Finding Realistic Expectations
About the Guest
Roll up your sleeves and put on your apron. You're about to do some cooking! Marriage and family therapist Ron Deal will tell you how to blend a stepfamily so that it comes out just right!
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Marriage and family therapist Ron Deal will tell you how to blend a stepfamily so that it comes out just right!
Finding Realistic Expectations
Bob: One of the big issues for children in a stepfamily is trying to figure out where their loyalties lie. Here’s Ron Deal.
Ron: The child, after remarriage, now says, "Okay, wait a minute. This guy, I guess, is now my dad; or he's my stepdad or something." They almost feel some obligation to have a relationship with him; but, at the same time—in the back of his mind—his biological dad is in another home, saying, "Now, don't enjoy him too much." This 11-year-old is getting the idea that, “I can't be loyal to my stepdad because it would be disloyal to my biological dad.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, April 24th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. There are a lot of tangled relationships that happen when families get blended. It can be tough to try to untangle some of those. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. We're going to do a little cooking today on the broadcast. We've got a recipe we're going to bring out and just see what we can whip up, here in Mr. Rainey's kitchen. (Laughter) How's that? Mr. Rainey's kitchen!
Dennis: We're going to talk about stepfamilies.
Bob: You're going to give that guy—what's his name on the Food Network™?—give him a run for his money.
Dennis: I have some recipes, Bob. You underestimate me.
Bob: No, I have tasted your cooking. It's very good.
Dennis: I like to cook. Unfortunately, I like to eat, too.
Bob: That's right. (Laughter)
Dennis: We're not going to talk about cooking on the broadcast—except, in just a moment, we are going to give you a recipe for how to cook a stepfamily; alright? We have with us the master chef, Ron Deal. Ron, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: Thank you. It's great to be back.
Dennis: Ron does seminars, all across the country, called "Building a Successful Stepfamily". You've, I guess, talked to thousands of folks in churches, and small groups, and retreats, all across the country, over the past ten years?
Dennis: Ron and his wife live in Jonesboro, Arkansas, with their three sons. He's a minister. He's a counselor—I think, has got a lot to say that's very, very helpful. He has a recipe. It's “How to Cook a Stepfamily”. Now, did you come up with this recipe yourself, Ron?
Ron: Actually, I did. You know, I was thinking, one day, about the blended family and that metaphor. We said on yesterday’s program that most stepfamilies don't blend, and somebody usually gets creamed if they do. I started thinking, “Well, if they don't blend, how do you cook a stepfamily?” I mean, the notion of a blender is—you put a bunch of ingredients in something and, all of a sudden, they become one fluid mixture.
That's just not quite what stepfamilies end up to become. So, “How do you do this?” Well, I thought about the food processor. That just chops somebody up, and somebody gets chopped up in the process. For example, a parent who says to their child, "Okay, you need to call your stepfather, 'Daddy'. We're not calling him 'Frank'. We're not calling him 'Stepdad'. You need to call him, 'Daddy.'" In effect, Mom has just chopped up real dad. He lives somewhere else, but he no longer exists. We've chopped him up; now, “This is now your new real dad.”
That kind of pressure—that kind of message—really backfires within stepfamilies. It doesn't work. Food processor doesn't help.
I began to think some about the microwave. These are families who want to be a nuke-lear family. (Laughter)
Dennis: Did you catch that, Bob?
Ron: It took you a minute; didn't it?
Dennis: Oh, no, I read it first. I'd already caught it!
Ron: They're working really hard to not be any different than anybody else. They refused—I had a guy call in to a radio program I was on one time and argue with me. "We're not a stepfamily. We're not a stepfamily. We're just like everybody else."
Well, it's not a bad thing to be a stepfamily. It's just a different kind of family; but, yes, you are one. As long as you refuse to acknowledge that, you're not going to be able to find any creative solutions.
Dennis: I would think this would be more prevalent because of the fast-paced culture we live in and people going, “You know, we've made a new family. We've got to make this happen quickly."
