Blending Families: Slow is Good
About the Guest
Blending a family is easy, right? Find a new spouse, get married, work out a few living details and introduce your stepchildren...that's it! You're golden, right? Blended Family Counselor Ron Deal says "not so fast". Blending two families is a lot slower, more complicated and more fraught with challenges than anyone expects.
Blending a family is easy, right? Ron Deal says “not so fast”. Blending two families is a lot slower, more complicated and more fraught with challenges than anyone expects.
Blending Families: Slow is Good
Bob: One of the goals in a blended marriage is for step-children and step-parents to get along—to enjoy being with one another—maybe even love each other. Ron Deal says, “That’s something you can’t hurry.”
Ron: The kids are going to decide whether they’re going to love you and how much they’re going to love you. It’s kind of like a friendship. When you develop a new friendship—you get to know somebody—you like them; but you don’t share your deepest, darkest whatevers in life. You kind of hold back on that until you decide you can trust them a little more, and a little more, and a little more. So, there’s tentativeness to the relationship. Time is one of those things that tests and proves it and helps you to deepen that love and commitment relationship; but, in the beginning, it’s kind of fragile.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 23rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Being a step-parent can be a real challenge. We’re going to see if we can offer some real help today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. You know, I think there’s a group of people that I’ve gotten to know over the last couple of years—a group of people who have to be some of the most grateful fans of FamilyLife because of an initiative that we’ve undertaken here to try to help them with the challenges they’re facing in their marriage.
Dennis: Yes—you’re talking about blended families.
Dennis: I look back over the decisions I’ve made, over almost four decades of ministry here, at FamilyLife. There are some ‘duh’ decisions that I’ve made, and this was one of them. It was like, “What took me so long to recognize that there is a huge number of people, in our culture today, who are in blended families—who just desperately need to be equipped by someone who know what they’re doing?”
That’s why we hired Ron Deal to come in here to FamilyLife. He is arguably the number one expert on blended families within the Christian community—and has been for the last 25 years. Bob, he’s making a huge difference. He’s bringing hope to a segment of the Christian community and the church that I think desperately needs to hear his message.
Bob: Well, anytime we’ve sat down with Ron and tossed him a hard question about blended families, he’s had an answer. He’s talked to somebody who’s been in it.
Dennis: He’s been there.
Bob: He’s helped navigate folks through the waters of the blended family challenges. Coming up in October, Ron is getting together with a couple hundred people from all across the country—who do blended family ministry in local churches or in local communities—for the Blended and Blessed Summit. This is the second annual event. They’re going to be spending the days talking about how we can more effectively help, and equip, and strengthen the marriages of folks who are in some challenging situations in a blended family.
Dennis: And there’ll be people in Washington, DC, coming together from all over the United States—and likely from some foreign countries as well—who are looking for some of the best practices in blended family ministry; and we’re going to have them. They’re going to be there and they’re going to be rubbing shoulders with each other for a couple of days prior to the I Still Do™ event that’ll be held at the Verizon Center on the following Saturday.
Bob: Yes. If you’d like more information about the Blended and Blessed Summit that’s coming up October 2nd and 3rd in Washington, DC, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click in the upper left-hand corner where it says “GO DEEPER.” The information about the Blended and Blessed Summit is available there—also, information about the I Still Do event on Saturday, October 4th, at the Verizon Center.
I should mention, too, that the message we’re going to hear from Ron Deal today was actually recorded onboard the Love Like You Mean It® marriage cruise a few months ago. If folks are interested in finding out more about the Love Like You Mean It marriage cruise in 2015, there’s a link there as well.
So, lots of different options for you to check out; but we do hope, if you have any interest in or heart for blended families, you’ll come to the Blended and Blessed Summit in Washington, DC, October 2nd and 3rd.
We’re going to hear today Part One of a message from Ron Deal as he met with a group of folks in step-families and talked about the elements that make for a successful step-family—and particularly, successful step-parenting.
Ron: Let’s start talking about four pillars of step-parent success. Now, first of all, let me notice that there are four levels. So, let me talk about level one—three foundations for biological parents. Now, let me just push “Pause” there for a minute because some of you are going: “Now, wait a minute. I thought we were talking about step-parent success. Why are you addressing the biological parents?”
Well, that’s easy—because you, bio-parents, hold the power to either set up step-parents for success or no success. It really hinges on you, as biological parents, and the role that you play with your kids. Why? Because you have an attachment that affords you an insider status—and the power and the ability to follow through with things—that step-parents can’t do without the same attachment. So, there are certain wars and battles that have to be fought by bio-parents that can’t be fought by step-parents.
