36: Crisis Counselor Tips for Managing Crisis

with Kevin and Jennifer Ellers | August 17, 2020

Stepfamily life often includes a variety of crises, some big, many small. How do you effectively manage those crises and come out on the other side with connected relationships and renewed commitment? Crisis counselor Jennifer Ellers became a stepmom and had to survive her own crisis of expectation. She and her husband, Kevin, join Ron Deal in this episode and offer tips and tools they've learned from their years in a stepfamily.

Show Notes and Resources

Stepfamily life often includes a variety of crises, some big, many small. How do you effectively manage those crises and come out on the other side with connected relationships and renewed commitment? Crisis counselor Jennifer Ellers became a stepmom and had to survive her own crisis of expectation. She and her husband, Kevin, join Ron Deal in this episode and offer tips and tools they've learned from their years in a stepfamily.

Show Notes and Resources

36: Crisis Counselor Tips for Managing Crisis

With Kevin and Jennifer Ellers
|
August 17, 2020
| Download Transcript PDF

Jennifer: I felt like I was invisible sometimes. It was that shocking realization that you’re coming into an existing family system and you’re the outsider. I was not prepared for that one.

Ron: From the FamilyLife® Podcast Network this is FamilyLife Blended. I’m Ron Deal.

This donor-supported podcast brings together timeless wisdom and practical help and hope to blended families and those who love them.

Before we jump into my conversation with Jennifer and Kevin Ellers, I wanted to respond to a question from a listener. We love your feedback, by the way, and your podcast reviews and ratings mean a lot to us too.

Raymond wrote in and said, “My wife and I will be starting a blended family ministry at our church soon. We have the original version of the Smart Stepfamily DVD series. We’d like to order the participant guides. Do you still have those?”

Raymond, that’s a very good question as a matter of fact. You and others around the world are using The Smart Stepfamily small group study. Got to tell you, the series was updated last year so we have all new videos and a whole new participant study guide to go along with it.

Unfortunately, what that means is the old study guides no longer coincide with the new video series so an upgrade is probably in order for you. To make sure you get the right ones, you want to look on the cover of both the DVD series as well as the participant guides. You’re looking for a call out button that says, “10th Anniversary Revised and Updated Version.”

Now, the video series—this is very important—the video series is available for on demand streaming on RightNow Media, the producer of the series. If your church subscribes to RightNow Media, you don’t have to purchase the video. You can just stream it for free through your church’s subscription. Otherwise, you do have to purchase the series. Go to FamilyLife.com or Amazon or Barnes and Noble, wherever you get your resources.

By the way, once you get that small group up and running, make sure you place it on our searchable maps so that other people can find you. We have that map available. If you’re looking for a small group or you’ve got one or some sort of ministry in your church or community, you can let others know about it. Just go to FamilyLife.com/blended and then click the word “attend”. You’ll find it there.

If you were a crisis counselor and you walked into your own family crisis, what advice would you give yourself? In this episode, number 36 of FamilyLife Blended, I’m talking to two crisis counselors, a husband and wife no less, about how they managed their family.

Jennifer Cisney Ellers is a professional counselor, life coach and crisis response trainer, author and a speaker. She speaks extensively on this subject, provides training and counseling and coaching in the field of grief, crisis and trauma. She is faculty for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. She’s director of the Grief, Crisis and Disaster Network for the American Association of Christian Counselors.

Her husband Kevin is the Territorial Disaster Services Coordinator for The Salvation Army in the central territory of the United States. He’s also president and founder of the Institute for Compassionate Care. Kevin is a chaplain with the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police. He serves as faculty for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and he’s an adjunct professor at Olivet Nazarene University.

As you can tell, they are well equipped for the subject that we are talking about today. Together Kevin and Jennifer have coauthored many resources, one of which includes The First 48 Hours: Spiritual Caregivers as First Responders.

Here’s my conversation with Kevin and Jennifer Ellers:

Ron: Well, Kevin and Jennifer, it has been quite a long time. I’ve got to tell our listener that we have been trying to schedule you guys for almost two years.

Jennifer: That’s right. [Laughter] That’s right.

Kevin: That’s hard to believe.

Ron: Which says something about how desperate I was to interview you, [Laughter] that we didn’t give up, and at the same about the busyness and about the level of activity in your life. One of the things that I’m asking at a high level today is what has crisis management taught you about surviving blended family life. That will be interesting to see if there’s any parallels there that you guys have drawn just from your own personal life experiences with all of that. Tell us a little bit about your family.

Jennifer: Well, Ron, this is a second marriage for both Kevin and I. I didn’t’ have any children of my own in my first marriage. It was a brief marriage when I was really young in my twenties that only lasted a couple of years. I’d been single for most of my adult life and was really married to my work in a lot of ways. But Kevin had—I’ll let him talk about his family—but the children in our family are from Kevin’s marriage.

Ron: Okay.

Kevin: —except for your cat.

Jennifer: Well, if you count the furry four-legged ones, yes. [Laughter]

Ron: What the listeners don’t know is that, as you said, that I was watching a cat climb over Kevin’s head [Laughter] as we’re having this conversation. The cat’s very much a part of the family.

Jennifer: Oh, no doubt. By the way, that’s our cat together. [Laughter]

Ron: That’s your mutual cat.

Kevin: That’s our “ours”.

Ron: The “ours” cat.

Jennifer: The “ours”.

Ron: That’s right. The “ours” cat. You had a cat from your single years that you—a step cat to Kevin when you guys got married.

Jennifer: That was quite an adjustment for her.

Ron: —for her?!

Jennifer: Yes! I don’t know about Kevin. [Laughter]

Ron: I notice the emphasis on her. Funny how that works.

Kevin: She did not want to share her momma.

Jennifer: She did not want to share her time with me or the bed.

Ron: Interesting. Isn’t that interesting how possessive even cats can get?

Kevin, tell us a little bit about your clan of kids.

Kevin: I have three, three daughters and they’re wonderful girls. Now they’re all grown and gone off to college and out on their own. The cat’s replaced them here on a day to day basis. [Laughter] I was married for 18 years and that marriage ended in divorce. That’s that story in a nutshell.

