The Power of God at Work in Stepfamilies
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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 with Dave and Ann Wilson about how couples often get blindsided when trying to blend two families. He gives some practical advice for interacting with stepchildren.
The Power of God at Work in Stepfamilies
Bob: All families face challenges. Blended families face some unique challenges. Author and speaker, Ron Deal, says that some of those challenges come, not from inside the family, but from outside.
Ron: The people within the four walls of your house can be the most loving, godly people in the world. But in a blended family situation—this is why we say they’re tall and they’re wide—they’re multi-generational/they’re tall; they’re wide in the sense that there’s often another home, if not more than one home, that’s impacting your home. What happens is—somebody outside of your house influences the relationships inside your house. The biological mom’s hopes and expectations intersect with the stepmom’s hopes and expectations, and that creates some challenge.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 29th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Life in a blended family is often complicated. If you’re in a blended family, you can appreciate that. If you’re not, you need to be aware that your friends, who are, are facing some interesting challenges. We’re going to talk more about those today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I was so excited last Sunday when I got to church, and I had a copy of Ron Deal and Gary Chapman’s new book, Building Love Together in Blended Families. I had it with me because there is a couple in our church who are in a blended family. We’ve talked before, and I know some of the challenges they’re going through. I thought, “They need a copy of this book”; so I got a copy.
When I saw Andy at church, I went over and said, “Hey, I was thinking about you—got this book,”—handed it to him. He lit up because he’s looking for all the help he can get in the middle of the complexities of all this. I was just thrilled—in fact, I’m always thrilled to have a tool—and to know Ron Deal, who has a tool chest full of tools, that you can give to folks in these situations and say: “I was thinking about you; I was praying for you. I thought this book might help you out.”
Ron is joining us on FamilyLife Today; welcome.
Ron: Thank you.
Bob: Ron gives leadership, here at FamilyLife®, to FamilyLife Blended®. You’ve been doing this for almost a decade now, right?
Ron: Yes, well, eight years/eight-and-a-half years—something like that.
Dave: And there’s no one better in the world.
Ann: We are big fans, Ron.
Dave: I mean that—no one—you are an asset and a help to families all around the world! Think about that.
Ann: Bob, we have done the same thing, because there are so many friends that we know that are struggling in marriage—so many blendeds struggling. We say the name: “Have you heard of Ron Deal?” because his resources are so, so good.
Bob: We’re going to talk this week about issues that blended families are facing. Part of the reason we’re talking about this is because, a couple of years back, you updated your book, The Smart Stepfamily, and brought a whole bunch of new content in. You had a video series/a DVD series, The Smart Stepfamily®,that you’ve also updated; it’s pretty much all new.
Bob: Have blended families changed that much? Or have you learned a lot more since you started, or what?
Ron: It’s not that a lot has changed. It’s that I was able to address so many more subtopics within the overall journey that blended families face: “What if you have part-time children?” and “What if you’re a grandparent, and now a step-grandparent?” and “How do you manage your marriage within?” “Have you thought about adopting your stepchildren? Is that a good idea? Is that not a good idea?” We really dove into all those intricacies.
Bob: The thing I love about the DVD series is—it tees up, for couples, conversations that happen after they’ve watched the videos—that are personal and transformative. I know I’ve talked to you about this—if we could somehow ignite people to start these groups/go through this DVD series, or just get people [who know this] handing out copies of your book to people in their church.
Your burden is that blended families would see a pathway to wholeness, and to restoration, and to making the blended family all that God intends for it to be.
Ron: That’s absolutely the case. All of us sitting at this table believe in ministry; we’re passionate about it. We’re all invested in it in various forms or another because we believe the power of God comes alive in community—put God’s people together, get them talking about stuff that is rooted in His Word, and is practical, and has wisdom for life—and change happens. I have seen this over and over again.
The thing about the DVD series that I love so much—the content is good—the power is in sharing the content with others. All of a sudden, they’re learning from each other; they’re encouraging one another; they’re praying for each other. Somebody goes, “You know what? This is what worked for us.” A couple sitting across the room goes: “Ah, that’s it! That’s what we’ve been waiting on.” That’s the power of a group; this Smart Stepfamily video participant’s guide gets groups of couples together.
