20: About to Blend
Whether you are dating, engaged or single hoping to marry one day, there are preparations to make if you or your significant other have children. How do you get ready to blend? Drs. Jeff and Judi Parziale discuss with Ron Deal how they coach couples in pre-stepfamily work and the wisdom they have learned in their 20 year marriage.
About the Guest
- Learn more about Blended & Blessed®. www.blendedandblessed.com
- "Marrying With Children" resource. http://instepministries.com/books/marrying-with-children/
- InStep Ministries. www.instepministries.com
- Check out all that's available on the FamilyLife Podcast Network. https://www.familylife.com/familylife-podcast-network/
- Visit FamilyLife Blended® online for articles, videos, and resources for blended families. https://www.familylife.com/blended
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How do you get ready to blend a new stepfamily? Drs. Jeff and Judi Parziale discuss with Ron Deal how they coach couples in pre-stepfamily work and the wisdom they have learned in their 20 year marriage.
20: About to Blend
Ron: Okay so what are things parents, and potentially new stepparents, what are they to do during this season of they’re dating, they’re engaged, they’re trying to check in with their child, they’re seeing some emotional responses, what are they do about that?
Jeff: The parent has to be non-defensive because they’re going to hear things they don’t want to hear. The common myth is that, “I’m going to be happy so my kids therefore will be happy.” That really isn’t true very often as you know.
Ron: From the FamilyLife Podcast Network this is FamilyLife Blended®. I’m Ron Deal.
This podcast brings together timeless wisdom, practical help and hope to blended families, and those who love them.
I just wanted to let you know before we jump into the content today that registration for Blended and Blessed® is now available online. Go to BlendedandBlessed.com and learn how you can be part of this livestream event all over the world, next April 25th 2020.
If you are seriously dating, nearly engaged, or already engaged and planning to marry and form a blended family this episode is for you. Or maybe you have a friend or a family member in that situation. Please listen so you’ll know how to be of support to them.
Drs. Jeff and Judi Parziale are passionate about equipping families today and empowering churches to effectively minister to them. The challenges of working through their own issues, their own remarriage and stepfamily life led them to start In Step Ministries. Jeff is a family pastor, an author, counselor with thirty years of counseling and ministry experience.
As a research health psychologist Judi understands the immense challenges facing today’s families. The two of them, Jeff and Judi, have been married over twenty years each bringing three children into their marriage.
They’ve co-authored many resources. Today we’re going to be talking about Marrying With Children. You can find more information about all their resources online at their website InStepministries.com.
I asked Jeff and Judi, a couple that’s planning to marry, what are they thinking as the wedding day approaches?
Jeff: I think they’re hoping that this family will be something better than the last family they were in perhaps. Or better than the family they grew up in. I think they’re imagining that the kids will get along and they’ll like each other and that they’ll be one big happy family and it’ll happen fairly quickly.
Not all those things are fantasies, but I think that’s what they're hoping for. I don’t blame them because I think that’s what they should be hoping for. I want to do it better this time, is a pretty common feeling and thought and that this time, I’m a little wiser, I've chosen better, I’m a little more experienced or mature so I know this one will be better than it was before.
Ron: I want to key in on something you just said. We’re going to talk about some of those expectations in just a few minutes but that one piece that you said about they’re comparing it to the past. At least the past is somehow influencing how they’re thinking about what’s happening in the present. They want this to be better, different than the past.
Let’s unpack that a little bit. Sometimes when we’re basing the present on the past we don’t have a good perspective on the present. Does that make any sense?
Jeff: Of course it does.
Ron: So how do you think that works for couples for the average person coming into a blended family? What are they comparing it to? What is their need for this to be different?
Jeff: Well most of the couples that we work with are probably comparing it to a prior relationship. It could be childhood if it’s a first relationship for them. But for most of them they’re comparing it to a past relationship where there was abuse, neglect, abandonment.
The things that they don’t know are that the seeds of that new relationship are inside of them. They’re going to help create that so they put a lot of expectation on their partner and not enough on themselves. I think that they perhaps are wounded or disappointed so they’re hoping that their new partner will be able to fix or do those things differently or better than the last time.
I think the biggest struggle is that they don't pay enough attention to their own healing or recovery from those last relationships or childhood issues, so they bring them right along with them, and then they’re surprised when things happen just the same in that new relationship.
Ron: Okay so if I’m somebody listening to this conversation right now, I’m thinking, “What? Are you telling me I’m messed up? Are you telling me I’m carrying a lot of baggage from the past and I don't even see it? You’re saying this new relationship is wrong or something? What are you saying to me?”
Jeff: I’m not saying the relationship is wrong. I’m saying that it’s naive to imagine that there won’t be struggles in the new relationship.
The real key is if I'm entering a new relationship my ability to handle the stresses and challenges of that new relationship -- if I’m assuming this one will be better because my last one was so awful and you're a nicer person then I’m setting myself up for failure because I’m not realizing that I’ve got to walk in the door and confront a whole new set of challenges and struggles with a whole new person.
So my capacity to listen, to be patient, to let the relationship grow, to handle those challenges without becoming anxious and looking for quick fixes that’s going to be the key. As opposed to assuming that it’s all on you or because we’ve made a better choice we shouldn’t have all those struggles.