Ron: Yes, and microwave it. “Let's just make it happen instantly.”
Dennis: Yes, push the button.
Ron: It doesn't work. That's the same thing with a pressure cooker. You know, “We're just going to add a lot of pressure. We're going to force each other to love one another. If the kids don't do it, we're going to be really upset with them because they've been unwilling to do that.” All of those things backfire.
The one other approach that really doesn't work is called the tossed salad. That's where we just kind of throw one another up in the air. I think about the family—for example—that when one of their children, who has part-time residence in another home; but then, there are some children that remain in the home over the weekend. “While you're gone, your possessions are ours.”
You know, let's stop and think about that for a minute. If my possessions, when I'm at dad's house—all of a sudden—anybody can play with my stuff, and mess up my room, and get into my drawers, or play with my toys—then, I don't have a place, really, in that home. The tossed salad is, “We'll just toss you up in the air. Wherever you come down, you're supposed to be okay with that.”
It's really disrespectful for parents to do that. You need to set up a rule that says, "Can we use your stuff? Can Johnny ride your bike while you're over at your dad's house?" "Oh, sure, that's fine." Okay, well, now we've at least been respectful to this child and given him a place, even when he's not there.
So how do you cook a stepfamily if all of those don't work? Well, it's the crock pot. You know, when my wife works with a crock pot—she just throws everything in it, and turns it on, and walks away. That's exactly the two key elements here we're talking about—time and low heat. Stepfamilies need to understand it takes time to cook a family. There is nothing instant about it. In fact, the more you try to make it instant, the more it backfires.
Dennis: But it can happen.
Ron: But it can happen. Low heat is the other one. You see a pressure cooker and a microwave—they're all using high heat. They're all trying to work with high pressure to create love and bondedness. When that doesn't happen, people get frustrated with each other. A crock pot—it takes six hours—you've got something good to eat. Well, the average stepfamily takes six or seven years; and then you've got something good to eat. Being patient and letting the process work for you—a crock pot brings the juices together slowly, over time.
Dennis: I think, as many were listening to your illustration of the different types of processing food there—some in a stepfamily were thinking, "I'm in none of those. I'm in a frying pan. We're in enormous pain today. The heat is up. I want out!"
Dennis: You have seven steps to keep people in a stepfamily from stepping out; but instead, you call them to step up. Share with our listeners what those seven steps to a successful stepfamily are.
Ron: Well, the first one is, as you said, to step up. What I'm talking about here is experiencing and discovering a God Who loves and forgives. We said on yesterday's program—the wilderness wanderings can be really, really, difficult. That Promised Land can seem so far away, but God is still leading. It's up to us to trust Him and to continue to follow. So, step up to discover a God Who loves and forgives.
Number two, step down your expectations—as we've been talking about. It's not going to happen instantly. You can't force a stepfamily. You can't make people love one another. Relax and let it happen over time.
Two-step—that's my way of saying the couple has got to work together. They've got to work in unison, almost like they're dancing together. You know, like two ice-skaters on ice have to work in harmony. The couple has to work on their relationship, even in the midst of all the complexity going on around them.
Side-step is to side-step the pitfalls that are common to most stepfamilies. There are a number of things that we could talk about there; but some of the things that hit my mind, automatically, are a stepparent who jumps in, and expects authority with stepchildren, and tries to force themselves upon the stepchildren. That's one of the biggest and most common pitfalls. It really slows everything down, and it really creates a lot of distress in the home.
Dennis: Okay, you’ve talked about stepping up to discover a God Who loves and forgives; step down your expectations; two-step—your marriage must be a priority; side-step the pitfalls common to most stepfamilies. What are the last three?
Ron: Step in line—that has to do with all the adults who have anything to do with the children. There are two levels there. Step in line with your ex-spouse or the biological parent of the child that you have in common. You're still going to have to cooperate. These children are moving back and forth between your homes. You've still got to find ways of working together.
