How to Blend a Stepfamily
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Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
Ron Deal, Director of FamilyLife Blended, explains the benefits of “cooking” your stepfamily with a crock pot and not a blender. He stresses the value of being patient as your blended family blends at its own pace.
How to Blend a Stepfamily
Michelle: Do you know anyone who doesn’t like change?—well, they might be a carrot; because it takes them a little longer to adjust and soften up, kind of like carrots in a crockpot. Ron Deal says it’s kind of similar when you’re blending a family. Here’s Ron.
Ron: Lots of stepfamilies have a carrot. Everything else is softening very nicely—everything else is beginning to come together—but you’ve got a carrot, who says, “Hmm, I don’t think so.” It is what it is—and you can’t fool food: you can’t rush it; you can’t force it; you can’t demand it—because as soon as you go back to blender-ing/high heat, it tends to work against you. Trust the crockpot. Don’t cook a stepfamily with a blender; cook it with a crockpot.
Michelle: Some things just take time. If you’re part of a stepfamily, you probably know that to be true. Ron Deal’s going to share some secret ingredients in blending stepfamilies on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. I love to cook now that I know how to cook—and how the spices work together—just like a little bit of lemon juice, a little bit of honey, and some oregano bring out the flavors in your pizza sauce or in your spaghetti sauce. And I always keep some Worcestershire sauce—can you say that three times fast?—because that’s/where did they come up with that word?—but I always keep some Worcestershire sauce and some soy sauce on hand to bring out the flavors in my meat.
The other night, my recipe called for turkey sausage. All I had in the refrigerator was some ground turkey, and I didn’t want to run out to the store again. I used some extra sauce, and a little bit of this and a little bit more of that, and voilà, I had the best dish ever!—okay, maybe not ever—but Ron Deal uses the example of cooking many times when he talks about blended or stepfamilies. He says there are some flavors and situations that just take time, just like there are some recipes that you wouldn’t want to use your microwave for, no matter how wonderful those little contraptions are.
Ron Deal is Director of FamilyLife Blended®. He has over 25 years of experience in counseling families through difficult transitions, and he knows how to help us grasp and apply all that he shares. Here’s Ron, setting up the complexity of stepfamilies.
Ron: Let me tell you about Susie and John; they lived in one part of the universe. They got married and they had three kids: Mary, Mike, and John, Jr. But as life would have it, Susie and John divorced.
In another part of the universe is Bob and Betty. They, too, got married. They, too, had two kids, Ted and Carrie; and they, too, divorced.
Since that time, Betty has remarried Frank. Bob has remarried Susie. When Susie married Bob, she knew she was getting a mother-in-law and a father-in-law—that’s what you get when you get married to somebody—but she had no clue that she was also getting an ex-wife-in-law. “An ex-wife-in-law? What do you mean by that?”—you know, Bob’s ex-wife, Betty. “Wait a minute,”—Susie says—“Ron, are you telling me Betty is a part of our family?”
Well, I know she doesn’t come over and help clean up after dinner; or she doesn’t donate any of her money to paying your bills—I get that—but, oh yes, she’s a part of your family. All she has to do is pick up the phone and call Bob, and the weekend schedule changes. Susie has to now deal with the fact that her life is being controlled—her schedule and so on—by another woman.
But here’s a little of the backstory I need to tell you about Susie. You see, she’s one of those large-and-in-charge moms, who gets it all done: she’s got the schedules; she’s got the kids’ routines; she’s got this going and that going; she’s aware what’s going on with kids, emotionally; and she’s on top of all of it. When she married Bob, one of the things she liked about him was he’s pretty amenable. I mean, he kind of goes along and gets along—right? —especially as it relates to the children—he’s flexible that way; it’s all good with him. What she didn’t realize is that her ex-wife-in-law, Betty, is also a large-and-in-charge mom.
Now, what you can see in this new situation/this new stepfamily—with three houses in it and five different people trying to parent the five kids—is that Susie and Betty are constantly in competition for Bob’s affirmation—and Bob going along and Bob saying—“Yes, that’s good with me.” Betty can pick up the phone, call her ex-husband and ask him to change the schedule, and he’s all good with that. But now that he’s married to Susie—who says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa; wait a minute. How is it that she gets to dictate our schedule?”—Bob finds himself stuck between two women, who are warring over his time and his saying, “Yes, honey, I’ll go along with that.”
Susie has primary custody of her three kids—they live with their mother and their stepdad—and every other weekend, and six weeks in the summer, their spending time with their dad, John. Betty has primary custody of her two kids—they live with their mom and their stepdad—and on occasion, Bob and Susie have all five.
Can anybody spell the word, “ complexity”? Whatever your story is, you’ve got to figure out complexity; and you’ve got to just step back from it, every once in a while, and go, “Okay, honey, it’s you and me against that.”