Yes, you can do it all by yourself. Yes, you can do it with pre-marital counseling and send it home as homework, if you’re a pastor. The real power/the real thing we want people to do is get a few couples together in a room and let them have at it.
Ann: Ron, you’re saying that change happens more in a group setting even?
Ron: I believe that. I can’t sit here and document; I just have seen it for so long. I got my start doing stepfamily ministry, leading a small group in the church that I was a family minister in. All of a sudden, people are coming alive; lights are going on; eyes are opening up. People are going: “Wait! Wait, wait! That is what I feel. You mean we can do something about this? It’s not hopeless?”
Hope translates into action; action translates into change and encouragement. I am a firm believer in the power of small groups.
Dave: Yes; me, too. And it’s biblical; I mean, there’s no question about it: “Assemble yourself together regularly.” When I talk to people at our church, when I talk to people at Weekend to Remember®—when I talk to people anywhere, where they’ve sat in a setting, where they’ve gotten spiritual input—and again, take a church service/take a marriage conference—here’s the question you ask them six months later: “How’s your marriage doing? How’s your life doing?”
The next question I always ask: “Hey, did you ever get in a group? Remember we talked about small groups afterward? Did you plug into an Art of Marriage®, Art of Parenting®, Vertical Marriage®, Smart Stepfamily group? Did you get in?” “No.”
The couples that see real life change, their answer is always, “Yes, got in a group. I had no idea what would happen; but man!—I’m sitting in a living room; I hear another couple share a story—and it’s like: ‘That’s the same thing in our family!’” There’s something that’s catalytic when I hear somebody else struggles like we do; and they say, “What’s Jesus say about this?” It’s the life-changing difference.
Ron: Yes; guys, I got to tell you one other element to this new video series that I’m really excited about. For ten years, we had a series. The number-one feedback response I got from groups was: “This is amazing! This is wonderful. It’s all designed for the parents. Do you have anything for kids?”
I thought about it and thought about it, and dreamed about it and dreamed about it. When we had the chance to do a tenth anniversary edition of the series, I threw in a session for kids—it’s a bonus session: it’s short; it’s sweet; it’s bite-size for kids—what they need to digest. We let kids; that is, young adults, who are now looking back on their journey in their blended family, talk about their journey and give these children perspective.
I had one group write to me and say: “We’ve just been through the video series. We’d been through the old one. We absolutely love the new one. All the parents in our group bought the series on their own so they could show their kids the bonus session.” It’s that important to parents.
Bob: Anybody, who has seen the first one and looks at the second one, one of the things that’s changed is—the first one was you teaching in front of a large audience.
Bob: But in this series, you’re still teaching; but now we get to hear from couples in blended families. In fact, you start the series by explaining to those who are watching—we hear couples saying this—“This blended family thing is a whole lot trickier than we realized when we were standing together saying, ‘I do.’”
In fact, let’s listen to some of these couples as they talk in the video series.
[The Smart Stepfamily DVD Series]
Husband: The complexity of our blended family looks pretty obscure to me sometimes; it’s pretty complex. We deal with having to communicate with our other two daughters in North Carolina; we FaceTime® them every Monday night. We also have to travel to go get them in the summers; we drive anywhere between 1,000-2,000 miles to pick them up and come back.
Wife: My daughter enjoyed having two sisters when they came. When they came into the picture, she is like, “Hey! I have people!”; you know? But it was hard, because it wasn’t the same for them. For them, they always had each other—it was Lila and Natalie; it’s always been Lila and Natalie—when Nellie came in, they’re just like, “Who are you?”
Husband: They kind of pick at each other sometimes: “You’re not my real sister; you’re just my friend. You’re not my sister.” They try to do those hurtful words; because in their mind, it’s hard for them to realize that they are brother and sister/that they are one family now and not two separate families.
Bob: I’m imagining the small group watching that couple share their experience; I’m seeing all the heads in the room nodding and bobbing, and going, “That’s what’s happening in our house, too.”
