

Jim: --do these break down to?

Ron: Well, I don't actually know percentages, but what we do know, 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 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. Obviously that carries the idea they're really struggling. They're arguing about some things. They're not getting along. And then "devitalized" couples, really are in a tough, tough situation. They have the highest divorce rate. In fact, half of those couples divorce within three years.

Jim: I want to be a little careful, 'cause 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.

Ron: Exactly.

Jim: I mean, yeah.

Ron: But what we know—

Jim: It's a pattern.

Ron: --but what we know about vitalized couples is that when they have conflict, they resolve it. So it's not the presence of conflict, 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, there's a code in the back of the book that allows couples to look at their own relationship. Now here's the point of the five types. You just kinda want to get a sense of where you're at. And you can take this profile and get this snapshot of your relationship.

Couples need a snapshot of their relationship on a regular basis, once a year. And just eyeball it and go, "Look, we're doin' great here, great here, way to go, honey, high five. But look; here's some areas we can grow in our relationship." And that's what we've [been] 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's right there. How many questions do you have to go through? That's a guy's question.

Ron: Yeah, that's (Laughter) right.

Jim: How many questions--

John: How long?

Jim: --that you need me to take? (Laughter)

Ron: Takes about 30 minutes—

Jim: Okay.

Ron: --for you—

Jim: That's worth--

Ron: --and for her.

Jim: --your marriage.

Ron: That's worth your marriage; 30 minutes once a year, I think you can do that.

John: And what do you get after you take that test? I mean, do you get the five identifiers that you just brought up or what?

Ron: You're gonna get 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 faith. Does that bring you together or does it not? You're gonna get that snapshot 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 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: 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?, 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.

Jim: Okay.

Ron: So, it's a very sophisticated tool.

Jim: That's great. You also in that research, you identified the top 10 strengths of healthy stepcouples. 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 fear is low; the quality of the relationship goes up high. 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 through the years. [It] 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. It cascades negativity. But the absence of fear cascades positivity. The trust issue is key to couples and particular[ly] in stepfamilies. That's true for all couples. Everybody has to be able to trust their partner, but what we've 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: Some of the others that are also in that list of 10, shared leisure activity, a strong flexibility and adaptability, good financial management--you touched on that--healthy physical intimacy and affection, positive shared friendships and healthy boundaries. You know, as I read this list, Ron, is you can see the intensity. It's almost … the imagery I get is a burner. You know, for a first-time married couple, you're learning for the first time all these things to work them out together.

There is special intensity. It's like the burner is turned up in a negative way in a stepfamily because these things, 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, leisure activities, that is, do we enjoy fun things together, all right, leisurely activities together. It's important to both first marriages and stepfamily marriages, but stepfamily marriages it was higher on the list. Statistically it's more important.

Ron: 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. It's the fear factor [that] 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 ex-spouse and the struggles that go along with whatever those dynamics are and really just go on a hike. You know, spend time together. 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 them, they do that nearly every day. That sort of stuff brings couples together.

Jim: Ron, let me ask you this as we wind up today, when you look at that again, there's an instinct it seems in us. It's "a them and an us" kind of approach, even with the kids. And that's where that jealousy factor, I'm sure, is increased, because biologically perhaps, there's some lack of connection there with those kids. How does a stepfather, a stepmother 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 humility again, the humility to 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? 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 entirely, but obviously, 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. Let me communicate to you my need that we spend a little extra time together," but do so softly, rather than anger, in anger or with criticism and harshness.

John: With humility as—

Ron: With humility--

John: --you were saying earlier.

Ron: --exactly.

Jim: Ron, we've talked a lot together about different aspects of the stepfamily, but these principles apply as we've said throughout the program today, to all of us—first married and stepfamilies. You mentioned the need for the fruit of the Spirit. 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 potentially negative 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: --especially humility, that's come through loud and clear. That idea that the huge problem in marriage is fear, not trust, the exact opposite. You've said that so well. And that couple's 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 by taking that healthy couple profile, people can get an idea of where they're at. There is more to cover. 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: [I] would be happy to.


John: And thanks for helping us understand those unique challenges that husband and wives face in a stepfamily situation. Now to follow up, I'll recommend, of course, Ron's book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, which is a great resource. It's full of practical tips on healthy communication and remarriage finances, physical and spiritual intimacy and more. And you can order that, along with a CD or a download of our entire conversation with Ron at or call 800-232-6459 to learn more; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

And if you have a passion for stepfamily ministry, Ron and several other key leaders are hosting a stepfamily summer. It's just a couple of weeks away in Irvine, California. And they'd like to equip pastors and lay couples with proven strategies for helping stepfamilies in your sphere of influence. We'll link over to more information about about that stepfamily summit at our website.

And then finally, let me invite you to join our support team here at Focus on the Family. We rely on your prayers and on your generous financial gifts here at Focus on the family and while we want to strengthen and rescue marriages and give couples the tools they need to maintain healthy, thriving relationships, we can only do that with you as our partner. Please consider a gift today so hundreds of thousands and wives, who contact us every year, can receive trusted advice and encouragement. Call 800-A-FAMILY to donate or to request resources or you can do so online at . And we'll say thank you for your generosity by sending a complimentary copy of Ron's book to you when you donate today. It's for your use or perhaps to pass along to a stepfamily couple you know.

Today's program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow for more insights from Ron Deal about expectations and unity in a stepcouple marriage, as we once again, help your family thrive. 

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Ron Deal

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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.