Complexity brings stress—but here’s the real kicker—stress thickens blood. What I mean by that is: functionally, you’re all kind of here. As the stress goes up on the Susie’s and the Bob’s, what they tend to do is to kind of—Susie begins to look after her cubbies a little bit more—so she begins to kind of divide lines, like, “My kids and me over here,” or “I don’t want them to hurt any more than they’ve already hurt. It’s already been hard enough as it is.”
I get that; you don’t want the kids to hurt any more. But when you begin to resort to protectiveness, then that means you’re unwilling to connect, and do some agreement, and find some willingness to risk on behalf of the marriage. Then sometimes, you’re more protecting the kids than you are your relationship/your marriage. That thickens the blood line: it thickens it over here, but weakens it over there.
Let’s talk about how you cook a stepfamily. This is kind of an attitude and an approach to building relationships within your home—but it’s really a long-term attitude—it really says: “Okay, what does it take for us to become family?” You didn’t realize you were asking that question; but that’s the question that really gets asked; because your kid, or their kid, or both kids, or ex-spouses, or grandparents are all, now going, “Okay, so how do I relate to you?” Really, the question is: “How are we going to fit?” “In what way are we going to be family?” “To what degree are we going to be family with one another?”
You probably didn’t realize it, but you went about/you’ve got a philosophy about how to cook this family with all these different parts. When you say, “Honey, why don’t you take Johnny out and throw the football?”—that’s a cooking strategy—what you’re saying is: “Go spend time together, enjoy something together, and you guys will bond and create relationship and you’ll become family.”
Now, that makes sense: that’s what you want—that’s your heart’s desire; that’s what we’re after—there’s nothing wrong with that goal. Please hear me: “There’s nothing wrong with the goal.” But on occasion, the strategies/the cooking strategies that we can use, sometimes, do more harm than they do good; for example, saying to kids, “I know he’s not your dad, but why don’t you just call him dad anyway?”—that’s a cooking strategy. I’m going to lump that into the blender category; right?—you’re going to be a blended family—“We’re going to use a blender to make this thing work.”
What happens when you put all the ingredients in a blender and you turn it on?—you force them into relationship with one another. You take a whole lot of different ingredients—[smacking sound] and you cram them together with friction, and high heat, and stress—and all of a sudden, they’re one fluid mixture. As the joke goes: “Somebody had to get creamed in the process,”—usually that’s a child.
Let’s go back and talk a little bit about Susie and Bob for a minute. You see, Susie grew up in a family—they do a whole lot of stuff together all the time/every holiday, all the traditions—there’s a togetherness in everything that they do. Bob grew up in a family that, on this continuum, is about right here; they really value their independent time.
Here’s their different styles; right? Then they get married, and what happens in their blender-ing; right? They make these assumptions about how they’re going to become family to one another. Susie, large and in charge, really has a high, high need for that to happen fast. Of course, she would; because being together is a sign that things are okay, and that’s what you want.
Saturday morning comes, and it goes like this: Susie walks into Bob, and he’s shaving. She says, “Listen, Honey, I just looked at the family calendar. You’re not going to believe what I just saw.” She says, “It’s Saturday—all five kids are here with us—and we have nothing to do today.”
Bob says, “Really?! No soccer games, no church function, no…we don’t even have to mow the yard?” She says, “No, it’s done; it’s taken care of! Can you believe we have nothing to do all afternoon? I’ve got an idea!”
Bob goes, “Oh, no,”—[tentatively]—“Okay, what’s your idea?” She says, “Well, I’m thinking we ought to do something together today.” Bob goes [sounding reluctant], “Oh, okay, Honey,”—remember [his personality lends to]—“Go along, flexible,”—right?—“keep the peace.”
“I’ll go tell my kids; I’ll go break the news,”—[flat sounding] “Hey, guys, listen. Two o’clock today, we’re going to climb in the car. We’re all going to go bowling.” Ted goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold on, Dad. I can’t go, Dad. Not me.” “No, son; I’m sorry. We’re all going to go; so be ready, two o’clock.”
Susie goes and tells her kids [excited voice]: “Guess what we’re going to do today? We’re all going to go bowling!” “Yay!”—everybody’s excited, thrilled, happy.
Two o’clock comes; they pile into the minivan. They don’t even get out of the driveway—and you know what happens; right?—Ted starts picking on the youngest; they’re: “Yah, yah, yah,” “He’s touching me! He’s touching me!”—in the back seat of the car. Bob spins around, “I don’t want anybody touching anybody! We’re having fun today! You’re going to have fun, whether you like it or not!”—that’s what blenders do.