But, also, this deals with the parent and the stepparent role. How do they work together, as a couple, to govern the children in their home? Step through the wilderness wanderings with patience, with perseverance, and with dedication. Otherwise, you won't get to that Promised Land. It's there. It's just much further away than maybe you anticipated. You've got to stick with it.
Then, if you do all those things, you can step over into the Promised Land. What I mean by that is there are some rewards to stepfamily life. We know that couples can have good, solid relationships in stepfamilies. We know that children can have good relationships with stepparents, and that can be a relationship that influences children towards Christ. There can be health there, but you have to go through the wanderings in order to get to the reward.
Dennis: There is something that you teach, Ron, in your seminars where you expose the differing, unrealistic expectations that stepfamilies foster. In fact, it’s a chart that talks about the unrealistic expectations and exposes them; but then you also move to a realistic expectation. We decided to feature that also on the website because we’re not going to get to all of the expectations Ron has listed here. Why don't you share one of the unrealistic expectations that stepfamilies can have?
Ron: The first one is that, “We will all love one another.” Of course, there’s that notion of instant love; and we’ve already addressed that. This deals with, “We will all love one another.” Really, the truth of the matter is love may or may not develop. It will probably develop later—much later than you would like for it to. Relaxing those expectations and saying, "We're going to learn how to get along. We can be courteous. We can be kind, and we can be respectful, long before we love each other,”—long before there is even any deep emotional bond.
Bob: Here is where I've seen this be a challenge for couples. During the time when Mom, who is a single parent, is beginning to cultivate a relationship with this new man—the new man and the 11-year-old son just are getting along famously. One of the things that brings hope back to Mom's heart is that, “My son is so connecting with this new man in my life.” Then they get married, and that connection seems to evaporate and turn to anger.
Ron: There is an incredible shift that takes place at the point of remarriage. It's not universal; but it's one of those things where I always advise people, "Look, do all your work on the frontend; but realize the day you get married, you may be hitting the reset button."
It may be—I think about the couple who called me the day after their wedding. They had come to me for premarital counseling. You know, I'm supposed to be good at this. We did all the remarriage stuff, and we did all the planning, and we helped them work through things, and we worked for a number of months trying to help them anticipate, have conversations with her daughters, who are in their late adolescent years, before they got married. We thought everything was, “A go.”
The day of the wedding, those two girls laid into their mom. They started berating her, both for her decision to divorce, as well as, now, her decision to remarry. That woman spent her wedding night in tears. It doesn't always go like that. It's not always that dramatic, but there are a lot of shifts that take place. You see, children, for example, will warm up to the stepfather you were talking about. They enjoy doing stuff. It's a light-hearted relationship.
Bob: Yes, he takes them to Chuck E. Cheese®, to the beach, whatever.
Dennis: It's a courtship. He's courting the kids, as well as the mom.
Ron: Right. There are two shifts that take place. The child, after remarriage, now says, "Okay, wait a minute. This guy, I guess, is now my dad,” or, “He's my stepdad or something." They almost feel some obligation to have a relationship with him; but, at the same time—in the back of his mind—his biological dad is in another home, saying, "Now, don't enjoy him too much." This 11-year-old is getting the idea that, “I can't be loyal to my stepdad because it would be disloyal to my biological dad.”
The other shift is this stepfather who, before marriage, just kind of enjoyed being with the kid. You know, it was just a fun thing to do. But now that he's married, and he's actually living in the home, he feels a greater need of responsibility. He feels like, again, he's got to step in there and do something, as a parent. He tries to turn on the parenting authority that he hasn't earned yet. Those two things collide and meet head- on and, all of a sudden, there's a problem in their relationship that never showed itself before marriage.
Dennis: You know, yesterday, on the broadcast, Bob confessed here to our national radio audience that he and Mary Ann didn't have an ideal marriage. (Laughter) We kind of chuckled about that because we all identify. No one has an ideal marriage. Yet, I look at this unrealistic expectation—and I'm not in a stepfamily—but this unrealistic expectation reads, "We will all love one another."
