Putting Your Spouse in the Front Seat
About the Guest
'Placing Your Spouse in the Front Seat of Your Heart' by Ron Deal
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
Ron Deal talks about struggles that take place in a blended family between the biological children and the new spouse. While it’s tempting to want to put the children first, Deal cautions against it.
Putting Your Spouse in the Front Seat
Bob: In a single parent family, it’s not uncommon for a child to sit in the passenger seat while mom or dad are driving. When mom or dad get remarried, and now there’s someone new in the family, that child may not like the idea that their seat in the car has been taken over. Ron Deal says we need to be aware of that and help those kids adjust to the new normal.
Ron: Why would they react harshly to this idea of putting your spouse in the front seat? What’s going on for a kid? Well, sometimes they just want to ride in the front and they want what they want, but also there is: “I’ve been through some really rough stuff. I’ve lost connection with somebody. My family has gone through major transitions,”—a tragedy of some sort: a death or a divorce—“I don’t want to go through another one of those things.” They are hypersensitive to the idea of being pushed aside, because they’ve seen it happen already in their home.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, August 27th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk today about strategies to help step-parents help their children adjust to the new normal of a stepfamily. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. One of the key principles that we try to drive home in FamilyLife’s Art of Parenting™ video series, and something that you and Barbara wrote about in your book, The Art of Parenting, is that, in a family, the marriage relationship has got to be the priority relationship. For the sake of the kids—
Bob: —it’s got to be the priority relationship. That’s true in an intact family. That has some unique challenges that come along with it if you’re dealing with a blended family.
Dennis: Yes. One of the biggest arguments we used to have with our kids, on our way to school, was who sat in the front seat—[Laughter]—
—who got the front seat with daddy. You know, when mom is in the car with me—
Ron: Is there any debate at that point?
Dennis: —there is—there was never a debate; because they knew that next to daddy’s heart was mama. [Laughter]
Bob: And by the way, that is our friend, Ron Deal, who joins us today on FamilyLife Today. Ron gives leadership to FamilyLife Blended® and appears here, from time to time, when we’re talking about blended family relationships. Glad to have you here.
Ron: Thank you.
Dennis: And it’s different in blended families.
Ron: Think about your scenario—when mom gets in the car, there’s no question—mom’s in the front seat; everybody knows it. Now, one of your kids may go, “Ah, it’s my turn; but okay, I kind of understand mom rightly belongs in the front seat.”
Dennis: There is no discussion!
Ron: There’s no discussion; there’s no debate.
But what if the storyline had been—they take their turns riding in the front seat, and there is no mother in the picture; you’re a single dad. The kids ride in the front; everybody has their turn—they belong there.
Then you go and marry somebody, and now it’s her that rides in the front seat. How do your kids react to that?
Bob: What had been their territory/their spot—they’ve just been displaced. We may think, “Well, that’s not a big deal”; but that represents something. I mean, we’re using it as a big deal about where mom sits in the car. This represents something about the order of the family that can be very threatening to stepkids.
Ron: I have to say—one of our most popular articles on FamilyLife.com, in the blended family section, is an article that is exactly about riding in the front seat. In fact, it’s called “Putting Your Spouse in the Front Seat.” I write about this, at length, in two of my books: The Smart Stepfamily and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage. Why?—because we have learned this is such a critical dynamic to get right for your blended family to do well.
Bob: Ron, I was just recently at a Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway, talking to a couple in crisis. They weren’t sure they could make their marriage work—blended situation.
She brought kids into the marriage; he didn’t have any kids from any previous relationships. We were having this conversation.
I said to her: “I understand that you feel guilt and shame. You feel responsible for the loss you’re kids have experienced. You want to do anything you can to try to make sure you’re making up for what you brought into your children’s lives. So, at times, you prioritize them ahead of your husband just because, emotionally, you’re thinking, ‘I’ve put them through so much. I’ve got to sacrifice him for their sake.’”
That’s the impulse a parent feels. Explain why that’s a wrong impulse—not a wrong impulse—but why giving into it is a wrong response.
