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Stepfamilies: Is This Normal?

Being in a stepfamily can be like living in a different country from those who are not.
By Ron L. Deal


I’ve had the privilege of traveling to Africa a few times in my life. The rules of the road and expectations of other drivers are not like those in the U.S.

I’ve had my driver’s license a long time, but driving there is very different than at home. It’s almost as if I really don’t know how to drive at all when I’m there. The same could be said for hundreds of other cultural distinctions: social norms, language, food preparation, family expectations, etc.

Being in a different country is unsettling. Unnerving. Scary. Self-doubt and feeling out of control go along with the unfamiliar territory. We may feel out of control and doubt our own judgment, asking, “Am I doing anything wrong?”

We get those same feelings when we enter unfamiliar spiritual, psychological, or relational territory as well. For example, my middle son, Connor, died February 17, 2009, and I felt like I entered an entirely different world at that point. I shared with an audience recently that I no longer live in “Normal Land” anymore. Now I live in “New Normal Land”—and I don’t like it at all. I feel out of sorts, out of control, and frequently out of hope.

Even further, being there is really an odd experience because I still interact with people who live normal lives; and they assume that I, too, live in a world where everything works mentally and emotionally the way it does for them. But I don’t.

What they see and who they interact with is just a shadow of me. The real me interacts in another world—a world where I face grief and loss on a daily basis, which has become a part of me, and I’m often alone in my own unfamiliar territory.

“But isn’t that isolating?” you may ask.

Yes, it is.

“How do you cope?” you may wonder.

I find others who also live in New Normal Land, and we hang out.

“Why?”

Because we understand each other. What is normal for others who have lost a child is also normal for me, and that commonality brings perspective, comfort, and hope.

Living in Stepfamily Land

In my role as a counselor, conference speaker, ministry consultant, and director of the largest stepfamily ministry in the world (FamilyLife Blended®), I receive lots of questions from people in blended families. The questions vary greatly—some are about the needs of children, others about marriage, stepfamily dynamics, and ex-spouses—but most of them have a common theme.

No matter what the topic, people are basically asking the same thing: “Am I doing anything wrong? Is this normal?”

Jennifer was one of the moms who came to me in distress. She posted a question on our Facebook page (facebook.com/smartstepfamilies). “I have three children from my first marriage,” she began. “They are 7, 8, and 9. I am getting remarried in a few months. I am uncertain of how to discuss with my kids the role of their future stepfather. My youngest is excited to call him dad, while my middle son is refusing to call him dad because, he says, Jerry will ‘never be his real dad.’ My oldest, by the way, wants to call him ‘Jerry or stepdad.’ How do we address this subject without hurting the kids’ feelings or Jerry’s? What is a healthy expectation to how the kids feel? Are we doing anything wrong? Is this normal?”

Similar to my experience with losing my son, blended families live in a different land than first-families. Blended families have crossed over into a new territory—your New Normal Land is Stepfamily Land. Trying to go it alone without spending time with other blended families leaves you and the Jennifers of the world examining your life from the perspective of those in First Family Land—and that makes you feel abnormal.

If you ask one of the people over in First Family Land if your life is normal, they will likely say, “Oh, that’s strange. What’s wrong with you?” So don’t bother asking them.

Who do you ask, then? How do you compare your life to others in order to know what’s normal and what’s not? Look around you. There are lots of people who live in Stepfamily Land and have studied how life goes here. They are ahead of you in the process. Ask them.

That’s where you will find answers, perspective, comfort, and hope. And when you ask, “Is this normal?” They will tell you, in Stepfamily Land, yes, it is.

Answering Jennifer

So, how did I answer Jennifer’s message? I told her, “Jennifer, I have good news. You aren’t doing anything wrong. Everything you’ve described in your question is very normal. In fact, it’s par for the stepfamily course. Still, you need to know what to do about it.” 

Then I pointed her toward the resources of FamilyLife Blended, including the book Dating and the Single Parent, so she could begin to understand life in Stepfamily Land. And most importantly, I urged her to find others who also live near her so they can hang out, and together, live in Stepfamily Land.

Life was not made to be lived alone. If you do not have a band of blended family couples that you meet with on a regular basis, then you are walking in unfamiliar territory alone and isolated.

There are many ways to connect with other Christian stepfamilies around you. Here’s an idea: Start a small group comprised of people that you already know who are living in Stepfamily Land. If you don’t know anyone, use social media to gather people together, or coordinate with your church to start a blended family small group.

The people in your group may not be able to provide all the answers, but that’s okay. What you need from your group more than anything is camaraderie—others who can pray for you, walk through struggles with you, and testify from their own experiences that you’re not alone and that there is hope.

And you have the Word of God, which transcends all relationships, no matter how they were formed. With brothers and sisters in Christ and the Word of God to guide you, your New Normal can be a great place to live. 

Copyright © 2017 by Ron L. Deal. Used with permission.



Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit www.RonDeal.org and www.FamilyLife.com). 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g., ABCNews.com, Today.com), in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.

 

 

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