Ron: Okay Judi, and that’s the point right? The reason we are having this candid conversation right now is because we want to help people have the relationship dream that they are desiring. We want to move them in that direction but we also want to help them get there by recognizing the things that are not actually conducive to them accomplishing the dream. Does that make any sense? What do you think Judi?
Judi: Totally makes sense. In fact that was one of the conversations Jeff and I had many times after we were first married. In retrospect we looked back and identified twelve different factors that we call “success indicators” that we realized that we were not aware of before we got married.
Because we weren’t ready yet or hadn’t addressed some of these issues in ourselves, or even recognized what was going on in our children it set us up for more problems than was necessary.
So that’s why we try to get couples to focus on, as they prepare for new stepfamily life, that they need to go over some of these success factors and have conversations as well as pray about them and ask God if they’re ready in those areas. It’s much more advantageous if they deal with it upfront than to have it confront them with the problem and then realize that there’s anxiety going on in them and they don’t know how to make things better at that moment.
Ron: Now you’re saying you and Jeff didn't really examine these before you got married, right?
Ron: How long have you guys been married at this point?
Judi: Twenty-eight years, just had our anniversary.
Ron: So there’s hope for the listener who’s--
Ron: Who’s maybe thinking, “Man, we are behind the ball. Oh no, what are we going to do?” Okay good, so we’re going to help you with these success factors in just a minute.
But before we do that let me just pull back and go, I’m mindful of somebody listening to us right now who is engaged to someone and this is your first marriage. You don’t have a past breakup or relationship or you weren’t widowed, or you’re not bringing children necessarily. Maybe this is your first entrance into a family experience, you’re marrying somebody who has kids.
It’s a little different for that person because maybe their expectations are based on what they know and think family is. So Jeff would you say that -- what’s the blind spot for that person you would want them to be aware of?
Jeff: I think the biggest blind spot is their picture of what they think marriage is going to be like may not be exactly the way it is. So are they willing to discover and maybe blend those two pictures together? They’re entering into a system that already exists. It’s already been functioning at some level for some period of time. They’re walking into an existing system.
So one of their ideas is that, I’m going to create a new system. I think the blind spot is going to be, I’m walking into a system that already exists. I need to find out how I fit into that system. At some point down the road I’m going to be able to have some effect on that system. As opposed to, I’m going to come into a brand new system that I have total control over. That’s not true.
Ron: Yes. That’s good.
Judi: That’s where one of those blind spots is often with a new parent that doesn't have children where they come in and they see things in the children that they think they can help the other parent improve upon and start making suggestions that are interpreted as criticisms.
I would really suggest that that person also gets some understanding of child development and what to expect at different ages and how to first become a friend with those children because, just as Jeff, has mentioned if they don’t do this they’ll go in and they’ll be received with resistance because they’re trying to change the family and the way it was.
Ron: Okay so Judi, you mentioned some success factors, I know these are listed in your resource Marrying With Children, we may not get through all twelve of them but let’s hit some of them. Give me two or three and let’s talk around them.
Judi: Alright, first of all, one of the things we realized is that we had not allowed adequate time to lapse between the time of divorce and remarriage because the children were not ready. This was a readiness issue that we didn’t realize existed for kids at that time.
As we know now, children are usually a good year emotionally behind processing than the adult. So it’s important that you look at the children and yourself to determine whether or not you’ve really grieved those losses and whether you’re ready to prepare for a new journey in stepfamily life.
Ron: Now, I’ve got to tell you. I have quoted you two many, many times through the years. Kids are a year behind--emotionally behind--the adults. When the adults are ready to marry. What I’ve often shared is that that’s kind of the rule of thumb. It depends on the age of the child, it depends on the family circumstance in the story that is the foundation to this whole experience. But the point here is they’re not ready when you're ready.
Somebody just hearing that for the first time listening to this conversation probably just had a minor heart attack. [Jeff and Judi laugh] So we’ve got to unpack that a little bit. What do you mean, “They’re not ready when the adults are ready?”
Jeff: I think, in general, what it means is that they’re just, for many of them, they’re just getting used to the fact that their parents divorced or split up or broke up and that now they’re living perhaps in a single parent family so they’re making the adjustment to that. They’re adjusting to all the changes that happen from that breakup. Maybe a new school, new homes, new friends. Loss of pets. All kind so things have changed.
They’re adapting to those changes. About the time they’re getting ready to feel comfortable with that the parent now throws a new change at them which is, “Here’s that new person that I’m dating and we’re thinking about a relationship.” Now when they’re just getting comfortable adjusting to not being in that original family, not spending quality time with one parent or the other and now they have a new human being that perhaps has children of his or her own that is being introduced to them.
So emotionally they’ve got to make another leap and another adjustment. Depending on their own personality they’re either going to be angry about that or going to be depressed about that. They’re going to react in some emotional way, but they’re going to want to please their parent so they’re going to act as if it’s okay.
That’s often a place where parents make, I think, a mistake assuming that the child is okay when really they’re just trying to make their parent happy. The last thing they want to do is make a parent that’s already been through a breakup unhappy again because they assume that that unhappiness is the reason the original breakup happened so they’re going to pretend like everything’s fine or they’re going to act out in some way.
The parent who really desperately wants to reconnect with another adult is going to tend to ignore that or minimize the effect that that’s going to have.
