I’ll never forget the phone call that changed our family forever. “She just passed away,” my husband said. “The kids were with her.”

My stepchildren’s mother had been battling cancer for more than a year. Randy and I didn’t know how sick she was until the end. My mind wandered to my 14-year-old stepson and 19-year-old stepdaughter. How unfair for them to now face life without their beloved mom.

Where would the kids reside now? I thought. Would we bring them across state lines to live with us? How would they cope with such a significant loss during their teenage years? Why, God? Why didn’t you answer our prayers and heal her?

After nine years of marriage, our stepfamily relationships were in a better place. We survived the early integration years with five kids in a “his, hers, and ours” family. Relationships were finally coming together, and I was looking forward to the years ahead. What I didn’t know then was the wilderness season our marriage would endure after that devastating loss.

Emotions ran high, and we didn’t easily agree on answers to our struggles. I had just finished an internship in grief counseling and thought I knew best what the kids needed. But Randy was quick to remind me they were his kids.

The needs of our marriage quickly sidelined as we agonized over how to navigate the road ahead. Our focus pivoted to helping the kids cope with their grief, understanding what they really needed, and keeping our family intact against a harsh backdrop. Orchestrating everyday demands of five kids with changing dynamics and a high emotional climate overshadowed the needs of our marriage, creating a wilderness with long stretches of lonely roads for me and Randy.

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Your own wilderness season

I wish I could say we easily moved out of that season as the kids got older and dynamics shifted. But the truth is, Randy and I formed patterns that focused more on the kids and less on us.

When we realized our marriage needed attention, it wasn’t a quick fix. Coming out of that wilderness season involved intentional behavior as we asked God for His power and grace to get back on track and resurrect a marriage that would heal lingering wounds.

Your stepfamily wilderness may look different than ours. Maybe it involves a prodigal child, a broken marital vow, a stepchild who doesn’t want to be part of the family, or loneliness as a stepparent. More than one hard season will likely show up as your stepfamily extends into several decades. Regardless of your circumstances, you don’t have to stay stuck wandering in the wilderness. Here are some reminders for finding your way out.

Victim or victorious? The choice is yours

My stepmom friend Alyssa had tears in her eyes as she described feeling unloved, mistreated, and isolated after a decade of trying to engage with her stepchildren. She had little support from her husband and had assumed the role of a victim. Instead of speaking up for her needs, she had given up.

“Who are you outside your home?” I asked her. She easily replied with her work title, secure in her identity as a professional. She also spoke of her identity as a believer, secure in her faith. But those identities didn’t transfer to her home life.

I described the story of the invalid in John 5:1-9 who had lain by the pool of Bethesda for 38 years. Instead of finding help to get into the pool, where it’s believed an angel stirred the water to provide healing, the lame man blamed others for his position. After Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” we hear the words of a victim. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to the man, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” In other words, take responsibility for your choices. Quit wallowing in self-pity. Be a victor. With Jesus’ words, the man was healed.

When life feels unfair in the wilderness, it’s easy to become a victim—like the invalid at Bethesda and my friend, Alyssa. We blame others and don’t take responsibility for our behavior. We wallow in our circumstances. I’ve been at that place myself.

We can’t get stuck there, though. With God’s help, we can assume the identity of a victor. One who believes: I’m responsible for my happiness. I reap what I sow (Galatians 6:7). I can take the next right step to overcome hard circumstances.

God pursues our sanctification

In marriage, we each play a role contributing to the wilderness season. Identifying that role takes humility and self-awareness. But it’s critical to the sanctification process and a move toward reconciliation.

I’m reminded of Jacob pursuing a wife in Genesis 29. Jacob left Bethel and traveled about 500 miles in faith to find a woman to marry. Jacob stopped at a well, where he met Rachel and immediately fell in love. Her father takes Jacob into his home and offers him work. Laban appears to be a kind, generous man, but we soon see his shrewd, manipulative side.

As Laban begins to sense Jacob’s love for his daughter, he takes advantage. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years without wages in return to marry Rachel. But when the seven years are up, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah. In order to marry Rachel, Jacob has to work another seven years without pay.

The point of this story is God’s sanctification of Jacob. Perhaps you recall Jacob’s deceit in stealing his brother Esau’s birthright. God had big plans for Jacob, but he needed some character development first. Sometimes God allows us to suffer now for our good later.

God has big plans for you, but He wants your heart surrendered to Him first. He’s committed to our spiritual growth and allows hardship at times to move us closer to Him.

What’s at the root of your wilderness struggles? A critical spirit? Lack of self-control? An impatient heart when God seeks long-suffering?

In our wilderness season, my stubborn character and prideful spirit showed up often. I was quick to point out the speck in my husband’s eye but failed to see the log in my own (Matthew 7:3). We couldn’t move out of that wilderness season until I surrendered my pride and asked for God’s help to change my ways.

Most things worth having require risk

Wilderness seasons create fear and uncertainty. There’s risk to keep trying at marriage when you want to quit. There’s no guarantee the relationship you’re pining for with your stepchild will ever come to pass. A previous divorce can allow doubt and discouragement to creep in and question your ability to sustain a long-term relationship.

We can’t stay cocooned in a cozy, safe environment and find fulfillment in life. Most things worth having require risk.

The new job my husband took carries risk. A family member trying to get pregnant carries risk. When Randy and I sought counseling during our wilderness season, there was risk as we exposed messy patterns and sinful behavior. But there are also rewards to risk-taking behavior. That counseling saved our marriage.

We watch Peter take a risk as he steps out of the boat and tries to walk on water (Matthew 14:30-31). He doesn’t get it exactly right. He takes His eyes off Jesus and fear takes over. “Lord, save me!” he yells as he begins to sink. Jesus immediately stretches out His hand to catch him.

Ask God for courage. You’re not alone as you seek to move toward righteousness and improve relationships in your home. God will walk with you and reward your efforts. But you have to make a move.

Your first step out of the wilderness is the most important. Perhaps that step is to:

  • ask for forgiveness.
  • get help resolving conflict in your marriage.
  • engage with your stepchild again.
  • take a hard look at your role in an unhealthy cycle.
  • tame your tongue and commit to offer grace more freely.

Ask for the Lord’s help to identify what needs to change. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

A resurrected marriage is possible

Wilderness seasons are likely for any marriage, but they’re almost inevitable for stepfamily couples. The dynamics are complicated. Circumstances are unfair. Relationship-building is slow and complex.

Without a firm resolve to conquer your struggles and courage to take that first step, you’ll continue to wander in the wilderness.  If you’re hoping for an easy button, you won’t make it.

A resurrected marriage is possible. Ask for God’s power and grace to move you toward reconciliation.

God resurrected Jesus from the dead. He can resurrect your marriage after a wilderness season.

Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Gayla Grace serves on staff with FamilyLife Blended® and is passionate about equipping blended families as a writer and a speaker. She holds a master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling and is the author of Stepparenting With Grace: A Devotional for Blended Families and co-author of Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Gayla and her husband, Randy, have been married since 1995 in a “his, hers, and ours” family. She is the mom to three young adult children and stepmom to two.