Ron: Now Kevin you told me at one point that you were involved in a divorce recovery ministry after your divorce. Was that helpful for you?

Kevin: I was fairly resistant. First of all, when we went through the divorce, even probably before the divorce, I didn’t talk about it. It’s like here’s Dr. Ellers who has his name splashed all over American Association of Christian Counselors, these other groups who’s writing, teaching. I have a doctorate of marriage and family therapy. I had a marriage I couldn’t save of my own.

It was a great sense of shame so I didn’t talk about it then even after the divorce and stuff for quite a while because like, “Hey, I have a degree and I help people.” Finally, I realized I need help myself.

I went through the divorce support group and went through it. We had six sessions and then you do it again. You could go through it three different times. I went through that. Then eventually became the table leader and then started teaching and working with that. But it was very important to my healing.

I really encourage people to find a good divorce support group, a good Christian divorce support group, because I don’t care how much you know or how much training or education you have or even to your place as a professional, you’re a human being.

Ron: That’s right.

Kevin: It’s really critical that you become emotionally healthy. I think doing that helped us to lay a good foundation so after I did get married and Jennifer—I found her—we could have a healthy marriage—it wasn’t two half-empty people coming in hoping to fill each other—coming as two emotionally healthy people. That’s really helped us have a great marriage.

Ron: Man, I appreciate you sharing that in a very candid way. I’ve often thought and known in my own life of the inadequacies of my own life, my own marriage, my failures as a father, my strivings. I have a high standard because I understand how important family is, and I don’t meet my own standard, right?

Nan and I through the years, we’ve had counseling at different seasons of our life. We have been in crisis. I get that. I’ve seen that through the years, close to 32 years of ministry experience. Lots of other people that I’ve known, pastors, counselors, we’re just humans, like you said.

I think sometimes people from the outside just assume, “Well, he’s a pastor. He doesn’t sin anymore.” [Laughter] That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. “Oh, they’re a counselor, they must have everything.” That’s not the way life works.

Doctors get cancer. Everybody suffers a little bit, struggles. Marriage and family therapists have marital problems. Yet, even though we can say that when it’s your life, like it was yours when you were going through that, you did feel a sense of shame about it.

Kevin: Yes, I think going back, a little of the history, I was raised in a very conservative church and family. They didn’t really believe in divorce. They definitely didn’t believe in remarriage so it was a huge paradigm shift that everybody struggled with it. It wasn’t just me.

I had to really look at my theological infrastructure, look at a lot of that stuff. It was like—I often joked but it really wasn’t a joke—is like when you’re divorced you become damaged goods. In some cultures, religious, spiritual, whatever cultures, just socio-economic cultures, it’s almost like the scarlet D that you wear on your forehead like in divorce.

Ron: Right.

Kevin: It was very hard for me, especially the organization I was a part of at the time; I was ordained through; I got the letter in the mail saying you’re no longer ordained with us.

Ron: You’re no longer worthy. It’s kind of the message.

Kevin: Right! Like you are a second-class citizen. There’s some places that I will never be able to speak in and stuff because of that divorce but that’s changed some culturally.

But God had to have a real come-to-Jesus talk with me. I remember very clearly it was after Hurricane Katrina. I was driving this big ole disaster truck and God just come to me and said, “Hey, I have a long history of using screwed up people.” It’s like He started to show me all the Bible characters who were really screwed up people. God’s like, “I’m God. I can reclaim this. I can grab this. I can use—I can use you.”

It’s very interesting to me. I actually probably looking backwards needed to be humbled a little bit because my denomination I grew up, we really taught the sanctification piece. Then I really believe in that, but it was really not really sanctification as John Wesley really taught. It was more of a perfectionism thing where, “We don’t sin.”

I was like, “No, sanctification really means to be set apart.” That’s the whole reason we need God is as a Savior Redeemer who can take our screwed-up lives and turn around and make something of it. God had to knock me flat on my butt a little bit and then say, “Okay, get up. Let’s go. I’ve got something for you.”

That’s the beauty of it. I think that’s the hope that I want people to understand from this podcast is that God has a long history of taking broken marriages and even divorce and reclaiming that and making something from it to really help the world. I can speak to people now that I couldn’t speak to before, speaking from a point of pain. Then so many pastors and people come up to me on the side now at conferences and say, “Hey, thanks for mentioning that you’re divorced. I haven’t told anybody but 20 years ago….”

Ron: Isn’t that amazing just how deep that shame is especially within the Christian community. You’ve tapped into something we teach and preach a lot about here at FamilyLife Blended, Kevin, and that is that God is a God of redemption and He’s really good at this.

One of my favorite sermons that I do for churches is a walk through the Bible and all the screwed-up families and how messed up they were and how the simple message is God’s not—He doesn’t have any difficulty with our imperfections. What He’s really good at is redeeming us from our imperfections and using us. The woman at the well being one of my favorite stories. How her story became something at the end that she used to bring people to Jesus. 

I think we can all do that when we finally are willing—and I heard this in what you just said—to set aside our, if I can use the word, pride about how good we are or how well we’re doing. It’s not about the doing. It’s about being and letting God work in us. 

We set aside that pride and embrace grace and that helps with the shame. Not just helps, but all of a sudden, our story is now a tool. What we thought was the worst part of us becomes the best part of us in helping somebody else. Can’t change your story of your past but you can change the story you tell about your past.

I appreciate you doing that. Thanks for being candid and open about it. That’s what we want to do on this podcast. We want to be real. Thank you for doing that and I’m glad that divorce recovery ministry really ministered to you and showed you some new things. I’m curious, Jennifer, did you go through anything like that?

Jennifer: I didn’t. I went to—I was much younger, and I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina when I went through my divorce. I was traveling a lot, but I went to some groups at my church. I went to, and I wouldn’t recommend this, my church singles group. [Laughter] That did not work well for me. I quickly rebounded from that. But they didn’t actually have at my church at the time any sort of divorce recovery or divorce care group.