Ron: In other words, they miss each other emotionally. It’s easy for them to end up in different places and not realize it.
Ron: Sometimes kids contribute to this because they go possum on their parents, like you said there Jeff they don’t really show how they’re feeling and maybe some of the inner angst and questions and things that they're wrestling with because they don’t want to hurt their parent’s feelings.
They don’t want to marginalize that relationship with their parent. I mean that’s where they’re investment is. We’re trying to find stability here in this new family relationship. I don’t want to make it worse, so they don’t always come out with that. So parents can be duped--is that the right word?--into thinking, everything’s good. My kids just want me to be happy.
Of course that’s true but it’s also true that the kids are trying to find stability and happiness of their own. Sometimes those things, at the end of the day, clash.
Jeff: Well the biggest challenge is that most children are not as verbal as adults so they’re not going to verbalize those kinds of things, they’re going to act it out. We really encourage dating parents to pay attention to what’s going on with your child. Is he doing a little worse in school, is he acting out a little bit more, is he a little bit more resistant to discipline, is he not doing his chores, is he hoarding food? Looking for those nonverbal signs that something is happening inside that child.
That’s generally the kinds of things a parent, especially a parent that's now dating and falling in love, is going to be a little less aware of because they're putting some focus on that new partner. So they’re not going to be attending some of those that are fairly subtle but some subtle changes that that child is making in a nonverbal way of saying, “I’m upset with what’s happening right now but I don’t know any--I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t really have any control over it.” So you’ve got to pick it up from those signs.
Ron: Yes. So what are things parents and potentially new stepparents, what are they to do in this season of they’re dating, they’re engaged, they’re trying to check in with their child, they're seeing some emotional responses. What do they do about that?
Judi: Well I think, depending on the age, they can start to have conversations about this. Or ask the children what it is that they think about this but what I’ve noticed in children is that they’re always saying to the parent, “Yes we want to get married and this is going to be great, etc.” And parents will come in and say, “Our kids can’t wait for us to be together,” and the minute they get married then all kinds of things begin to happen with the kids because the kids were not made aware of what all of the changes would be.
So they may know that they were going to move or get a different house but they didn’t know how everything would go down. Would they have to share a bedroom? Would they have to change schools? Would they have to come and go at different times to their other parent’s for visitation? All of these things create new routines and things for kids that when they’re not expecting it they don’t know how to cope with it.
Ron: I think the word for parents would be “loss.” It creates another loss for that child.
Judi: Correct. Yes.
Ron: From the child’s point of view.
Jeff: There’s a principle called helping a child feel felt. What that means is, I go to a child and I say, “I really want to understand where you are. This is a nonjudgmental conversation. It’s okay if you're confused, frightened, angry, concerned. I want to understand how you feel.”
So this “feel felt” gives that child a sense that my mom or dad really cares and understands me. I think we have to almost anticipate some of the questions that a child would ask if they were going to ask. “You know, you’re probably wondering what’s going to happen if I wind up marrying this person.” So anticipating those questions gives the child then permission then to say, “Yes, I am wondering about those things. What is going to happen to us? I notice that he has a child my age.”
Or who knows what it might be, but giving the child permission not only talk about those things but make sure that they feel heard, understood, feel felt, that their feelings are validated.
They’re not going to initiate that conversation ever. It’s something that the parent has to go and create a safe place for that child to start talking about those things. Then the parent has to be non-defensive because they’re going to hear things they don’t want to hear. The common myth is that I’m going to be happy so my kids therefore will be happy. That really isn’t true very often as you know.
Ron: Okay you just said “a myth” because I’m happy my kids are going to be happy. Because I’m thrilled about this marriage, my kids are going to be thrilled about this marriage. Did I just hear you say that that’s an unrealistic expectation?
Jeff: We’re going to be one big happy family which is a myth, it’s a fantasy.
Ron: Yes. Yes. There are layers to this of course. I always say to people there are parts of a child that are really happy that you’re happy.
It’s the, “Wow my mom met this great guy and he’s taking care of her and I love the way she smiles when she’s around him. I think that’s marvelous for my mother. I’m happy for her. And yet, I’ve got to share a bedroom. I’ve got somebody telling me to get out of the bathroom because they need to get into it. And this guy that my mom loves so dearly is telling me that the way I do X, Y, or Z is incorrect and that’s stuff I don’t like.”
So it’s okay -- it’s not just black or white, either they love it or they hate it. It’s layers. But the point is you as the parent or stepparent have to be prepared to hear some of this and create a safe environment for the child to articulate that. Otherwise they’re not going to tell you and then you’re going to be stuck.
So, okay, so coach the parent listening to us right now just for a second, what do they have to do internally in order to not be defensive when their child shares some of this hard stuff?
Judi: They need to be able to understand that all of these things come in stages and it doesn’t need that instant fix. In stepfamily life we always see that there’s a great need when these different issues arise that people want to immediately fix a problem. I want to make that child feel okay. Or, I want to change how my spouse is relating to my child so it’s better.
One of the hardest things we learned in our journey was that in many cases when the problems arise there is no fix. The only thing you can do is choose to manage it. Most of us don’t like managing things because it means that we really have to look at our own ways and rely on God’s peace and His grace to replace our own anxiety.