Well, we think, “That's going to happen in marriage.” We think, “That's going to happen in my family, whether you're a stepfamily or not.” Yet, I can understand how someone, coming out of either the death of a spouse or a divorce, and hoping to re-cement a family, of sorts, back together again would think, “You know, we can achieve this thing.”
Yet, let me just read a passage and think about a stepfamily—or, for that matter, think about your family—as Paul exhorts us about what real, mature love looks like. This is birthed by the Spirit of God in the heart of a man, over time, where maturity takes place between people. Romans, Chapter 12, verse 9, "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor." I can see how that would be needed in a stepfamily.
Dennis: Big time.
Ron: And people can live for that standard. They can pursue that. But we're talking about—when we say, “We all love one another,” is the deep emotional bonds of fondness, and feeling comfortable hugging you, and deep affections—that's the level which only comes with time. We only earn that kind of love in a family relationship; but if we try to force it, it works against us.
Bob: What about the expectation, Ron—that, “This time is going to be different for us”?
Ron: Well, again, it's kind of like, "I've learned some lessons from my past relationships, and we don't want to make those same mistakes again." We go into this remarriage, assuming that we'll do it better this time around—except, that to compare this new family to a biological family is misguided from the get-go. The premise that we're trying to say here is that, “Stepfamilies are different.” To constantly compare a stepfamily to a biological family—you're going to end up feeling like a failure, in the end, as it is.
The other thing about that is, “This is a new marriage. It's a new relationship.” Yes, you may have learned some lessons. Yes, you may be a new person, a different person, and you may have learned some things; but you've still got to learn how to do life with this person. It’s not like you just take out one person, and plug in another one, and now, “This time, things are going to be better.” We just have to build a new family, and have new relationships, and let those relationships stand on their own instead of comparing them to former families.
Bob: A part of the challenge there is, that as we look back on the first relationship, we think, “One of the big problems was that other person. Now, that the other person’s not here, we won’t have that liability—that baggage.” The problem is that the other half of the equation is still there. You bring your own problems in and you’ve got a new set of problems that you just married yourself to; right?
Ron: It’s accepting that this is a different family. This is a new relationship. We don’t have to live in comparison to the past.
Dennis: There's another expectation. Ron, you list on your chart that our children will feel as happy about the remarriage as we do. This is really interesting because it doesn't always happen with little children. We're talking adult children who make observations about Mom or Dad—who, maybe through the loss of a spouse due to death or divorce, find themselves in a remarriage situation. The adult children—I know of one situation I'm thinking of now. All the children were against the remarriage, and the mom went ahead and did it anyway. That marriage was born out of the turmoil of the entire extended family really being against that marriage. That expectation was dashed from the beginning.
Ron: Parents need to understand this, “Marriage, for them, is a gain. It is another loss for their children.” For the adults, “This is somebody who makes me feel good. I’m going to have a partner to share life with now.” You want your kids to be okay with this; but for the children, it’s another loss. What they want is for Mom and Dad to be back together again.
Kids want their parents reconciled. When Mom gets married to another guy—that is a loss for them. They didn’t ask for the divorce. They didn’t ask for Mom and Dad to not like each other. They certainly didn’t ask for another person to step in the way of Mom and Dad reconciling. It is a loss for them. Adults need to understand that because, if they don’t, then they get into this situation where they’re forcing relationships upon the children.
Bob: Can two adults, Ron, recognize these expectations before they even form a stepfamily? Can they be proactive to deal with these, or do they kind of have to wait for it to come up before they can really get into the midst of it?
Ron: Well, I think it's tough for them to recognize it; but if they come to one of my seminars, or they read a good book, or find a good resource, then, all of a sudden, they stop, and they think, "Well, maybe I am doing that." You know, fantasies are not things that we realize they're fantasies until they're not working out, unfortunately. So, trying to catch people on the frontend and saying, "Take this really slowly because the children may not feel about this the way you do. You need to give them some space. You need to give them time. You need to be incredibly respectful to the losses and the pain that they have already experienced. Otherwise, you're going to shove more pain on them.”