Number one foundation: “Declare your loyalty to your spouse.” This is just kind of one of those general statements to say that—you know what? —your kids need to hear you say, time and time again—that you are a lifer with this spouse that you have chosen, and that your marriage matters, and that you’re not going to be divided.
What I’m not saying is that you declare to your kids, “I love my spouse, and I don’t love you.”
Every once in a while I get feedback from somebody who heard me say that. That is not what I’m saying at all—absolutely not. What I’m saying is: “They just need to know there are no chinks in your armor. They just need to understand that they can’t work you and pull you away from that marriage.” Does that make sense?
So, declaring your loyalty is just kind of that general statement of love and trust about the marriage—and that that is something you are deeply committed to—as you are committed to your children. You are committed to them still, but you’re also deeply committed to that marriage relationship—that’s number one.
Number two is: “Pass power to the step-parent and back them up.” This is what we do whenever you hire a babysitter. You pass power to the babysitter. Remember that little speech you give your kids? “Alright, while we’re gone, she’s in charge.” You have some cute little 15-year-old that the kids have never met before—and: “She’s in charge? Are you kidding me?” “Yes, she’s in charge.”
Now, what you say to them is passing power to her: “If you disobey her, it is as if you’re disobeying me.”
That makes a very strong statement to the children about her level of authority on that given night. It helps set her up for some success; right?—because she doesn’t have that power in and of herself—she’s just a stand-in—but she can now enforce rules—even perhaps impose a consequence. It carries the weight of that biological parent. It’s a very important principle.
Step-parents need the help of the biological parent to support them, and lift them, and boost them up, within the eyes of the children and within the household itself—maybe even with your in-laws—maybe even to other outsiders that are invested in your family. They, too, need to understand the step-parent has some power, as far as you’re concerned. That’s what passing power is really all about.
Okay, so let’s go back to number three: “Trust a step-parent’s heart.” When I say “Trust a step-parent’s heart,” let me tell you about a big trap that happens sometimes in blended families—not in every family—but sometimes.
It’s this trap—it’s the attachment trap as it gets played out in the realm of trust.
There will be times, in biological homes, where mom and dad disagree with each other. There are times when moms and dads coach each other on how to parent better with their own children. That’s kind of what parenting is—a two-person process. You work together as a team, and you help each other; right?
If Dad comes home one day, and he’s walking into the living room, and he’s watching his wife deal with a situation, and he’s going: “Ooh. You should see how you respond sometimes with the kids. I just want you to know what it looks like—what it feels like from the receiving end of that.” He’s trying to help his wife be a better wife—just give a little feedback.
Now, is it deep criticism—is he telling her she’s a horrible person? No, no, no, no, no—he’s not doing any of that. He’s just saying, “The manner in which you go about sometimes—some things—I just want you to see...” Now, what he doesn’t do, in that moment, is—he doesn’t look at his wife and say: “And I know why you’ve made that face.
“It’s because you hate our kids.” Well, of course, she doesn’t hate the kids—they’re her kids! He knows that. He doesn’t ever call into question her heart. See where this is going?
One of the traps sometimes—for you, biological parents—is you see your spouse respond to your children in a certain way, and you judge it. You not only judge: “Oh, you should have seen your face!” but you go much deeper than that to their heart. You judge their heart. You’re saying: “I know why you did that—because you don’t love my kids.” In that moment, it’s: “Us against you.” So, you have to be very careful that you don’t get to that level of judgment about the heart of the other person.
If you’ve gone there, just own it. Just kind of look in the mirror and go: “You know what? I do. I kind of believe that you’re going to be harsh because… I kind of believe—
“I kind of found myself, on the front-end of situations, going: ‘Oh, I know where this is going to go,’ and, ‘I know why you’re going to do that—because you just don’t love my kids the way I love my kids.’” Immediately, what does that muster up inside you, as biological parents—defensiveness—right? Now, you’re guarded. Now, you’re being protector of your children rather than unified with your spouse in parenting your children. Are you with me on that? Do you see how powerful that moment is and how it sets you against each other, as a couple?
Now, let me balance this conversation. Are there times when step-parents blow it?—absolutely! Is there a time and a season for a bio-parent to give some feedback to a step-parent?—just as there is a time for step-parents to give bio-parents feedback—right?
You’re a team—you’re trying to help each other. It’s well and good for you to come to one another and approach each other in gentleness—I emphasize the word gentleness—and say to one another, “Hey, I know we’re in this thing together.” In fact, there’s the set-up; right?