That it’s a daily thing that we have to go to the Lord in prayer and ask for His guidance so that we can help that child move along as well as help the bonding and the formation of the stepfamily. But it means though there will be consistent ups and downs at first. Then you’ll begin to see some gains.
Ron: Now Judi, I can just hear somebody saying, “But what do I do with my guilt? You’re telling me that my child may not love this experience at the beginning and over time they can grow on them and things will change but in the meantime, I recognize that this is hard for them. I’m happy; they’re not happy, I feel guilty about that. What do I do with my guilt?”
Judi: Well, I think that’s one of those things that comes up when you don’t realize that this is one of those aspects of stepfamily life that is going to happen. So I think there’s several things that parents end up feeling guilty about because you’ve made a mistake but the parent needs to realize that they didn’t do this intentionally. This could have been a blind spot or just an unexpected result of the experience itself.
So confessing that to the Lord as well as to your children and say, “I feel really bad that you’re feeling this way that maybe I put you in this position. It was not my intent for you to feel this way, please forgive me. But are you willing to work on it with me so that we each get to feeling better about this situation?”
Jeff: That’s good. You’re right.
Ron: That is good.
Jeff: This is an emotional place for a parent because they probably are experiencing lots of different emotions and some of them are very diverse. I’m excited but I’m scared. I’m excited for the possibilities for me but I’m worried about my kids. I feel some guilt that I’m taking them through another big change.
I think we have to reconcile those things inside ourselves and create a safe space inside of us to be able to say, “I’ve got to be able to hold those differences in tension while I walk this process through with my child.”
Talking about what their expectations are. Talking about what their fears are and sharing some of those concerns with them—depending on their age, obviously, if they’re three or four not—but being able to create a space inside of ourselves where I say, you know what this is part of the experience is reconciling some very different kinds of emotions.
That may be a readiness factor. My ability to recognize that I’m excited and I think they’re possibilities here but this is going to be some hard work for me. It’s going to be some tough sledding at first for my children. I’m willing to walk through that but I’m going to be able to hold and advance the positive feelings but also those concerns and I’m going to be able to embrace those things that my child tells me.
I think it’s a lot better to do that way before there’s a marriage than afterwards when you’re trying to do cleanup work, or you’re trying to do damage control.
Ron: Oh that’s a really good word. I’m mindful that we’ve only talked about one success factor.
[Jeff and Judi laugh]
You know we’re going to get back to that in just a second but I can imagine somebody listening to us going, “Yes, all this stuff that they're talking about, this is why we’re just going to live together.”
Judi: Living together is exactly the same thing without the marriage license. You’re still trying to put a family together with two adults and children. Somehow our society believes that when we live together that the impact emotionally on either the adults or the children is not going to be the same. It is exactly the same.
So whether you marry or not, you have maybe the legal complications with the marriage but you’re still going to encounter the same thing.
Ron: It seems to me it’s even more challenging with a cohabiting environment because there’s not a sense of permanence.
Judi: That’s -- I was just going to get to that. Without commitment and that permanence in the mind of the two adults that are in the relationship it is going to be much more difficult to be willing to work through some of these hard issues, to be adaptable and flexible with one another and to provide that kind of security for the kids.
Ron: Jeff, imagine a parent sitting down with their teenage children, maybe young adult children, maybe elementary aged kids and having one of those parent/child conversations.
It goes something like this, “You know everybody around us is living together. That’s what the world says to do. It seems that God’s Word is pretty clear that sexual relationship outside of marriage is not reflective of God’s nature and how He made us and it’s not best. His provision for us is that we trust Him with commitment and so I am working very hard in this dating relationship to manage our sexual relationship and keep that at bay until we marry. So we are going to resist the temptation to move in and we’re going to continue to date with integrity. I just want you to know that’s why the wedding is planned when it is, where it is, how it is, and we will not be moving in with one another until then.”
What do you think the impact of that morally, spiritually would be on children?
Jeff: I think that’s powerful. More than anything else what a child wants to know is what’s going to happen and the parent is going to be there for them. But I think what you just shared is inspiring and powerful. I think that the average child may not get it at the time but they’re going to respect that parent and they're going to see modeled for them something perhaps they’ve never seen before which is two people that are committed to living life for Christ, and role modeling that for their children.
I think that’s unbelievably powerful.
Ron: What’s being modeled is trusting God.
Jeff: Trusting God, exactly.
Ron: Okay, Judi, let’s go on. What’s another success factor?
Judi: Well let’s see. That the couple has dealt with their emotional issues from prior relationships or marriages and that they have resolved these. So this means that if there's still a lack of forgiveness or problems going on between the co-parents, etc, that if those aren’t resolved ahead of time you’re bringing those into the new relationship. That can be very complicated for a new spouse.
Ron: Is there a common tip you usually give people along that line in terms of moving them in the right direction?
Judi: Well, obviously, we encourage premarital counseling. In doing so you can do some of the different assessments that allow you to see if you’re well prepared or compatible or where you’re at emotionally. I would suggest any of those things would help a couple recognize perhaps what emotional issues are still lagging there.
You can usually pick that up in tone of voice or reference to the former spouse and that’s always a key that if there’s that resentment and that lack of forgiveness not only is it going to affect the new marriage but it affects the children that are involved in it.