Ron: That’s a very well-worded question, and it’s important to the answer. The impulse is understandable.
Of course, you’re concerned about your children—as I would say to this woman: “Your mom heart is very deeply concerned about their well-being. They have been through a lot. You do see the pain in their eyes from the past. You don’t want to see more pain in the present, so you want to take care of them and diminish that; so that means putting them in the front seat and asking your husband to ride in the back seat, in which he feels, in that moment, like he’s in the trunk.”
That is a marital issue, immediately, for the new spouse. That’s why you can’t put him in the back seat, because you are risking the stability of your marriage. Even though your marriage followed the children, you still have to have it in the front seat, so to speak, in order for your relationship to lead the home.
If you’re going to lead from a position of unity, this is both a parenting issue and a marriage issue all at the same moment. If you’re going to position the new stepdad, in this case, beside you so that you can lead together, then you have to put him in the front seat.
You have to say to your children: “I’m’ sorry. You’re going to have to go to the back.” You’re going to have to, then, deal with their being upset and them feeling like, “Oh, you mean you love him more than us?” You’re going to have to deal with that hard moment.
And by the way, how do you deal with that?—a lot of love, some big hugs, a little TLC: “Now, get in the back.” It’s a combination of “I get it. This is hard for you, but he’s my husband. Now, he’s going to ride in the front. I’m thinking about letting him drive, but one thing at a time.” [Laughter]
Dennis: I want to ask, at this point, if you treat this like Barbara and I did—which was, instead of going through the battle, at the moment, of who sits in the front seat, you have a family time—you just say: “Hey, you know what? This is a point of constant strife in our family, so here’s how it’s going to work.”
Ron: Yes; you can anticipate this in a blended family and go: “You know what? We’ve picked up on this—there’s some weeping and gnashing of teeth every time we have a front-seat moment in our home.”
What does that look like? “I consult my husband about parenting. I didn’t ever have to ask anyone else before. I was a single mom; I could do whatever I wanted. Now, I stop for a minute and I ask him.” The kids notice; and they go, “Wait a minute why are you asking him?” Well, this is a front-seat moment: “Well, I’m asking him, because he’s my husband; and I know things have changed.”
Dennis: And you want your kids to understand the loyalties are to the other parent. The marriage has to be a priority and that they need to feel secure in that commitment that you’re not going to run the show by yourself—
Ron: Yes; absolutely.
Dennis: —or let the kids hijack the car.
Ron: So you do some proactive: “Hey, we’re going to have a family meeting. Just want you guys to know that some things are going to change around here and this is why.”
Let’s just pause a second and talk about language, because I learned a hard lesson. When I wrote the first edition of The Smart Stepfamily—it came out in 2002—and in that edition, I talked very directly about this matter.
But I made a mistake in how I worded a few things. I used language that implied that, somehow, there was more love for the spouse than for the kids. I don’t even remember exactly how I said it, but that’s what a few people would walk away from. I’d get letters, and I’d get questions at conference events that I do around the country, even now.
I learned: “Wow! I have to change that, because…”—for example, we say: “It is God first, then your spouse, and then your kids”; right? What are we saying with that? We’re saying, “We prioritize those relationships.” Why do we prioritize marriage? Scripture talks about leaving father and mother; cleaving to your spouse—that is the start of a new home—it’s the marriage relationship that lays the foundation.
But sometimes, when you say that to somebody who has children from a previous relationship, what they hear is: “Abandon your children, reject them, leave them in isolation and spend all of your time and energy with your new spouse,”—that is not what we are saying.
When I wrote the revised, expanded edition of The Smart Stepfamily—that came out in 2014—I changed that wording. I was very careful, because I knew what people had heard. That’s not what we’re saying.
What we’re saying is that there is one single important relationship in your home that will eventually bring stability to your home. But, now, notice—in the beginning of a blended family, putting your spouse in the front seat actually creates a little instability in your home. Now, that’s backwards; that’s not something that is typical—that’s not true of biological families—but it is true of stepfamilies. It’s another adjustment for kids; but eventually, it does bring stability to your home because you, as a couple, are leading from a position of unity, and togetherness, and oneness. The children see that and honor that.