I connected with a small group of people who had been through that. It was some of my Christian friends who had walked that journey that became an informal group for me that helped me through it. I developed a couple of close friendships because I’d lost a lot of friends. I wouldn’t say a lot.

One of my best friends at my church, we were super close. We had gotten married at similar times. I’d given her her wedding shower because hers was after we got married. She came to me after my divorce and said, “My husband just doesn’t want me being a friend with a divorced woman.”

Ron: Wow.

Jennifer: That was just pretty devastating.

Ron: Yes. What’s the message there?

Jennifer: The message was that I was now, like Kevin had mentioned that scarlet D on your head, that I was a bad person who was a bad influence on her. I don’t think that that’s what he meant. I think he had that misconception that a lot of people have that divorce is contagious. I think he really was afraid she would catch this whole whatever I had that caused our marriage to implode and it would impact their marriage or I would influence her negatively.

It broke my heart at the time. In retrospect, I have more compassion but I would hope that people would understand that it’s not contagious. Now, if I had been engaging in some bad behavior that led to the end of my marriage, pornography, drug use, illicit affairs—

Ron: Still not a reason to pull away from you. If anything, that’s more of a reason to move towards you, right?

Jennifer: Right, but I wasn’t doing any of those things. My husband left me and that made me feel even worse that not only had my husband chosen to walk out of the marriage but one of my closest friends said, “I can’t be your friend anymore,” really. That was hard.

Ron: I’m sitting here and I’m thinking, okay, if there happens to be a pastor or a ministry leader or a community leader or somebody listening right now to us, other than, “Hey look, scarlet D, let’s get rid of that,” or “Divorce is not contagious”—those are two messages we’ve just given those people—is there anything else you would like to just say to them to encourage them regarding how they respond to people going through difficult circumstances like divorce?

Kevin: The one thing I would like to say—because this is a pet peeve of mine—I’ve heard it so many times—I hear people talking to families—they talk about broken families. It really bothers me, because first of all, we’re all broken to a degree. Sometimes that brokenness is when we actually can receive healing but it sends a message to the kids, sometimes.

It’s like there are people who have intact families who are still married that they are more broken than any divorced families ever have. You hear this sometimes is that, and I do agree. My goal would be to save every marriage that’s floundering. But sometimes that’s just not possible. I want people to understand that whole piece we talked about before, that element of redemption: that God can redeem that and still has a plan for you. Yet we’re broken.

I have had so many families now that we’ve worked with in divorce support groups who have—now have a great life or they’re remarried or they are happily single or whatever. They don’t feel broken anymore. They feel whole. They feel redeemed. In fact, many of them now have a life they never ever had before.

I just want the people to have that, to have that hope, because a lot of times that’s not a message that they get from their churches and they just feel continuously beat down. It’s something that I struggle with a lot. I want people to help people to see themselves as people who are being redeemed, people who are being healed, versus being seen as broken or flawed.

Ron: That is a good word. I appreciate you sharing.

Jennifer, you came into his marriage not having any children of your own. You had a cat—

Jennifer: Right, yes.

Ron: —but no children of your own and he had three girls. What was that experience like? Did your expectations meet reality?

Jennifer: No, and actually, Ron, when my first marriage ended years before, one of the biggest griefs of that was that I didn’t think I was going to maybe get to have children of my own. When I had married my first husband, we were both in a situation where we said, “We’re not sure if we want to have kids,” because I did not grow up as one of those girls who played with baby dolls and wanted to have ten kids. That was not my dream.

I was very career oriented. But during my first marriage, I was in my late 20’s and that biological clock thing happened. A couple in our small group had a little girl and that little girl just—she and I had this huge bond. Her name was Gabriella and every time the minute her parents walked in the door with her she would reach out and come to me. That little girl stimulated that whole longing that I think some women talk about for, “I want to be a mom. I want to have a baby.”

My husband at the time, not Kevin of course, said, “I don’t want kids.” I went one direction more toward wanting kids. He went the other direction toward, “I never want to have kids.” It wasn’t what ended the marriage, but it was a deep wound in that. When he left the marriage, one of the biggest pains in my heart was, “Am I going to get to have a child?”

I dealt with that and through the process, I think of a lot of prayer and working through that God said, “You don’t have to have a biological child to have a relationship of influence with a young person.” So I felt like this, the opportunity to marry a man with three girls, what a wonderful opportunity.

I had this vision in my mind that was unrealistic. But here were these three girls that I thought I was really compatible with. We were just going to fall in love with each other and I was going to be so close to these girls. It was going to be this magical, wonderful thing. I probably had a set up with that expectation for a little bit of disappointment but in my mind, it was going to be something magical.

Ron: How old were the girls when you came into their lives?

Jennifer: I think the youngest one was around—probably when Kevin and I started dating—eight or nine maybe and the oldest were in—I think one was in junior high and the oldest in high school maybe. They weren’t babies but they were younger and beautiful terrific young ladies. 

I had a cousin at the time who had three boys. When I would go to his house for dinner, I would leave there with my nerves just raw because the boy energy is very different. I remember telling Kevin once when we were dating, “If you had three boys, I think I might break up with you now. I don’t know if I could do it but I’m excited about three girls.” Because in my mind there couldn’t be a better thing than for me to be a stepmom of girls.

Ron: Now Kevin, what do you remember during that season when you guys were dating and the expectations were developing, did you have a little fantasy too for how things would work?

Kevin: Yes. They’d have this great kind of bond and relationship right off the bat and they would be BFF’s.

Ron: And did they kind of hit it off?

Kevin: They did. They did at first as far as connecting. I remember Madison coming to me and saying, “Hey, Jennifer’s great. She’s my new BFF.”

Jennifer: But that wasn’t at first. [Laughter]

Kevin: It was early on, I think, when we were dating.

Jennifer: Yes, yes.

Kevin: It was in—then it’s like kind of getting to know—then it’s like, “Oh well, now we have this woman and then we have our mom.” I think that’s where the conflict—I think they felt conflicted. They really did.

Ron: Yes, yes.