So that lack of forgiveness is just one issue but it could be that the person had a spouse that was unfaithful and cheated on them. That person is going to bring into the new relationship a great fear or anxiety that accompanies that, can I trust this person? As we both know that can really sabotage a new relationship.
Ron: That’s good. You mentioned online assessments. Simbus is one program that’s out there. Prepare/Enrich is another. I have a related inventory on the website SmartStepfamilies.com you can take the Couple Checkup there. Give you a very thorough report of your relationship, its strengths, it’ll give you a sense of where maybe some of the blind spots are. It will also affirm the things that are going well for you at this point in your relationship. So I think that’s helpful.
The Couple Checkup, it’s at SmartStepfamilies.com.
Judi, what’s another success factor?
Judi: One of the big ones is legal and financial issues from prior relationships are resolved. As we well know in a second marriage or relationship oftentimes the number one issue that couples have is about parenting and the children but the second issue that they have tends to do with finances and how they’re going to deal with those and manage them, etc.
As you well know given the recent book that you've prepared Ron with your co-authors this is a really important area to look at because combining finances one parent gets child support, one parent pays child support. You have kids with different needs, different insurance carriers, etc.
All this gets very complicated for parents. The more that they can talk about this, how we’re going to manage money up front, are we going to have one pot, two pots, or three pots? That’s just one of the ways you can look at managing money. All of these things will help to get them off on a better start with these kinds of things.
Ron: Yes, Judi, thank you. You’re referencing the book that we’ve written, The Smart Stepfamily Guide to Financial Planning and we did a podcast with my co-authors on that book Greg Pettys and David Edwards. That podcast feel free to look it up. It’s called “Financing Togetherness in Blended Families.”
You’re right there are some challenges there. What is it Judi that is really happening? Is it that money is an issue? Or is it somehow how money impacts the merging of the family?
Judi: Well I think that it’s the latter. It’s the way that you manage it and what it represents so it’s similar to original marriages or first marriages as well. Or how your parents handled money.
Every person that comes into a relationship we say it’s either going to be a squeezer or a spender. [Ron laughs] We all have those spending personalities or managing money the way we do.
But the big issue, I think, is that money oftentimes represents power in a relationship. If somebody has more in the past oftentimes that meant they got to be the decision maker. This is one area of problem for the relationship itself.
So I think they need to each have equal input on to how they think it best needs to be managed. As you well know some of the things that come up or one child may have more expenses or more needs than a child from the other spouse. The competition gets going. It’s really about the attitudes of our heart. How generous we choose to be. How much we want to actually give up our power in some of those situations.
Ron: I think that’s so well said.
Jeff: I think Judi is exactly right. It’s about personality, it’s about power and control. But more importantly it’s really about the capacity of that couple to have conversations about hard topics like money or vacations or whatever they are.
The capacity of the couple to have hard conversations gently and respectfully so that each one is able to articulate what they need from the other. Money is probably a place where that becomes really tough to do because we have so many emotional connections to money.
Ron: It occurs to me as you say that that’s the action point for our listener right now. Somebody who’s seriously dating, maybe they’re engaged, planning to get married, every topic that we are bringing up is a conversation for you to have. It may involve a series of conversations around money, for example, to try to begin to get a plan together of how you’re going to do that.
Sometimes I think couples intuitively ignore these topics because they kind of know it might bring something up. But that doesn't mean running away from it is the right thing to do. Putting your head in the sand is -- no, take your head out of the sand and go ahead and deal with it now. That actually helps you and this other person move toward each other in solidarity.
By the way, if you can’t, if these conversations don’t move you toward one another, you might want to listen to that.
Jeff: Good point. One of the things that we look at when we look at couples and their readiness for marriage is their ability to have these kinds of conversations calmly. To regulate themselves emotionally so that they can learn how to manage differences and not let those differences affect their relationship.
As we evaluate their readiness what we look for is can you have a hard conversation and still value each other, respect each other and value the relationship. Or do these conversations in a sense create some distance or some tension between the two of you that you don’t know how to manage?
Ron: Oh that’s good and I’m amazed as I’ve done a lot of premarital counseling in the past as you guys know how/when that happens when couples get at odds with one another they ignore the implications of it or they downplay it or they minimize it. Then it’s like, “Nope, but we're getting married and we’re in love.” They shouldn’t do that, huh?
Jeff: They should never do that.
Judi: [Laughing] No. Because that’s going to come up again. It’s absolutely positively going to come up and surface again. They should be in a place where they recognize they're missing some of the skills to handle some of these complex problems that arise in stepfamily life.
In other words if they’re lacking good communication skills they know how to, as Jeff said, regulate the pace of communication and their emotions, do they know a basic understanding that when you get angry you call for a time out and you each take some time away from each other until you cool down enough and let the cortisol go back to its normal levels so that you can come back with a clear mind and discuss it again.
So communication is important. What we find is a lot of people do not have good conflict management skills. They haven’t learned them in their families of origin and they don't recognize why what’s so important in the stepfamily life.
Ron: And in their previous marriage they may have learned bad conflict resolution skills.
Jeff: Most likely.
Judi: That’s often the case.
Ron: Yes. Or at least habits whatever you want to call them. That reactivity, that gets in the way of being able to do that in this new relationship. Or the fear that if I bring something up or say it a certain way or you act a certain way then here’s what that means for us. All of that just complicates managing conflict, right?
