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The Communication Difference

Making assumptions about your spouse’s thoughts, feelings, and motives is a risky endeavor.
By Ron L. Deal


There are many unique stepfamily dynamics that surround couples in blended families. I like to call them “familyness factors.”

And there are also dynamics between the couple which are extremely dependent upon how well they communicate. I call them “coupleness factors.”   

Anita and Michael had been married for about two years when her frustration over her role as a stepparent came to a head. Michael brought two preteen children into the marriage, and Anita had one child in kindergarten.

Given that her ex-husband was distant and uninvolved, Anita’s role with her daughter as primary disciplinarian and nurturer had always been clear. She relished the role, and her assertive, decisive personality made it easy to be in charge. When she married Michael, who admitted that he was “sometimes soft” on his kids, Anita assumed the role of authority with his children too.

Michael and Anita attended one of my seminars for stepfamilies and learned a lot about the stepparent’s role in their family. They quickly recognized that much of the conflict they had as a couple and between Anita and Michael’s oldest son was related to her premature assertiveness as a parent figure.

They mutually agreed that at this point in their family’s development, she needed to back off from setting and following through with punishment and allow Michael to be the primary parent in his children’s lives. This would become the first step toward healing her relationship with her stepson and earning his trust, which would then allow her to move back into a leadership role.

But taking on this new role was difficult for Anita. It went against her personality and forced her to accept the behavioral standards for the children that were held by her husband.  

“You just don’t take enough initiative with your kids,” she said. “You’ve always been too weak with them and they run all over you.”

Michael countered in defense, “No I’m not. You’re just too strict and want to control everything.” The criticism and negative assumptions about each other’s motives continued to escalate.

Anita raised her voice, hoping to be heard. “I’m not trying to control everything. I just think we should be more structured. And I know why you’re not. Your ex-wife threatened to take you back to court years ago and you’re still afraid she will. If you make the kids mad, they’ll run to her and you’ll lose them. But in the meantime, our life is chaos.”

 “This is not about me,” Michael asserted. “This is about you. Ever since we decided to change our parenting you’ve been depressed and moody. You just can’t handle not being in control!”

Is this couple communicating effectively? Absolutely. It’s effective all right, but it’s not healthy. In fact, it’s destructive, and if something doesn’t change, this couple is headed for disaster.

Accusations

Making assumptions about your spouse’s thoughts, feelings, and motives is a risky endeavor. It can cause you to take the other for granted and jump to conclusions. Anita assumed that the reason Michael didn’t take more initiative with his children was fear that his ex-wife would take custody. This may or may not be part of his concerns, but she didn’t slow down to listen to his perspective; she just assumed she knew.

She also wasn’t considerate of his feelings; she used them as ammunition against him to plead her case. That attitude didn’t invite him to share his struggles with her; instead, it stirred him to defend himself against her. And the more he defended himself, the more she dug in her heels, trying to convince him that she was right. He responded with accusations of his own.

Michael accused Anita of wanting control of the home. She may, indeed, struggle with the desire to manage the people in her life in order to bring security to her world, but his assumption and accusation pushed her to defend her actions, not reach out for support from him.

When put together, these assumptions activated a downward, negative cycle of arguing and defensiveness. What is needed? A heart change and a communication change.

Open your heart, open your ears

James encourages people to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV). If there’s one communication skill that could be considered paramount for developing and maintaining intimacy, it’s listening. This requires patience as well as the ability to withhold judgment and spend concentrated energy trying to understand. But it also demands a heart change.

To open your ears effectively you must first open your heart—to humility. A humble spirit is open to the other’s influence and the possibility that there’s something to learn from the other; it might even have to take responsibility for something said or done.

A prideful heart, on the other hand, is usually defensive and too busy working on its own agenda to really listen to the other’s point of view. It cannot be “quick to listen” because it is trying to be heard—more to the point, to win.

Seek to learn good communication skills throughout your marriage. But make sure you first attend to the attitude of your heart.

 

Adapted from The Remarriage Checkup by Ron L. Deal and David H. Olson. Published by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2010. 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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