Kevin: They were trying to protect her emotions and that type of stuff.

Ron: Sure.

Kevin: They lived with their mom. I think what I observed from my side—you can say if your side was different—is I saw them really wanting to connect with her and wanting to have a really—not knowing how but really feeling—because I didn’t handle real well even though I have a degree in marriage and family therapy. My stuff and my pain was so much there and their mom and I really weren’t speaking and talking that well together. There’s too much pain there.

The girls, as a result of that, they felt conflicted between that. I think that really negatively influenced their relationship with her because I feel like they just feel like they could really be in a relationship with her. They had to protect that and didn’t want to make their mom feel bad by really wanting to be with Jennifer. It’s like one of my daughters said, “She’s my new BFF.” I told her quickly to take that back because mom doesn’t want to see that.

Ron: That’s a problem, right. We’ve said many times. Kids sometimes say, “I like you stepmom. That’s my problem. I don’t know where to put you. I’m trying to navigate all this other stuff with my mom and dad.”

What was your experience of this Jennifer?

Jennifer: I actually met his daughters before we were even dating because Kevin and I were work associates. He brought them to a conference that we were all at, but they met me in the context of a work associate. There were other females, too. I wasn’t dad’s girlfriend. I bonded with them and that’s why I thought, “This is going to be great.”

The first couple times that we were together when Kevin and I were—I didn’t really meet the girls as a girlfriend until we were sure we were getting married that we knew that we were going to be together and that I got to spend some time with them. Then it was still friendly. There was nothing antagonistic or angry but it was a little awkward. It wasn’t as easy. Nobody knew how to be.

Ron: Let me clarify. You knew you were getting married as in internally the two of you knew.

Jennifer: Yes. Not that they knew.

Ron: Okay. They didn’t know. But at that point, did they know it was serious when you got to this phase?

Kevin: I think so. I think this is a pattern—I’ve seen just in divorce in general when you’ve been through a bad marriage—you’re very reluctant. There’s a part of you that says, “I’m never doing this again. This is too painful. You’ve just got to be cautious.”

I think there was a piece of that. Even though there’s a definite connection, there’s still that cautiousness. I see this over and over again in my divorce groups of people. They’re like, “Wow! I don’t know.” I think that was one of those things that kept us from having an open dialogue because while we had this great relationship, it’s like, “Is it going to last or is it going to turn out bad too,” you know?

Ron: Sure.

Kevin: I think that’s a huge barrier.

Ron: Jennifer, I’ve heard from many other women in your situation that they are on a roller coaster at this point. It’s hot and cold with the kids. It’s “Hey, this is going to be great,” “Ooh, not so sure,” “Wow, I think there’s hope.,” “Wow! This one doesn’t seem to be responding like the others.” Just kind of up and down.

Jennifer: There was never any big conflict. Let me say that up front. I was prepared, because of stories from my friends and some of my clients, for would there be a horror story where somebody’s screaming at you, “You’re not my mother and I hate you,” and nothing like that ever. The girls were so polite and kind, but I don’t know it was so much of a roller coaster because there weren’t any real high moments either.

After we started dating it was more of just cool. The first couple of times that we did things together were fine but there wasn’t any big draw of them to want to move toward me.

I was cautious. I had a friend that was a mom of three stepdaughters, too. She was coaching me and she said, “Don’t be too aggressive with trying to get close to them because if you push too hard, they will pull away. Just be patient. Give them space and time and be there. Just be consistent and be there but don’t push them.”

That was great advice. But it was hard for me because I wanted to push. I wanted to sit down and pepper them with questions. I wanted to give them gifts because gifts are my love language but I really had to pull back on that because I didn’t want to push them away and shut them down.

Then after Kevin and I got married, I remember the first few weekends where we had the girls with us, I felt like I was invisible sometimes. That was the hardest. I think that I almost would have longed for them to look at me and say something nasty rather than not even look at me. It was like I was a piece of the furniture and they were just doing their life with dad the way they did, and they did not notice me one way or the other.

Ron: Not just awkward but invisible.

Jennifer: That’s how I felt, Ron, a little bit at first. Like I would say, “Hey, do you want me to make you some blah blah?”

“No, I’m fine,” and they would just go get what they did and do what they did. They were doing their thing.

I sort of felt like, “Wow! Okay.” I felt like such an outsider. They had already had a few years of their weekends with their dad.

Ron: Right, right.

Jennifer: It was that shocking realization that you’re coming into an existing family system and you’re the outsider. I was not prepared for that one.

Kevin: It’s exact same thing. It’s funny. It was near the same thing on her side with her cat. I’ll never forget the time after we first got married and we came in and she got in bed. I got in bed with her. Her cat came in the room and started to jump up on the pillow where she always slept every night, and there’s a man in her side of the bed. She sat for hours just staring at me, glaring at me.

It was kind of the same thing with my girls. I think what happened, and I understand it now from different perspectives basically from working with other families, is that I went from being a full time dad very involved with my girls lives, with them every day, praying with them at night, and all of a sudden, I go from seeing them every day to just being a every Wednesday evening and every other weekend dad. That was incredibly hard for me and for them.

There was this sense that we had developed our own little rituals and times we had where they just had their dad for that time. Now all of a sudden, they come in and she’s there. Kind of the same way with the cat looking, “Who’s this intruder coming in taking this time.” We’re helping married couples and trying to balance that.

I see it differently now than I saw it then. We didn’t navigate that real well with them. But her thing of being ignored, I would observe it. They would come in and look at her and just walk on by. I just don’t think they knew what to do or how to handle it. Looking backward, I did a very poor job of helping to integrate that. I see that now.

Ron: It was a loss to the children. It’s a loss to the cat. By the way, I have this little metaphor going on in my head: “Do you have cat stepchildren or dog stepchildren?” [Laughter] But Jennifer being a cat person, I’m not sure I want to go there. I don’t want to offend her. But in the beginning, it was like everybody had cats. That seemed to be what it was.

By the way, speaking of loss, Jennifer, I’m mindful that you had this fantasy about being a mom.