Dennis: You know, it hits me, as you've talked today on the broadcast, that certainly God is in everyday life, helping people redeem broken situations, whether by death or divorce. Remarriages take place, even remarriages that are against Scripture. In that situation, God, in His grace and mercy, redeems and resurrects individuals, marriages, and families.
I am also struck, after listening—God designed that one man and one woman live for a lifetime together and create a marriage covenant so that a family flows from that. That won't be perfect. That won't be the ideal; but when that covenant is broken, and you go and establish another covenant and another family—certainly, the opportunity for that to become all that God intended is even less than the first unit.
I think of our nation and the anguish that must be in the homes of America. I mean, I really wonder how much of this is being translated into young people as they grow up through elementary school, and their teenage years, and on into their adulthood lives. I mean, if you and I have difficulty sorting out our emotions about difficult issues of loss, and of guilt, and anger around a divorce, what must a child feel and think as they watch their mother and father divorce and then go form and forge separate, new entities? It's just not the ideal of what God designed.
Bob: And I think a lot of couples who are in a stepfamily—one of the things they need to hear and be reminded of is that the challenges they’re facing are not unique to them. There are other families who have faced challenges like this, as well. There are ways to apply biblical principles to help them navigate some of these challenging situations. In fact, Ron has written a book called, The Smart Stepfamily, that we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center.
In addition to the book, there’s a small group resource—a DVD study—on The Smart Stepfamily—eight sessions that you can go through with other couples. I think, Ron, you would agree that to go through the material with other couples is probably the best way to do it. That way, your shared experience can be added to the material and help you get a better handle on how you can have the most effective stepfamily situation, given your circumstances.
Ron has also written a book called The Smart Stepdad. He has co-written The Smart Stepmom. There are other stepfamily resources that we have available at FamilyLife Today. Go to our website FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on all of the resources that are available. I should mention that Ron is now part of the FamilyLife team. The Smart Stepfamily ministry that he has been doing for many years now has become a part of what we’re doing here at FamilyLife.
We want to help couples, in whatever circumstance—whatever situation you’re in—regardless of how you ended up there. We want to help your marriage and your family be as strong, and as healthy, and as God-focused as it can be. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about these resources available, or call us toll-free at 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329; 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”.
Get more information on The Smart Stepfamily resources from Ron Deal when you get in touch with us. And let me say a special word of thanks to those listeners who, from time to time, get in touch with us to donate and to support FamilyLife Today. Your donations make this ministry possible. When I say, “this ministry”—I mean, not just this daily radio program, but all that we’re doing on our website and as we work to create resources and work in conjunction with Ron on stepfamily resources.
Your donations are the fuel that make all of that possible. We appreciate your support of this ministry. In fact, this week, if you can make a donation to help support FamilyLife Today, we’d like to send you Dennis Rainey’s brand-new book called Aggressive Girls, Clueless Boys: 7 Conversations You Must Have with Your Teenage Son. Actually, you ought to have these conversations before he becomes a teenager.
In addition to the Aggressive Girls book, we’ll send you a copy of Dennis’ book, Interviewing Your Daughter’s Date, so that as your kids go through the teen years, you can help point them in the right direction and protect them, as well. Again, these two books are our way of saying, “Thank you for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.” You can make a donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com. When you go there, click the button that says, “I Care”.
Make an online donation and we’ll send you these books, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Make a donation over the phone and ask for the books we were talking about on the radio. Our team will know what you’re talking about, and we’ll be happy to send those out to you. Again, thanks for your support of the ministry. We really do appreciate it!
We hope you can join us back again tomorrow. Ron Deal is going to be here again. We’re going to continue talking about challenges that stepfamilies face.
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.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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