Ron: Yes, that’s the thing. We want blended family couples to be seen. When they’re watching this, they’re going, “Yes, that’s my life!” Typical marriage and family ministry material, and books, and resources really don’t address those complexities; so the first thing that happens is people feel affirmed/ like they’re not crazy: “Wow! We have that between-home thing, too!” “Wow! We have to travel,” “You know, I don’t get to see my daughter very often; and when I do, it’s short; and then you want everything to go right.”
Sometimes it doesn’t go right; because, like with this couple, the stepsiblings aren’t always open to one another to the same degree. “How do I make the weekend great when they don’t even get along?” That’s the real stuff that people are dealing with, day in and day out.
Bob: Talk about how couples get blind-sided, because they come into a blended marriage with expectations. They’ve got to have some sense of reality—“Yes, we know it’s going to be hard,”—but then they get in and go: “Oh! I didn’t know it was going to be this hard.”
Ron: Let’s remind ourselves—all of us walk into anything a little bit starry-eyed, whether it’s a marriage, or whether it’s having your first child—no matter what it is—a new job. We always have a lot of hope and a lot of high expectation in it. Then, life teaches us what we’re really going to have to deal with.
The same thing is true for blended families, but sometimes they’re still blind-sided: “Well, I’ve had my first child; I know what parenting is.” Well, but this is your first stepchild. It turns out that relationship just is different; it evolves at a different level; you don’t immediately have authority in relationship. You’ve got to grow that over time. In the meantime, you’ve got to get the kitchen cleaned up.
So how do we do the logistics of life and build relationship all at the same time? “Yes, I have a sense of what life could be like”; but the realities of it just aren’t real until it’s real.
Ann: My thought, Ron, listening to that couple was: “When we get married, it’s hard; we have difficult adjustments. But with a blended family—I know that, as a mom; and I think as a dad, too—you’re feeling the weight of what your kids are already dealing with and experiencing, and have experienced/the pain that they’ve gone through. Now you’re in this new family/this new marriage. I would be so focused on my kids that it would be easy to have my marriage take a back seat.” Is that pretty common?
Ron: It is common, and you nailed something. When two people get married for the first time, you have two sets of expectations. When a blended family comes together, you have five, or seven, or—including grandparents—eighteen. All of a sudden, you have lots of expectation. How do we bring all those things together? The mom factor/the parent factor: “I see my children’s expectations, and hopes, and desires not being met.”
In the story we just heard, one child is excited to have siblings—new siblings/stepsiblings—but the other set of stepsiblings, on the other side, is going: “Wait a minute. We have sisters; we don’t need you.
Ann: “Who are you?”
Ron: “What are you doing here?” So this child is disappointed; and of course, Mom sees that. Her heart’s like, “Ahhhh!” What is she going to do?—she’s going to fight for her child.
Ann: —and protect her child.
Ron: She’s going to go to her husband, and she’s going to go, “Hey, can’t you get your kids to be nice to my kid?” Now, all of a sudden, the conflict is between the husband and the wife. We’ve said this before on this program: “What is a parenting issue in blended families is immediately a marriage issue in blended families.” Yes, that puts strain on a couple’s relationship.
Bob: Is it possible for couples to enter a blended family relationship with eyes fully wide open? Or are they always going to get blind-sided by something?
Ron: I think we’re always blind-sided by something in life—always. I do think people, who get educated on the front end—who read/who watch this series—can learn a lot and have their eyes open. That doesn’t mean your children are as open as you are. It doesn’t mean all the expectations for everybody are just magically coming together. There are still challenges in making it happen; but at least, you have a running start to know what to do about the challenges that you face.
Bob: There are other couples in this series. In fact, there’s one couple or one set of couples—I forget which—who talk about expectations they had, coming into marriage, kind of like: “Oh, we thought it was going to be this way,” and then it wasn’t exactly that way. Listen to these couples talk.