Jennifer: Yes.

Ron: And then this was the introduction to that world. What did you do with that?

Jennifer: I had to grieve it on the one hand and then—

Ron: What do you mean grieve it? Say a little bit more to the listener. You have to grieve something that never was?

Jennifer: Yes, we call that—as a grief therapist, I can tell you of—there are terms for it, but it’s grieving a loss that you dreamed of. It’s the death of a dream. Because I had this dream for what this angelic relationship with my stepdaughters was going to be like and I had to grieve what I had hoped for in order to make space for what was and what could be.

Ron: Ooh, say that again—had to grieve what you’d hoped for so you could make space for what was.

Jennifer: Yes.

Ron: I’m hearing a grief, sadness, sorrow part and I’m hearing a adapt and accept part.

Jennifer: Yes, yes. I had to let go of this fantasy that I had that his girls would embrace me and say, “You’re the mom we’ve always wanted,” because they had the mom they’ve always wanted. They had a great mother. They still do. They love her and they didn’t know how to manage that.

I had to realize that they aren’t my biological daughters, they’re not my adopted daughters. That I have to find the role in their life and it required me to let go of what I had hoped would be and be able to be sad about that and spend the time with dealing with that so that I could then deal with where we were and make the most of the relationship that we could have. Does that make sense, Ron?

Ron: Makes a lot of sense.

Kevin: I think the problem is a lot of times, Ron, is that the outside world doesn’t see that. Because when they saw them, they saw us getting along together and we did. We call that ambiguous loss, disenfranchised grief. The rest of the world wasn’t even aware of that loss that was there.

Ron: Looks good from the outside.

Kevin: Right, right, right because we really were happy. It just wasn’t the same connection and things that we expected in the same way. But there was not fighting so people on the outside would look in and say, “Hey, what’s the issue?”

Ron: Yes, yes. I’m curious for you, Kevin. You’re her husband. I imagine on some level, at some point, you finally came to understand this. I don’t know if you saw it in Jennifer’s eyes, you could see that loss, that sorrow, or was that something she had to articulate to you at some point. But I guess I’m just wondering, what do you do with that as a husband?

Kevin: I think I felt a huge responsibility like, “I have to fix this.” Guys, we’re fix-it people anyway, right? That’s one of our biggest problems. We’re trying to fix this relationship. I think one of the things I’ve realized, not only with my daughters but with my family of origin as well, is that this isn’t something that I can fix. This is a something that we’re going to have to take a process and we’re going to have to stick it through this journey because we have to grieve. 

I think one of the things I started working on with the girls is what it is that they had lost, what we have lost, and what Jennifer’s lost, these ambiguous losses we talked about, grief. Then we have that disenfranchised grief and those things where people don’t even understand what the losses are so they can’t offer the support you need to actually grieve.

I think it was for me as I began teaching the divorce support groups and leading divorce support groups and working with those eight people around a table, I began to see my own stuff really clearly and then began to work through that stuff on my own. It’s a process. It’s a journey.

Ron: One of the things we say in this ministry is if you’re a parent or a stepparent in a blended family, you’re a grief counselor, right?

Kevin: Yes.

Ron: It just comes with the journey. Whether it’s grieving something that happened in the past or grieving those lost expectations of the present, you’ve got to help with that. One of the things we try to help kids do is understand their own grief.

I’m curious, what opportunities, in what ways have you two been able to help the girls over time, put words on it, name it, call it what it is, and what’s delicate about being a stepmom in particular trying to help with those?

Just talk around that for a minute, parenting and being a grief counselor.

Kevin: I think one of the things I ought to say is we have to be careful because we both have therapist backgrounds. This is we’re professional people helpers. It’s really easy, like my daughter said one time, “Dad, don’t therapitize me,” right. [Laughter]

Ron: Right.

Kevin: It’s like “Okay, stop being a therapist and just be.” One thing is that Jennifer and I both have a very transparent relationship and we really are very observant of each other and that’s one of the things we’re able to see. I can see the hurt in her eyes. Then I would try to fix it. But it’s like I couldn’t do anything. In fact, the girls hadn’t done anything or said anything mean, it was just they were struggling with that.

I felt so torn in the middle of that. It’s like how do we do that? How do we navigate this and how do we see this as a journey of grief?

[Noise]

Ron: That’s the cat. [Laughter] That will be edited out.

Bruce: Or will it?

Ron: [Laughter] Bruce might leave it in.

Jennifer: Ron, I remember one of the things that happened. Kevin and I were just talking about, reminiscing about that earlier today in preparation for this, but when one of the first trips when Kevin and I were just dating that we took with the girls. It was a day trip to Lake Geneva. It’s a little resort area near here.

We had been out. We went on a little boat ride and we’d been to eat and we’d been to shops. Close to the end of the day Kevin’s youngest daughter, Mallory, came up to me. We were in a store. Her two older sisters were looking at something with Kevin and she looked at me and smiled—I think she was like eight or nine years old—and she said, “I don’t remember anything we’ve done today.” Then she giggled.

I said, “What, what?”

And she said, “I don’t remember anything we’ve done today,” and then she giggled again and ran off. It wasn’t until I thought about that for a while, Ron, that I realized that she was rehearsing what her sisters had taught her, which is, “When we get home and Mom asks, ‘What did you do with Dad and Jennifer?’ say, “I don’t remember.”

It broke my heart for her. But it was this realization of what the girls were navigating. They were trying to be the peacemakers between their mom and dad. Her older sisters had coached her on what to say to their mother because they were in this position where mom was going to ask and they didn’t want to hurt mom’s feelings. But they didn’t want to get mom upset so the best thing to say is, “I don’t remember.”

Ron: We’ve said this many times on this program and we’ve talked around that, but I just think it’s a reality that deserves again attention. One of the things that sometimes people jump in at this point, an outsider listening would say, “Oh, I bet mom is making them feel really guilty for the fun that they have at Dad’s house and with their stepmom, Jennifer.” I just want to push pause on that.