Dennis: Ron, we’ve been talking about calling a family meeting and getting the stepchildren and the bio-children together and addressing them as one group.
It might be wise for the bio-parent of the children to address the issue separately from the stepchildren, so that it’s not an “us” versus “them”: “Here’s how we need to absorb this, as a little miniature family, as a part of the bigger family.”
Ron: Yes; yes. That‘s wise. The message of that biological parent can be to their kids: “Look, you’re the greatest kids in the world, and no other children in the universe are more important to me than you guys. Oh, by the way, there’s no other adult more important to me than my new spouse. Now, I realize that that means, for you, that you don’t get as much time with me; and every once in a while I talk to him”—or—“her about decisions. We’re a team. You may not always like that.”
Dennis: And “As the best kids in the universe, I want you to rally around this person I love!”
Ron: Yes; invite them to that.
Bob: This is not just a stepfamily issue.
Bob: I mean, in intact families, kids try to divide mom and dad.
Bob: They try to compete; and in intact families, new mamas often give their heart, time, and attention to their kids—and daddy is now on the sidelines—because mom’s got this new love in her life. So this child-centered versus marriage-centered issue happens in both intact families and in blended families.
I remember, again, in the Art of Parenting video series—Bryan Loritts tells the story about getting invited to do ministry in Dubai—they said: “We’d like to invite you, and we’ll send you two plane tickets.” He said, “Okay; Korie and I—my wife and I are going to go to Dubai.” He said: “One of my kids said: ‘Why are you taking Mom? Why does she get to go to Dubai with you?” He said, “Well, because I kind of love her more than I love you.” [Laughter]
And you think, “You don’t want to say that to your kid.” No; it helped his child to hear—and he went on to say: “And you know what? Someday, you’re going to leave; and mom and I are going to be together long after you’re gone. This is what’s important.”
Ron: This is a really good point, and I want us to unpack what you just said; because there is a difference in saying that in a biological family than in a stepfamily. Here’s the difference. When you say that, tongue in cheek, to a child—“…because I love her more than I love you,”—something inside of that kid kind of laughs along with it, because they know that your love for them is unmistakable; it’s good and right that you love mom. In a blended family, that is unclear.
Ron: Sometimes children say, “It’s good and right that you love your new wife, my stepmother”; but sometimes they’re like: “Now, wait a minute. I’m your flesh and blood. How can you say that?” So what has a positive impact in a biologic home can have a negative in a stepfamily home.
Bob: And the stepkids have likely been through some kind of loss.
Ron: They have!
Bob: So when you say, “I love her more than I love you,” they’re hearing, “…loss magnified.”
Ron: “Oh, no! Here we go again.” “Wait a minute! You said that you loved dad; and then you divorced.
“So now you’re saying that you love this person more than you love me. Does that mean you’re getting rid of me?” It does have very different implications, given the narrative of the family’s journey, which is why this is important.
By the way, what we’re doing right now, guys, is so helpful—this is what I call “going around the Horn”—we’re going around the family; and we’re jumping into the shoes of the child and saying: “Why would they react harshly to this idea of putting your spouse in the front seat? What’s going on for a kid?” Well, yes, sometimes kids just want to ride in the front and they want what they want. But also there is: “I’ve been through some pretty rough stuff. I’ve lost connection with somebody. My family has gone through major transitions,”—a tragedy of some sort: a death or a divorce—“I don’t want to go through another one of those things.” They’re hypersensitive to the idea of being pushed aside, because they’ve seen it happen already in their home.
Of course, they’re not going to welcome this new person riding in the front seat of the family car.
What you have to do, as a parent, is understand that but not be paralyzed by that. That is the big mistake that biological parents make—they see the pain in their child’s eyes, and they go easy. All of a sudden, they’re putting their kid in the front seat and their spouse in the back seat. That’s the wrong move; because over time—you may have prevented a little bit of pain in your child’s heart in the moment, but you’ve created a bigger pain, on behalf of your family, in the long run.