[The Smart Stepfamily DVD Series]
Husband: At the time Lisa and I decided to get married, I felt great about things. I felt like we were in a good place. We were going to get along, and we’re going to have a great new life together. My boys were happy; at the time, they were happy, going into the marriage. I expected some things that I hadn’t seen, growing up or in adulthood—that my new wife, Lisa, would get along with my ex-wife—that they would be able to have conversations about our boys.
Wife: The first night that they called her—and they started telling her about all the fun stuff that they had done that day with us—she stopped them and said: “I don’t want you to talk about that. It hurts my feelings, and I don’t want to hear about her.” That was kind of my first example of how, “Maybe it’s not going to be as smooth sailing as I thought it was going to be.”
I would feel like we had built a good relationship, and I guess in an hour earlier, they were hugging my neck and telling me they loved me; we’re having a great time. You know, it’s—I think it’s just they stopped and remembered: “Oh, yeah; I’m not supposed to like her as much as I do. I’m not supposed to feel this way. I’m supposed to…” You know, I think they feel an allegiance to the other home.
Son: For me, especially early—being five, six, seven, eight years old—I didn’t quite understand it. For me, it was just my parents fighting all the time, even though they weren’t together anymore; it was just them fighting. It was hard trying to balance time and connection: “How do I make myself seem respectful to one parent and respectful to the other, and make it not look like I’m spending too much time with one, and not with the other?”
Wife: There would be times that we would have great weekends, and there would be no issues at all. There would be times—on the flipside of that when we didn’t have the boys for that weekend—and we would go to one of their baseball games; and they wouldn’t say a word to us. They would just act like we weren’t even there. When we would try to say something to them, they would look at us and say: “It’s not our time with you. We can’t talk to you right now.” It’s not coming from them; this is coming from the adults in their other home.
You have to have a lot of grace, and you have to have a lot of patience—and have a lot of thick skin—[Laughter]—because it’s not for the weak.
Bob: I was listening to that clip—I was thinking there was a movie that came out, years ago, called Trouble with the Curve—it was a baseball movie.
Dave: Great movie.
Ann: So good.
Dave: Clint Eastwood, right?
Bob: It was Clint Eastwood. I remember—that’s what we’re talking about here; there are curve balls that are going to get thrown in marriage. You’re expecting a fast ball or maybe a changeup; you get the curve. All of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t know how to hit this one.” You swing and you miss; and you go, “This is not going the way it’s supposed to.”
Dave: Actually, in a blended family—maybe I’m wrong; Ron, you’re the expert—it’s almost like there’s not just one ball coming at you; you know? [Laughter] “I don’t have to hit just this ball; there’s seven or eight!” Every person in the blended family is dealing with all of this simultaneously; it’s juggling at multiple times.
Ron: The insidious part of this one is the stepmom gets thrown a curve, because she’s trying to develop a relationship with her stepson. But the biological mother in the other home is doing or saying things that is making it tough for the stepson to embrace it.
Dave: —and that never happens.
Ron: No; I think this is one of the biggest things that I want to try to help people prepare for. The people within the four walls of your house can be the most loving, godly people in the world. But in a blended family situation—this is why we say they’re tall and they’re wide—they’re multi-generational; they’re tall—they’re wide in the sense that there’s often another home, if not more than one home, that’s impacting your home. What happens [is] somebody outside of your house influences the relationships inside your house. The biological mom’s hopes and expectations intersect with the stepmom’s hopes and expectations, and that just creates some challenge.
You heard this young man; I mean, doesn’t your heart kind of go out to him?
Ann: I want to sit down and cry after listening to that, because I’m hearing the angst of how the stepson is so torn.
Ron: That’s it.
Ann: He doesn’t know which way to go. Yet, I’m hearing the angst of the stepmom, thinking: “Oh, I thought this was going to be great. I thought they liked me, and it seemed like it.” I’m also feeling it for the mother/the bio-mom, because she’s feeling insecure: “Will my two boys love her more than they love me?”
Dave: I remember when I would go down and visit my dad, and my stepmother, and her son. I didn’t spend my life with them as much as I did with my bio-mom; I was mostly with my mom. I remember coming home after a week or four or five days with my dad and stepmom; I felt like I could not share with my mom how great my stepmom was to me. It was a secret: “Oh, you know, we just sort of hung out”; yet, I’m like, “We were on a boat!” We didn’t/I couldn’t share it; because I was that son, like, “I don’t want to hurt my mom’s feelings.”