Yes, sometimes that is an element, but this is something internal within children. They are mindful of all the people they love. Whether they’re creating more anxiety around this than there really is is hard to know. But nevertheless, they care about everyone’ therefore, they’re tiptoeing.

Jennifer and Kevin: Yes.

Ron: It just feels fragile to them and they don’t want to hurt feelings so this is not necessarily somebody’s putting them up to it.

Jennifer: No.

Ron: It’s just them trying to navigate the space.

Kevin: Right. Let’s say in this situation she wasn’t grilling them or asking them, but they were really trying to protect her feelings because she wasn’t in a relationship yet at that point. I think they just didn’t want her to know because we had had a great day. We had had a lot of fun, but they didn’t want to go back and say how much fun and how much fun Jennifer is.

Jennifer: But they didn’t want to say it was terrible either.

Kevin: Right.

Jennifer: It made me aware of what their little minds were dealing with.

Ron: Is there anything you can do? Have you found a way to help with that?

Jennifer: I think just being aware of what we expect and ask and say. I think we knew already, don’t try to have the kids be a messenger between you but, at least with us, trying to make sure that we didn’t put them in the middle. But I honestly don’t think anybody tried to do that. I don’t think their mom did. I don’t think we did. I think like you said, Ron, it’s just a natural thing for kids to try to figure out how to navigate that space. It gave me more awareness of why, if there is distance, that they are trying to navigate this too.

Ron: See and that right there is worth repeating because I think sometimes people say, “No, there’s nothing I can do to fix it.”

No, there’s not. But there is something you can do that will help and definitely avoiding things that will hurt. Like for you to say, “Oh no, you don’t have to feel that way. Go tell your mother we had a good time.” That makes it worse, not better. That just adds to the pressure on the child.

But on the other hand, for you to be more patient, more compassionate, to lower your expectations of how they’re going to treat you and what they’re going to say about you is a way to help. It gives some freedom to the child to do and to be according to whatever they think is going to be helpful.

Now we’ve talked on other times here and we’ve said, you can always say to a child, “I love you no matter what. We had a good time. I know sometimes you feel stuck between our household and the other household. Just want you to know I see that and it’s okay with me.”

Making that overt in some simple way and just giving a little permission to the child to navigate according to whatever they need to do. That I think is also something helpful. It doesn’t fix it.

Kevin: Yes, it’s one of the things that I have told my families through the years is be careful on those questions and asking that because it really is easy to put those kids in the middle where they feel like they have to hide something. They may have had a great time with their mom or their dad, but they don’t want to say that because they think you are going to be hurt.

You’re right. I think that is something that we have to be very careful in our conversations with our kids. It’s hard because sometimes if you have anger at that spouse or whatever it is, you do have those feelings and emotions and feel very different for their kids. You got to remember this is their father, this is their mother and they love them. Just make sure you’re not putting them in those tough situations.

Ron: In a minute, I want us to come back to the subject of God. Where’s God in the midst of all this? Where’s God in the middle of crisis? Here we are living the COVID world and trying to figure all that out. We’re going to come back to that one but I don’t want to lose the latter part of this story.

Jennifer, you had expectations, some hopes of connecting with the girls. Then reality is a little bit different than that. This is harder. It’s a more fragile space. You had to grieve what wasn’t going to happen right away. How did you move forward?

I mean I’ve had enough conversations with enough stepparents to know that some people just go, “Well, fine. Then I’m just not even going to try.” That’s not helpful. Other people just dig in deeper and try harder, harder, harder. Your friend coached you wisely not to do that. How did you navigate from that point?

Jennifer: Both God and then some wise friends said, “Be patient, be available and love them in the ways that you can and just be consistent with that.”

My friend said, “Just be as consistent but un-intrusive in their life with loving them as you can, and at some point, there will be an opportunity,” and there were opportunities. But the ways that I loved them were subtle and gradual, but they started to really appreciate it.

Ron: For example?

Jennifer: My love language is gifts so when it came time for birthdays and holidays, they—and I will say now they look forward to Christmas because Jennifer is a great gift giver.

Kevin: That’s true.

Jennifer: They get so excited. They got a lot of presents at Christmas. I’ll never forget I think after the first Christmas—it was 12 full months—it was almost a year because we got married in January—the first Christmas was a huge transforming time.

The other situation was I cook. I think they had gotten used to their dad’s survival cooking. I mean he has a couple of dishes that are really amazing but once you get past roast and chicken enchiladas that’s about it. [Laughter] I started cooking and they started appreciating that so there were some ways that I could just be there in those ways that were subtle but over time began to bond us.

Then the third, but certainly not a small one, is my love of animals, Ron. That’s where kitty cats come in. I also do cat rescue. That means I will take abandoned little kittens and bottle feed them sometimes to rescue. And boy, the girls—just the first time I brought home two little kittens to bottle feed, the girls were mesmerized, especially our youngest daughter who is today an animal—they’re all animal lovers, all of them. But that became a real source of bonding and we still are bonded over pets.

Ron: That’s a strategy I don’t know we’ve talked much about on this podcast. That’s a really good one. Although, it does fall into the category of finding middle ground, things you have in common with any particular child. That’s just a really great one because here you come together around this mutual desire to help a third, in this case, a cat. I think that is a principle that our listener can grab onto and take forward. Kevin, you were going to say something.

Kevin: Yes, I was going to say is that having watched that—Jennifer absolutely did that perfectly by giving the girls their own space but always being available to them and not really pushing. I could tell because I had a conversation with her once. I was like “Hey, I feel like when the girls are there you just kind of back off from it. You don’t initiate it.”

“I think part of it,” she’s like, “I feel like I tried that and they’re not ready for that yet so I’m just giving them their space.”

I think sometimes people don’t come back like she did. They just kind of like, “Fine, if you don’t want me then I’m not—fine. Come back to me when you’re ready,” but it’s in more of a reactive way versus an intentional strategic way. I think she really did that perfectly and the payoff has been great. She has a great relationship with them now. They absolutely love her and like she says, “—makes the best Christmases ever.” Relied on dad to get some horse food or something. I don’t know. [Laughter]

Ron: Let’s talk about God and transition in life and crisis. I mean that’s your day jobs you guys help people deal with that on a regular basis as professionals. You in your own life had to walk that out through various seasons of your life before and after becoming a blended family. Just what’s the role of faith? What would you want people to understand in terms of the resource that God has for us when we’re going through difficult times?