Dennis: Are there some ways that you’ve seen blended families put their spouse in the back seat without them understanding it? I mean, what are the issues that typically show up in a blended family, where the spouse ends up in the back seat or—maybe, as you mentioned earlier—the trunk?
Ron: We had a woman write in on Facebook®—follows us on FamilyLife Blended Facebook: “I don’t get any time alone with my husband when his children are here. For weeks, it feels like we’re strangers.”
Their scenario is—you know, his kids are at their biological mom’s house most of the time. When they come to this house, then dad throws himself, 100 percent, into his kids.
Now, I want to balance this; because, on the one hand, I think that’s important—he’s dad, and they don’t get much of him. He needs to throw himself into his children; and yet, he needs to spend time with his wife, in their presence, so that they see that this relationship/this marriage is really a big deal to dad. It’s a delicate balance, but he’s the one that has to keep that balance. If he gives 100 percent to his kids and 0 time to his wife while they’re there, the message is: “She’s in the back seat,”—that’s a mistake.
Bob: Let me just offer, I think, what can be a helpful word picture here. When your kids show up—and they’re now entering into your family / into your marriage—they’re going to be with you for the weekend, or they’re going to be with you for the next two weeks, or for a month in the summer / whatever it is—you can look at it like: “The kids are here.
“Our life stops; and now, this new chapter—where the kids are in the middle of it / where they‘re at the center of it—that begins.”
Instead of thinking of it that way, I think blended families need to think: “When the kids show up, they step into our journey. They become welcome passengers in a journey that is ongoing. We’re glad to have them here, but they’re coming into something that doesn’t stop but something that is ongoing—a relationship that is continuing. Life doesn’t shelf out of one gear into another, but they hop in and we keep moving forward.”
Ron: That’s leadership—you are saying: “This is our family. Come join us; we want you to be a part of this.”
Now, again, I have to acknowledge that that’s harder than it sounds. There are some situations where it’s difficult. For some children, they have felt slighted—because of how things happened or how they got shifted around between homes—so this feels like another “I’m just getting pushed to the side” sort of moment.
I’m a firm believer that biological parents have to move toward their children with intentionality, so they can move toward their spouse with intentionality—it is both/and. Really, this is where we come back to that language thing. Yes; it is God first, and your spouse second, and your kids third; but that doesn’t mean you ignore your kids. And yes; your spouse is your priority relationship, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids. It’s not either your spouse or your kids—it’s both/and—of course, it is both/and. But we recognize that there is a need for intentionality to position the marriage to lead the home. If you don’t do that—particularly, the biological parent hast to be the one to make this happen.
If they’re unwilling—let me share a quick story with you to make a point. I was talking with a guy, one time, about his life—I said,” Tell me about your childhood, growing up.” He said: “Man, I grew up in a blended family. My mom and dad divorced when I was very, very young.
“Probably around age five or six my mom remarried. I had a stepdad.” Listen to his words—he said: “I love this guy. I called him, “Daddy,” almost from Day 1. He was important to me/valuable to me. He’s still my dad—far more my dad in my life than my biological dad has ever been.”
Then these words came out of his mouth: “But I didn’t respect him. Early on, my mom said to my stepdad, in front of us kids, ‘Hey, listen, if anything every goes wrong around here, I’m taking the kids and I’m leaving.’” See, that was a huge back-seat moment. She said to her husband, “I love my kids more than you, and I will choose them over you any day; so you better watch your step.” What this young man picked up, at the age of five or six, is that: “I don’t have to respect him. Mom didn’t respect him. He’s not in the front seat; I am.”
Listen to how powerful that backseat moment was in undercutting the stepdad’s role in the home. You don’t ever want to say that to your spouse in front of the kids.
Rather, the message needs to be: “No, honey; you’re in the front seat,” and “You and me—we’re going to lead these kids from this moment forward.”