That’s how you avoid the trap—is let your intention be very clear: “Hey, listen, I know we’re in this thing together. I know you want great things for the kids.” You feed it with: “I know your heart. I know your intent. I know what you’re after. I know you think grounding the kids for six months is the best way to teach them responsibility. I kind of disagree, but I know that you have good intentions / goodwill towards the kids. That’s not in question. But I am calling into question six months.” You see how you get there?
Then, what do you have to do, if you’re on the receiving end of that—whether you’re the step-parent or the biological parent? Well, you have to deal with you. You have to deal with that defensive part of you that rises up and says: “You’re telling me I’m a bad person! You’re telling me I’m no good. You’re telling me I’m…” You have to deal with that part of you. You have to take a deep breath—calm yourself, just for a second—and go: “Okay, Lord. Let me listen and just hear if there’s something here I need to know”; and listen.
Then, you can decide what to do with it. You put away that defensiveness, and then maybe you can find each other.
Then, what happens, on the back end of that, is that you’ve come together, as a team. You have more confidence in one another in terms of how you move forward. Be careful not to over-judge the step-parents.
Level two: “Stand together, as a team.” Alright; so this is about teamwork—this unity thing—that principle—that age-old principle for parents—parental unity—right? We want to have that in a bio-parent / step-parent scenario, just like we do in any other—in any other parenting scenario. Talk, negotiate, and support your shared decisions—finding that unity is a really important thing.
Number two: “Bio-parents, especially in the beginning, are going to take the primary role with their kids. Step-parents are going to take the secondary role with their step-children.” Family therapist, Bill Doherty, calls this: “Bio-parents are first violin. Step-parents are second violin.” I love that imagery.
See, you’re still a parent, as a step-parent. Babysitters are still an authority, but they’re not parents. Why?—because they don’t have the attachment. It’s developing—they have one—but it’s not the same as the biological parent’s. Especially, early on, in your family’s walk—this is more important.
As you get through some years, and some time, and the test, and the relationships have solidified, then it becomes less important. But, in the beginning, we’re going to let that biological parent— who has that emotional attachment and that authority that comes with it—be the one who walks out the really tough moments with the kids. Right there, standing beside him, is second violin—playing just as strong—but somebody has to take the lead. That’s what first violins do. They take the lead. They’re all playing off the same sheet music. They’re all playing the same notes—first and second violins—but somebody has to take the lead. We’re going to default to that emotional attachment that gives you some stability and some authority to walk through that moment.
Number four in level two says: “Strive to be alternating advocates.” Again, contrast—in biological family households—moms and dads take turns, on occasion, being an advocate for their kids or for the kids for some scenario. On Monday, it’s the dad who comes to the wife and says: “Hey, look. I’m thinking we need to kind of lighten up our noose a little bit on the kids and this rule about such and such. I think it’s time we give them a little more responsibility and we take a little less initiative. What do you think about that?” And then on the next day, it’s the mom who comes to the dad. She says: “You know, I was kind of noticing how you are dealing with such and such, with Johnny. I’m thinking that maybe we could deal with that differently. Let’s talk about that.” They take turns speaking up about what they think is best for the children.
The trap in a bio-parent / step-parent scenario is that bio-parents get trapped into being the ones on the defensive for their kids. They are the ones who kind of voice them:
“You know, I think it’s time we do this,” or, “…we lighten up,” or, “I think we’re being…” The step-parent ends up being the one who always seems to be saying: “Why can’t we make some change? How come we can’t do this? Why can’t we expect more from the kids?” It’s just this natural thing—where you begin to drift into those camps. It’s kind of dangerous—it’s kind of dangerous.
A really healthy scenario—and you can kind of gauge yourselves by this—how often is it that the bio-parent’s coming to the step-parent, going, “I need some help.” That’s a good observation—when the step-parent is kind of advocating on behalf of what would be helpful for the child. You just take turns. That’s really the sign of health—is that, over time, we take turns kind of speaking up for what we think needs to happen with the children.
Level three: Wise biological parents—a couple of tips for you— “Number one: Don’t become easily defensive.” It’s already come up two or three times—have you noticed?
It’s an easy place to run to because it kind of feels like—if the other person—the step-parent—is making a remark about your children or they’re criticizing: “You know, why doesn’t Johnny get out of bed?” You know?—and, “He never follows through. I mean, why is it we have to constantly remind this kid to do ‘x,’ ‘y,’ and ‘z’?”