Jeff: One of the key myths that couples will have is that if we’re not getting along it probably means this isn’t a good fit. A good new relationship will mean it will be a hand in glove we won’t have these kinds of arguments or disagreements and the truth is it’s always going to be the case, it’s just how we manage that determines the success of our relationship.
Ron: Good. I know, I think we’ve done four or five success factors, Judi, give us another one.
Judi: Well another one is to address how far along you are in your Christian walk or your maturity, or what that means to you. Basically what we’re looking for is somebody who really has a complete identity in Christ and gains their value and worth from God.
Why this is so important in a relationship is because as a new stepmom or stepdad you’re going to oftentimes feel like you get no respect. The kids don’t like you, you’re going to get a lot of negative and this after a while can really be wearing on anyone. So if you’re looking for your identity and your purpose to come from a positive relationship that hasn’t yet had the chance to develop then you’re going to get really down and probably negative yourself.
So this is one of those things that maturity in Christ can help a great deal with because He’s our source of grace. He’s our source that helps us through the times of anxiety and those levels that create tension where we don't want to talk. All of those negative moods or emotions that we have but if we know that we are each mature in our walk with God and seek our identity in Him then we’re more likely to come back with a sound reasoned mind when we’re trying got discuss the issues.
Ron: Let me just reflect that back to you, Judi, and say it a different way and have you react to it. Are you saying that my identity is not wrapped up in my marriage?
Judi: Yes, because your worth, your value comes from your identity in Christ not another person. This is where I think the American delusion is that we’re so wrapped up in how we look, what people think, whether we’re rejected, any of those things that at the drop of a hat we could lose our sense of worth. Whereas if we’re grounded in Christ our sense of worth comes from Him and cannot be taken away from us even by a spouse or an angry stepchild.
Jeff: One of the ideas or principles floating around right now is that we not worship our marriage but that we worship God and our marriage is part of our worship of God. I think that’s essentially what Judi is saying that when I draw my worth and value from God it really affects how I’m going to react to a stepchild, how I’m going to react to my marriage.
It means that I’m going to stay grounded in who I am and my value whether my new family is going well or not or whether my new stepchild likes me or not that I stay grounded on the fact that I know that I’m a child of God and my value and worth comes from that, not from what my new child—or even my new spouse—thinks of me.
So I’m not going to worship the marriage I’m going to worship God and I’m going to put my marriage underneath my relationship with God.
Ron: I think that’s so critical, in particular when you’re entering a family situation with dynamics as you mentioned there that you can’t control. You have to have an identity in something other than what's happening in your home otherwise you forget where true north is.
Judi: Exactly yes.
Ron: So this is good. We get grounded in God and He fuels us to then deal with what’s in front of us with the people in our lives.
Judi: Exactly. Yes.
Ron: Let me go a little bit different direction guys, I think we need to ask a hard question here. Somebody’s dating, planning to get married, maybe they're engaged. We’re talking about the Christian aspects of this. What would the Christian faith say about questions they should ask biblically about getting married again, if one or both have been divorced?
This is a complicated multi-layered thing and we’re not going to unpack all that Scripture has to say about this, that’s not our objective today. But maybe the one central question that somebody who has been through a divorce will ask themselves is, “Am I free to marry?”
I’m not asking you to give an answer to that question because we don’t know the circumstances of any one person who’s listening but what would you advise them to do in order to wrestle with that question well?
Jeff: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I think they need to be honest with themselves about the role that they played in the breakup of their last marriage. Have they been repentant about the things that they are responsible for? Have they asked for forgiveness? Have they made amends in that situation?
When I’m working with a couple and they're asking those kinds of questions the first thing I ask is, “Has there been forgiveness of you of your former spouse, or have you repented of anything that you did in that relationship that you now know you feel guilty about or take responsibility for?” I think that before a Holy God I need to come and say, “I have done all I can do to repent, forgive, make amends for that past relationship and I am now at a position where I feel like I’ve taken that responsibility.”
I think that’s where I would guide a couple or an individual that asks that question is, “Are you clear on those things that God would have you do to reconcile your relationship with him and to reconcile a relationship with a former partner if there’s some things that you need to take responsibility for?” That could mean I spend some time really searching the Scripture to make sure that I have done those things that I think God would have me do.
You’re right. Theology is all over the place on this one as you know Ron.
Ron: Because we walk out our faith in the context of the local church we always here at FamilyLife encourage people to ask those questions, to search the Scriptures, examine 1 Corinthians 7, and Matthew 19, along with a pastor in their local church.
You’re going to walk out your marriage in the context of that congregation you might want to know what they think about this. You might want to come alongside somebody and say, “Help me understand this and let’s examine my life in light of this.”
Give me your counsel about how to move forward so we can continue in our relationship with you (the church) under your authority and guidance all of which helps a couple be more rooted long term in the life of that local group of Christians.
That's an important process to go through. Even if you feel a little anxious about asking those questions that’s probably a good indicator that you need to ask those questions.
Jeff: Both as a pastor and as a therapist, we always ask that question of a couple when they come in for premarital. “Tell me about your faith. Tell me what your faith says about what you’ve experienced and what your faith is telling you know. “
We want to have that conversation with them because it’s important that they have worked through that themselves so yes, the best advice we could give is go to your pastor or someone on the staff and ask them what their beliefs about divorce or remarriage are or just with their -- what their position on that is. We will share that with them when we do all the premarital work at our church for example we’ll share with them what the church’s belief system is on that.