Dennis: And I would say: “Don’t ever say the word, ‘divorce’ or say ‘leave.’ ‘We may have conflict, but we’re going to stick it out for a lifetime.’”
Bob: Maybe a time out, but that’s okay—it’s different than leaving.
Dennis: Exactly. I’ll never forget flying on a lengthy flight, one time, with a young lady seated next to me. I struck up a conversation with her—she was on her way to her father’s house—she said:” I have two homes. I spend one week in one place; one week in the other place,”—joint custody.
I’m playing out this whole scenario of front seat/back seat. I mean, we just have to stop and say: “If divorce is about to cause your intact to be split up, we’re talking about complexity here that kids should not have to deal with.
“They should not have to try to figure out who’s in the front seat: ‘Where do I fit with mom?—with dad?—with her new spouse?—his new spouse?’”—etc.
My heart went out to that young lady, thinking: “What must she think? What must be going on there? How could she be sorting through all the emotions that she was feeling?—the fear: wondering who she was / whose home did she belong to?”
Ron: If there’s any way to save a first marriage, do it! If there’s any way to do that, seek reconciliation. Strive to make that relationship work, because you and your children are going to be walking out a tremendous amount of complexity and ambiguity if it ends in divorce.
Dennis: I’d encourage our listeners to go to FamilyLife Today.com and check out the blended family section that’s there. Read some articles, listen to other broadcasts, and also come and join us at a Weekend to Remember and get some training to head this stuff off at the pass.
You don’t want to have to go through this. This is not the way marriage and family were designed, by God, to function.
Bob: You mention that you’ve written on this subject of putting your spouse in the front seat. We have a link on our website, at FamilyLife Today.com, to the articles that you’ve written; and we’ve got links to the books you’ve written. Again, there’s information available, online, at FamilyLife Today.com.
You and your team are working now on an event that’s going to take place October 24th and 25th. This is our sixth annual Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. It’s going to be happening in Little Rock. In addition to you speaking at the event, Linda Ranson Jacobs, who heads up Divorce Care for Kids, is going to be here; Dave and Meg Robbins will be speaking; Lamar and Ronnie Tyler; and others.
The focus this year is on parenting in complex families.
This is an event for pastors, church leaders, laymen and women—anybody who has a heart for step and blended families and wants to help those families thrive in local churches. They should plan to be in Little Rock October 24th and 25th for the 2018 Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. There’s information available, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY if you have any questions. Again, the website—FamilyLife Today.com—sign up for the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry happening in October.
I know this is a busy time of year for a lot of families, with people already back in school or heading back to school. Summer is winding [down]—school supplies/new clothes—I mean, all kinds of things that just crowd this part of the summer. I want to ask you, in the middle of the busyness, to do something. Here, at FamilyLife®, in the month of August, we’ve had friends of the ministry who have come along and offered to match every donation we receive this month—
—on a dollar-for-dollar basis—up to a total of $500,000. This is the last week of the month. If we’re going to take full advantage of this matching-gift opportunity, we need to hear from as many FamilyLife Today listeners as possible this week.
So in the midst of everything else that is going on, can I ask you to go online and make a donation to help support the ongoing work of this ministry?—or call if that’s easier: 1-800-FL-TODAY—you can make a donation over the phone. When you give to FamilyLife, your money helps us take this message—this practical biblical help and hope for marriages and families—take it to more people more regularly. That’s where the money goes. Again, your donation will be doubled if we can hear from this week; so go to FamilyLife Today.com to donate, or call to donate at 1-800-FL-TODAY.
When you do, we’re going to say, “Thank you,” by sending a copy of Dennis and Barbara Rainey’s new book, The Art of Parenting.
It’s our thank-you gift for your support of this ministry. Especially this week, we want to say, “Thank you for getting in touch with us.”
We hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to talk about how we can have conversations in this culture about Christian beliefs and Christian values without those conversations going south. Dr. Tim Muehlhoff from Biola University will be here to talk with us about that. I hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with 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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