Kevin: It’s that whole element of developing spiritual intelligence and it’s some of the stuff I’m working on now with some books. But a lot of times this really forces people to really look at their theological constructs, their relationship with God. That was certainly the case for me. I had these deeply embedded things of what we do and don’t do and failure and that whole perfectionism piece I had to deal with.

The beauty of this on the outside of this is that I’ve come out so much stronger in my faith. Jennifer, I think, has as well. It is hard and it takes some time. Because a lot of times I literally had to take my whole belief system apart and take a look at it and then reconstruct it. But what is the church saying? What is God really saying? Getting into the Word and really praying and saying, “God, how are you going to use this? How can you possibly transform this failure of a broken marriage into something beautiful?”

And He has. It’s opened up such a great platform to be able to minister to hurting people that I never could before from the other side of divorce.

Ron: Yes.

Jennifer: Certainly my relationship with God was key because He brought me a friend who had that experience and could speak into my life right at the time when I needed it. My prayer time and relationship with Him was key in helping me understand what I needed to do with the girls, and then, too, allowing me to really grieve fully.

My relationship with Him was key but I also think there’s a component of that that our relationship with God and the girls and church was a time that brought us together. It wasn’t always ideal or perfect, but one of the things that we always did together were go to services at church.

I remember one of the hard things for me, Ron, was that I am a very physically demonstrative hugging person. I had these fantasies—I guess part of my fantasy about being a stepmom was every time the girls would arrive the weekend, I’d give them big hugs.

The girls are not huggers and they are not very physical so that was this really weird awkward thing. I didn’t try to hug them because it was clear. They gave me the body language that was like, “No, that’s not going to happen.”

But at our Christmas services at Willow Creek, the pastor had this tradition, and they still do, where they would say, “Turn to your family members and hug them and tell them what they mean to you,” at the Christmas service and that was one of the first times that I had the permission— [Laughter]

Kevin: Pastor said.

Jennifer: —to publically—yes—hug the girls and they received it. It was a moment where they were able then to relax into that and we were able to say because the pastor just told us to say, “Tell your family members that you’re here with what they mean to you,” and I was able to say that in a way that didn’t feel like I was being overly aggressive and that they were able to receive it.

I’m not saying that God engineered that just for our family because I’m sure there were so many families that for whatever reason felt the same way in that moment, that it was a redemptive moment. But every Christmas I look forward to being able to give my daughters hugs.

Ron: There’s that religious activity that brought about some real spiritual heart change—

Jennifer: Yes, exactly.

Ron: —and a turning point for you and your stepchildren to move toward each other in some very tangible ways, but also representative of a growing relationship over time. That’s great.

As we’re beginning to wrap up, I’m just curious, what are the things you wish you’d done better in terms of the blending process of your family? Then I’d love to hear about the things you feel you did really well that would be helpful for others who are listening. Let’s do the “What do you wish you’d done better?” first.

Jennifer: I think we both wish we had done better at communicating with the girls’ mom and the girls in advance when we were engaged and going to get married. They knew we were engaged but we eloped. For a lot of reasons, we thought it was the right thing to do. Kevin did talk to the girls about that. But in retrospect, I feel like maybe we should have done it a little differently.

Ron: Meaning not elope or just communicate differently about that?

Kevin: Communicate differently with their mom. The thing is what’s so complicated in a lot of this stuff is the reason a lot of times people divorce is because they aren’t able to communicate well with that person for whatever reason. A lot of times what happens is people get so that they just don’t even talk. That’s where their mom and I unfortunately got to the point, it was just like, “I’m just tired of fighting. We’re not going to talk.”

I had actually sent her an email telling her that we were going to get married. She didn’t see the email so she was kind of shocked in a way when she found out, like she didn’t know. I was like, “Well I told you.”

She’s like, “You didn’t tell me.”

I’m like, “I emailed.” She didn’t open the email. I didn’t want to get into an argument about that. I think what happened as a result of that, the girls just felt stuck in the middle of it.

I used to say with my girls all the time and I would say to them, “Hey, your mom and I are having a hard time getting through this but if I ever say anything bad about your mother or anything that bothers you or makes you uncomfortable, I want you to call me on it. You have permission to do that.” That really helped.

Several times they would be—after maybe she and I might have an argument or something and so I gave the girls permission—but going back through, should have been better communication.

But I think, and I see that over and over in families, they just get so tired of fighting, sometimes they just like that stonewalling, they move apart and they just don’t communicate.

Ron: What I’m hearing you say is finding your way through the hard even if it’s with a former spouse and trying to communicate better.

Kevin: Right, and then just making sure the kids aren’t caught in the middle of that. But sitting down with the girls and just say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on,” a little more clearly. It’s a challenge that I find it wasn’t just unique to us. It’s to other families as well is you’re just trying to survive emotionally. You’re trying to survive financially. All of a sudden, you’re picking up extra duties on each side of the family you didn’t do before and you’re just really super busy.

There’s a lot of barriers. I think we have to be very strategic in doing that. Yes, I agree with Jennifer the communication could have and should have been a lot better.

Ron: You’ve been listening to my conversation with Kevin and Jennifer Ellers. I'm Ron Deal and this is FamilyLife Blended.

I also asked them what they did well. We’re going to hear their response to that question in just a minute. But before we do, do me a favor right now. Would you give us a review? All of that helps other people find the podcast and learn about what we’re doing here at FamilyLife.

You know Kevin said something that got me thinking after we finished our conversation. He was talking about how hard divorce was, how people judged him, and how it forced him to rethink his understanding of God and struggle with the circumstances of his life.

Then he said that going through this has given him an opportunity to minister to others that he would not have. The way he put it, he said he found himself on the other side of divorce helping others.