What we think God is saying through His word. We’ll ask them to personally walk through that process for themselves or as a couple to know that, yes, we have done those things that we think need to be done to reconcile with a past relationship or with a Holy God. So great advice Ron.
Ron: I know there’s a whole lot more success factors in your list. I’m going to refer our listener to your resource Marrying With Children for that.
I want to wrap up our conversation, guys, by asking you this: What are the red lights, yellow lights, and green lights that couples should be paying attention to as it relates to this idea of you’re not just marrying a person you’re marrying everything that comes with them, you’re creating a family so it’s -- the green lights are not just about you and that other adult, it’s about your kids, their kids, the past, previous relationships, extended family, future mother-in-laws and in-laws and etc.
There’s a lot there that blended families have to navigate. So on the front end what are some of those red lights and yellow lights that you want people to pay attention to?
Jeff: I would say some of the red lights for us are if there’s a parent that’s disconnected from their children or still involved in legal issues with a former spouse. If there are some key spiritual differences between the individuals, if their core values don’t line up, if one of the people is rigid and inflexible.
There are things that we look for if there’s still some ongoing anger or angst between a person and their former partner. If there’s any issues at all, mental health, addiction, habits, anything that is being untreated or is not being dealt with at the time those are the things that we would look for as red lights. Perhaps even strong orange lights, caution lights.
We tell couples those things don’t disqualify you but those are things that you should take a pause and take a look at those things. I think for us at least some key spiritual differences or core values definitely create some red lights that need to be resolved and those are not things you can just ignore and walk through and imagine it’s going to be okay.
So an orange light might be how the children are functioning? Are they having some emotional issues, are they struggling with some area? That would be an orange light. I’d like to see some attention paid to that before the couple moves forward. Honey, you want to join in on that?
Judi: Sure, I’m thinking another yellow light is have you discussed differences in parenting philosophies? If a person is really honest and says that they have the idea that they’re going to come in there and instantly be Dad or Mom that’s certainly something that needs to be considered and worked through because that shows a lack of understanding about stepfamily formation.
I would encourage that couple to get some books and training and reading this and talk about these kinds of issues of parenting before they start their time together. This will certainly alleviate a number of problems that may arise and involve the children and be very hurtful.
I think another one is to talk about or yellow light would be what is the stepparent’s role going to be? Is that going to be received by the children? Have both of the couple had input on that and agree on how they’re going to pursue that goal with the children?
Ron: That could be something they discuss with the children too, right?
Ron: I’m not saying, listener, I’m not saying that you let your kids determine what the role of the stepparent’s going to be. What I am saying is that you at least hear them out to have a sense of what they think is an appropriate space for the stepparent in the beginning as the family is beginning to merge.
That’s information that helps you then make decisions about what else you talk about with them. How you go about it. Beginning to craft some vision for them of what that role will be and -- so they can begin to get used to the idea.
Sometimes you need to steer them in a better direction about what they expect. To not hear them out at all is to just then be blindsided by their reaction once the marriage has already happened and the stepparent has moved in.
I’ve got to echo what you guys have said, differences in parenting that’s a huge one. We know statistically that that causes a lot of conflict in blended families when there is a vast difference in parenting philosophies so I’m so glad you guys mentioned that one.
But I’ve got to follow up and ask you, let me just play devil’s advocate here, “What do you mean ongoing anger with a former spouse? I’m dating this woman, Ron, and she is fabulous and she is just great and she is godly and yes, she’s got an ex-husband who’s looney and you know, but what does that matter? I’m not marrying him, I’m marrying her. Why should I care if they have some issues?”
Jeff: Well what we know if that former spouse is going to have an effect on everything that happens in that relationship, whether they live next door or they live in another planet they’re going to affect not only the partner but they’re going to affect the children. More importantly if you’ve got unresolved issues with that individual you’re going to bring those unresolved issues with you into your next relationship. Guaranteed.
If there’s still anger then it means that you haven’t really resolved that relationship well enough to be able to put all your energy into a new relationship. That’s an incredible red flag for that reason. You want to give all of your attention, spiritually, emotionally, relationally you want to give it all to a new relationship and to the children.
You don’t want to be bringing with you the baggage of anger and unresolved stuff from a past relationship.
Ron: So what do I do? If I’m listening to you guys talk about this and I’m going, “Oh my goodness, that’s my situation. Are you telling me I have to break up? What do I do?”
Jeff: I think you need to take some time to forgive your former spouse. To own the piece that is yours and to forgive them and to realize that that person is going to be in your life in some fashion for the remainder of at least the children’s lives. So I need to be okay with that.
I need to learn how to manage that, to not let that define who I am, to not let that affect my moods or emotions. To realize that that’s just something I’m going to have to make adjustments to but it starts with me forgiving that person and before a holy God saying, “There’s something I need to do. I need to let go of those things that happened in the past so that I can focus more on the present and on the future.”
Ron: Address that from the other partner’s point of view. So it’s not my issue to forgive, it’s the person I’m dating. What do I do? Do I put this relationship on hold? Do I break up? Do I just slow down? What do I do?