Ann: And even after we got married, I thought, “Dave’s stepmom is amazing!” Yet, Dave’s mom/his bio-mom was always trying to get hints, like: “She probably really wasn’t that great, right?” You’re torn right there, even as an adult.
Ron: Yes; this young man was saying, when he was five or eight, he was trying to figure out how to love everybody and not hurt feelings, which is the natural bind that kids feel. By the way, I should quickly add—not every child in every blended family experiences this—but it is pretty common.
This is one of the things I talk about in the bonus session to kids. We put words on it. We help them understand what you just said there, Dave—that split part of you—“I really enjoyed it, but I can’t share that with my mom,”—like—“What do you do with that feeling?” and “Is it okay to actually like, and appreciate, or value your stepparent?”
Dave: Can you imagine—think of this—if I would’ve had a place to go and hear other sons or daughters say similar things?—which is what a blended family/stepfamily small group offers—I would’ve had somewhere to process that; at least, I’d be like, “I’m not the only one!” I had not a single person; I really thought, “Nobody else feels this.” I would’ve been sitting in a room, going: “Oh, my goodness; now let’s talk,”—that’s what you offer through the DVD series.
Ron: It opens the door to conversation and moves the heart of parents to their kids. That is one of the biggest steps that needs to happen. If kids feel safe and comfortable talking through these challenges with a parent, it ripples into all sorts of positivity within the family. All of a sudden, “I’m free to enjoy my stepparent.” All of a sudden, “I’m not living in fear and hiding what’s going on inside me. I’m able to be a kid again instead of an adult, taking care of the adults.” It really changes the dynamic for children and for the adults.
Bob: A series like this—you’re talking to churches that are doing this as part of their regular curriculum?
Bob: But even more than that, it’s just one courageous stepfamily saying, “Let’s get three or four of our friends together, and get in the living room, and let’s go through this together.”
Ron: More often than not, that’s what’s happening. The people that are motivated are the stepfamilies themselves, and it’s absolutely the way to go. We’ve also found great success with pastors, who will assign this as sort of pre-marital counseling with couples that they’re working with.
Bob: I’m sure there are some folks, who would go, “Yes, we need to get our stepfamily in a better order before we try to host a small group series.”
Ron: No, no; start now. The beautiful thing about God’s people coming together is we’re all sinners; we’re all messed up. We’re misfits, and we belong together. We should grow together. I think we call that, on Sunday, church. [Laughter]
Bob: You can go to our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. There’s information about the video series/about the book, The Smart Stepfamily.
We should mention the event that you’re planning for the fall, which is the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry—we’ve been doing this for many years. People from all over the country have come and spent a couple days kind of encamped together/networking with other people to figure out how to be more effective in ministering to stepfamilies in local churches or in communities.
These have been great events. Every time we’ve done them, people have said, “We wish there was a way for those of us, who can’t make the trip and spend a couple of days in another city, we wish there was a way we could get access to this content and still be able to network with other people, who are engaged in stepfamily ministry.” This year we’re doing that.
The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry this year is going to be a two-day livestream event, October 1st and 2nd; mark those days on your calendar. There’s information about the main sessions and the breakouts available on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com. Go there and click the link for all the details about the upcoming Summit for Stepfamily Ministry that’s happening October 1st and 2nd. Again, it’s a livestream event; so you and others from your church staff or from your community can plan to be part of an event this year. The only hotel reservation you need to make is in your bedroom, because you can stay at home for the event this year.
Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for information about the event or about the DVD series, The Smart Stepfamily, and Ron’s book by that same title. All of these are helpful resources.
Ron, we are grateful for your ongoing investment in the lives of blended families all around the world.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue our conversation with Ron Deal about some of the complexities facing blended families. We’re going to talk about the challenges between stepparents and stepchildren and about how you navigate your way through those complexities and those challenges. Ron will be back tomorrow. I hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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