Now, what’s behind that step-parent’s complaint?—a heart for the child—they want a good thing—want the kid to learn responsibility, and grow up, and do well. But what they said was, “Your son’s lazy,”—at least, that’s what the bio-parent hears. Then, you react to that with: “Oh, you’re telling me I’ve done a bad job parenting my kids all these years,” and, “You’re telling me I’m bad—not only is my kid bad—but I’m bad,”—the defensiveness; right? It’s just one of those things—you have to put that barometer on your heart. You have to measure your own level of defensiveness. You have to catch it. That’s it—you have to catch it.
How do we stop being defensive? You don’t stop being defensive—you catch it. You just catch it and not let it dictate who you are and how you respond. That’s the hard part.
Pray about it—talk to the Lord about it: “God, give me that insight into what’s going on with me in that moment when they say something and it’s true. I know he doesn’t get out of bed. He kind of drives me crazy too. But in that moment, all I can say is, ‘Why are you picking on my kid? It’s okay.’”
Here’s really the risk for bio-parents, in that moment: agree with your spouse. “Aaah! But if I do that, they’re going to think my kid’s horrible. They’re never going to love my kid, and then we’re never going to blend as a family. If we can’t blend—if I can’t control my spouse’s emotions towards my kid—then we’re never going to come together as a family! So what I have to do is I have to defend my child to my spouse, above all other options, so that my spouse will actually like my kid.”
It doesn’t work! Feel free to have at it, but that always gets you more of an insider sticking with insiders—pushing out the outsider—than it ever does the very thing you’re wanting—and that’s bringing people together.
Your defensiveness is a trap to sabotage the very thing you’re striving for. You just have to put a barometer on it and measure it.
Consider the outsider step-parent’s perspective. Have you noticed that not on all occasions, but every once in awhile, outsiders can see things insiders can’t see? “Oh, honey, your little girl has you wrapped around her finger. You have no idea that she is playing you like crazy! I can see it a mile away.” They’re right! You’ve been insider in that world for so long. It’s so tight. It’s so what it is, and it’s so comfortable for you—you can’t see it.
Every once in awhile, trust their heart: “I want good things for your children. I want good things for you. I want good things for us. I have goodwill in this scenario, and so I’m bringing to you an observation. Can we talk about that?”
You have to give that some credibility. Doesn’t mean they’re always right—it just means it’s something worthy of listening to.
Bob: Well, we’ve been listening to the first part of a message from Ron Deal, helping step-parents. One of the things I love about what Ron has to say to [bio-parents] is—your allegiance has to be to your spouse. Your children are important—
Dennis: If you give them a chance, they’ll take over.
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: They want to be number one and eradicate whoever’s number two.
Bob: The best thing you can do for them is to let them know that you have a new allegiance to a new spouse and that they’re not going to be able to sever that. In the long run, that message is one that will serve your children.
Dennis: And here’s what you just heard. It’s described in Proverbs 24: 3-5: “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.
“A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might. For by wise guidance you can wage your war…” We all need wisdom in any marriage relationship; but in a blended family, you really need the wisdom from above which is first peaceable—it’s full of peace. That is what Ron is equipping people to do.
Bob, I would just invite our listeners—if any of them have a blended family ministry / want to think about reaching out to blended families in their church / their community—come join us at the Blended and Blessed Summit. Greg Smalley from Focus on the Family is going to be speaking. We are thrilled to link arms with them and making this available. It is going to be a great time. You thoroughly are going to be equipped to address the needs of blended families.
Bob: Thursday and Friday, October 2nd and 3rd at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. As you said, this is for lay men and women who are interested in helping blended families. It’s for pastors who want to see a blended-family ministry get started in your church. It’s for those who are already engaged in blended family ministry.
Find out more when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You click in the upper-left hand corner of the page where it says, “GO DEEPER.” You’ll find a link to the Blended and Blessed conference. Dennis and I are going to be there—Greg Smalley from Focus on the Family is going to be joining us. We have a great day-and-a-half mapped out. Again, get details, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to find out more about the Blended and Blessed conference for blended families October 2nd and 3rd in Washington, DC.
There is also information on our website about Ron Deal’s newly-revised updated and expanded book, The Smart Step-family. About half of this book is brand-new. It’s just now out. You can find out more at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Of course, Ron is going to be joining us at the upcoming I Still Do™ one-day marriage events happening in Chicago on August 2nd, Portland on August 23rd, and Washington, DC, on October 4th. We’d love to have you be a part of this I Still Do one-day celebration for marriage. Find out more, online, at IStillDo.com or call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Tomorrow, we hope you can be back with us. We’re going to hear Part Two of Ron Deal’s message on how to strengthen your relationship between you and your step-children. That comes up tomorrow. Hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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