Jeff: I think what I would do if I was in that place is I would say, “I understand that you have legitimate reasons to be angry at that person. But I’m also aware that that person’s going to be in our life from this point on. So how we manage that relationship becomes important in our relationship. What can I do? How can I support you as you resolve those things that anger or --” no matter how legitimate it is.
God doesn’t tell us that we only have to forgive under certain circumstances. He asks us to forgive. We’re not to reconcile. That may never be reconciled because we don’t have any control over the other person but as far as it’s up to me I need to be at peace with that individual. I need to forgive them so that I’m not dwelling on that because if I don’t forgive I’m always going to be dwelling on that and if I’m dating somebody like that I know that that’s going to take energy away from our relationship.
Judi: I would just add that point he made about control, oftentimes what happens between former spouses is one’s trying to control the other or prevent certain things from happening.
The sooner the spouse that’s getting remarried can understand she or he cannot control the other one or even what happens when the children are with that person but they can choose to have a different attitude. They can pray about how best to manage it. That that will certainly help them live a little more at peace. Then it won’t interfere with the current relationship or the new relationship.
Ron: You've been listening to my conversation with Jeff and Judi Parziale about their workbook Marrying With Children.
I'm Ron Deal and this is FamilyLife Blended.
You may be wondering if the complex dynamics around an engaged couple’s relationship ever amounts to a deal breaker. Well I asked Jeff and Judi that question and in just a moment you’ll hear their answer.
But before we get there do me a favor right now. Give us a review. That’ll help others find this podcast. You know one person said, “Thoroughly enjoying this new podcast from Family Life.” Another wrote, “My husband and I recently became a blended family. During our mornings we’ve been listening to these relatable and encouraging stories. Look no further for a podcast that is enlightening and helpful.” Man, I appreciate those words.
Do you remember when Jeff said that a biological parent and a future stepparent need to hold the tension between what they want, like a short engagement, and what their children need? The fantasy that love will happen quickly between all family members sometimes makes people want to push through that tension but his advice is to hold it. Slow down. Don’t rush.
Candidly I’ve got to say I think this is very difficult for people who have fallen in lust—I’m sorry, pardon me, in, they’ve fallen in infatuation. I’m sorry let me try that again, who have fallen in love. What’s that old adage? Our brains are amazing; they work 24/7, 365 days a year until we fall in love.
Hey, if you want a good blend, a healthy family merger—and I think that’s what you want—then you have to move toward marriage with wisdom respecting the needs of your children. No they don’t determine when or if you get married. But they should influence your decision and the timing of when you get married.
Again, you can learn more about this from the Parziale’s workbook Marrying With Children. The show notes will tell you how you can get a copy. If you haven’t done so already, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast, Stitcher, or wherever you download your podcasts. Just search FamilyLife Blended with Ron Deal.
Remember to look at those show notes for additional resources. At FamilyLife we are committed to serving you by providing excellent resources. Our next Blended and Blessed Livestream Event has been scheduled for April 25th, 2020. You can go online today at BlendedandBlessed.com and learn how you can be a part of that event. If you like road trips and live anywhere near Houston, we would love to have you join us at the live event at Houston’s First Baptist Church.
But you don’t have to make a road trip. You can sit at home and watch this event on your smartphone or you can get some people together at your church and experience it with a group of other couples. Learn how again BlendedandBlessed.com.
Now before we’re done, I asked Jeff and Judi the deal-breaker question. You know, if somebody’s dating and they have a very difficult former spouse relationship and things are not getting any better or maybe they’re seeing some red lights, is that cause for a breakup.
Judi: I think that’s definitely an indicator of a cause to put the pause button on. What that looks like has to do with the couple and perhaps a counselor they may choose to work with because it means that there’s still some work to be done.
That doesn’t mean the marriage can’t happen but it means that it’s important to take care of some of these things upfront because not only do you then prevent hurting the person you love and want to marry but you also prevent hurting the kids because they’re eventually going to get drug into that as well.
Jeff: I would agree. I think it’s hitting the pause button but it also means being honest and sober enough to say these things have to get resolved before you guys get married. They will infect your marriage at every level if you don’t work them through. Now every problem has some kind of a solution whether it’s fixable or it just needs to be managed.
But are you willing to spend the time? Do you value each other and the relationship enough to spend the time to work through those things? It hasn’t been very often when I was pastoring that I would say, “I don’t think this relationship is going to work.” It’s really tough for a couple to hear that. But certainly we can give them some sobering honesty and say these things will sabotage and sink your relationship if you don’t deal with them now.
Ron: Well the holidays are just around the corner, so next time our Season 2 podcast guests will be sharing their best tip for surviving the holidays because not everybody has the same expectations.
Laura: I thought my stepkids would want to embrace my traditions and all the fun things that came for Christmas for me. But then I had to let it go and say, “You know what? I wasn’t that interested in my stepparent’s Christmases or families, so why would they be?”
Ron: It’s holiday counsel from a choir of voices next time on FamilyLife Blended.
I’m Ron Deal, thanks for listening. Thanks to our FamilyLife Legacy Partners for making this podcast possible. Our chief audio engineer is Keith Lynch. Bruce Goff, our producer. Mastering engineer is Justin Adams. Theme music provided by Braden Deal.
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