It reminded me, the apostle Paul said something similar to that in 2 Corinthians 1:3 [-4]. He said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God.”

Paul basically says God comes alongside us in our pain and He offers comfort. Take that comfort and pay it forward. At that point, you become a conduit of God’s grace and mercy and comfort. That’s something both Kevin and Jennifer have done.

Now sometimes we don’t fully know all the ways that God has provided for us in our pain. Sometimes we fail to recognize how He has comforted us so take a look around and then thank Him for it. Then you have the special honor of helping somebody else.

That’s when what you think is the worst part of you becomes a life-giving part of you. You may not know how to help everyone with every pain, nobody does, but there are some things you do know about it. When God puts an opportunity in front of you to help somebody else, take it.

If you’d like more information about my guests today, you can find it in the show notes. Or you can just check it out on the FamilyLife Blended podcast page at FamilyLife.com/podcasts.

While you’re there, check out everything FamilyLife has for your marriage and family. We’re an international organization providing practical marriage and family help for your life and those you care about. Again, FamilyLife.com.

I said earlier your feedback means a lot to me. It really does. We got this response from someone who called themself “my go to for sanity”. Thanks for writing in. They gave us five stars. She says, “As you can imagine, being quarantined with an 11, 13, and 15-year-old for half the week has been challenging and has tested my patience, which I’ve failed by the way,” she says.

“To save my sanity I’ve been putting these podcasts on and going for long walks. Just taking in all that Ron and his guests have to say over the last few days of listening, I’ve paused and written things down, rewound and listened again, laughed and cried, talked to the podcast as though it were a live person,” she says, “and I’ve begun to feel more hopeful.

I’m filling my head and my heart with God’s truth and that’s brought me encouragement, peace, and calmness. Their words,” she goes on to say, “have poured over me and given me clarity. I feel understood. I feel like I have a tribe and I’m reminded that I am indeed not a failure.”

I would agree with you about that, and I’m glad we can go on those long walks together.

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Speaking of impacting others, your marriage can be on mission. Now, sometimes we don’t feel like that’s fitting for us. Like, “I’m not—I don’t know enough to help somebody else.” But that’s not true. We’ve learned that you can make a difference in someone else’s life.

We put on a training event every year called the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. It’s an equipping conference that helps pastors and lay leaders alike understand more about stepfamily living and what your church can do or what you can do just as a neighbor to help somebody else. We’d love to have you join us. That’s October 1and 2 in 2020. Visit us at SummitonStepfamilies.com for all the information that you need about that event and how you can be involved.

Now, before we’re done, I had asked Kevin and Jennifer about the things they wished they would have done better or differently in their blended family, and then I asked them what are the things you did well?

Jennifer: I think, and we mentioned that a little bit already, but my friend who gave me the advice of just be patient and don’t try to push too hard on the relationship. I think it was the best advice she could have given me.

Then the things I did well were really try to understand the girls’ perspectives rather than have an expectation of them or always think it was about me. Being able to say it isn’t about you and what you’re doing or not doing, it’s about the journey they’re on too.

They’re grieving and trying to process and they’re also children. They don’t have fully developed frontal lobes like you. They don’t have the ability to think through all of this, and children are by their developmental nature egocentric a little bit. “The world revolves around me and how this affects me.”

Being able to realize that you are the adult here. [Laughter] That as the adult, it is very important that you be able to put on your big girl or big boy pants when things aren’t going well and know that the kids have a right to have to go through their stuff too.

I think that really helped me in being patient and giving them time and space because Kevin’s daughters are wonderful human beings. That was one of the things I said to their mom and to Kevin. They did such an amazing job of raising these girls. They’re quality girls, quality adults now, quality human beings.

I have great care and respect for all three of them. Though you have to be patient with that. Because they’re in a process of developing and becoming who they are and they’re going through stress and you have to give them the time and the space to see how they will work through it. Not have the expectation that they will do it perfectly either.

Ron: That’s a good word.

Kevin: She had much better success with my daughters than I did with her cat. [Laughter] That’s what I have to say. I never won the cat over before she died. After she was gone for about four days, she begrudgingly comes up for a little bit of love and about three seconds and she takes off.

I think one of the things we really tried to do is give the girls permission to have their own feelings and their own emotions. Is where they’re at is where they’re at. Trying, once that I cued into that, just giving them permission to have those talks and have those conversations of what that feels like and really be intentional and try not to put the girls in the middle. Not make them be the messenger back and forth and those types of things.

I think one of the things I really more than anything else—somebody set me aside way long time ago and they said, “A lot of times their parents going through divorce are really hurt and they say some things or whatever.” But they said, “Make sure that you don’t focus on what’s going on outside of your control when they’re with their spouse or whatever, but be the parent you want for them to see.”

Be loving and be kind and be intentional when you’re with them. It’s hard because we were so busy trying to survive, and I was fixing this house and all that stuff. But I think when I was able to do that, that meant a lot to them. I just think you’ve got to be patient.

I think the other thing is we didn’t really talk about this but it’s with extended family. We talk a lot about the kids but that extended family is absolutely huge. My family really loved my ex-wife and had a great relationship. Just because we didn’t make it, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t. They had to go through this whole grieving process that as well.

I had to be patient with that. Before they could really embrace Jennifer, they had to go through this whole painful stuff and grieve the loss of the other relationship too.

I think that was a big factor we didn’t really have time to talk about today but that is really, really huge. Families and friends a lot of times feel like they have to choose sides and not just the kids feel like they have to do that. So a lot of grace and a lot of open communication. You can’t have enough of that.

Ron: Next time we’re going to be talking with parents, teachers, and school administrators about co-parenting and helping your child succeed at school.

Ron: That’s next time on FamilyLife Blended.

I’m Ron Deal, thanks for listening. Thanks to our FamilyLife Legacy Partners for making this podcast possible.

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FamilyLife Blended® Podcast

FamilyLife Blended® provides timeless wisdom and practical help and hope for blended families and those who love them. Join Ron L. Deal, LMFT, LPC as he and his guests discuss a wide variety of marriage, family, and relationship topics related to blended families.

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