They go to the bowling alley. The whole day it’s just kind of seething below the surface—right?—and it’s bubbling up, and it’s just brewing and brewing. Most of it centers around Bob’s oldest son, Ted, who just kind of is the antagonist in the home at that point in time. He’s a teenager, and he’s got the attitude thing going on.
Susie’s over there, going, “If my husband would just take care of business with that boy, we’d be having fun; and we’d be happy right now. But no, he’s just talking to him.” Susie, who’s never had a 17-year-old son, is now knowing exactly what Bob ought to be doing to fix this situation. It’s been seething below the surface until it breaks through the emotional ceiling, which is that place where Susie can’t stand it [Southern accent] no more. She runs over to her husband and says, “That’s it. I’m sick and tired of this. You need to settle him.” “I am trying to settle him.” “No you’re not settle—because if you were taking care of this, [whimpering voice] we’d be happy right now; and I’m not happy.”
Then, she turns on Ted. Teds going, “Whatever made you…Get out of my face! You’re not my mom!”
What I would suggest—there’s a whole lot going on in this scenario—but what’s pushing it/what’s driving it—the fuel that’s in the tank—is this blender assumption that says: “We have to make it happen now,” “We got to cook this thing; we’ve got to get these people to like each other,” “We’ve got to be family to one another,”—so we’ll orchestrate, in our timing as adults, when the kids are going be happy. That’s really funny when you say it out loud; isn’t it? [Laughter] It goes into push and demand, and shove and orchestrate; and it’s all about our need to not feel guilty anymore.
I know what you’re after—the goal is not the issue; the goal is fine: family-ness is the goal; that’s great—but the strategy might not get you there. [Whimpering voice] “But, Ron, that means we’re not a family, and if we’re not a family then I’m feeling guilty.” Yes, you can wrestle with that guilt—just don’t let it control you—because if it controls you, then it’s going to push you back into blender-ing and then you’re blundering. You’re with me?
Don’t cook a stepfamily with a blender. Cook it with a crockpot.
Michelle: Ron Deal talking about the importance of blending a stepfamily in the slow process. Just think about all the complex situations that stepfamilies need to work through in order to take people from being individuals to being a complete family.
Hey, we need to take a break. But we’re going to hear more from Ron when we come back in two minutes. Stay tuned.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. Every day, Ron Deal is helping people understand and navigate tough relationships. He does that a number of different ways: through his resources and also through events. There’s an event coming up next month in October called The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. If you’re part of a stepfamily, or in a church that wants to help equip stepfamilies, check out the link in our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Now, back to more from Ron. He’s talking about the recipe for successful stepfamilies. Here’s Ron again.
Ron: Don’t cook a stepfamily with a blender. Cook it with a crockpot. What’s different about crockpots?—they’re slow. You ever come home at the end of a work day, and go, “Let’s make something in a crockpot!” No, you don’t! [Laughter] If you didn’t do it before you left for work, you ain’t having crockpot that night—you know what I’m saying?—it’s slow, and it works on low heat—very different cooking method than anything else—very different from a blender for sure, than an oven/than a microwave, that are all fast and high heat.
This is slow and low heat. Low heat is: “Be intentional about building togetherness about becoming family.” Be intentional about it—that’s low heat—you’ve got to have some heat or it doesn’t cook; right? But the difference is it’s low—as opposed to high pressure heat that’s on my time, in my way—that’s low heat.
Time is just time. Patricia Papernow, in her research on stepfamilies, suggests that it takes the average stepfamily between five and seven years to begin to answer the question: “Who are we to one another?”—to find their family-ness, to find that sense of identity, and define their relationships. That’s normal.
If you just heard that, some of you just went [tearfully], “Dear God, what does that mean?!” At the same time, there’s some hope in that. Because for some of you, you’re going: “Man, I don’t know why it’s not going faster. I don’t know why it’s not working. Why are we still struggling with some of this stuff? Why do we still have this stress?” “Why does that kid not like whatever we do?” “How come you and I…”
Part of it is you’re still cooking, for crying out loud—you’re not supposed to be there yet—you’re more normal than you thought! That’s the good news; but it does mean you have to continue to be intentional, and be intentional in a smart way—not necessarily in this chaotic push-it-all-together way—trust the clock, because you can’t rush the clock.
Let’s think about it: let’s cook some stew. What kind of ingredients do you throw in your stew?—“Onions, and carrots, and potatoes, and beef, and broth, and pepper.” We’ve got to kick it up a notch; yes, okay. You’re with me; right? We’re going to take these ingredients and put them in our crockpot. When you cook with a crockpot, you just dump it in; right?—it’s called a wedding. [Laughter]
Then what you’ve done is you’ve dropped them. As they happen to fall into the crockpot, on the day of the wedding, the beef, and the broth, and the carrots are all on one side—because they’re all biologically connected to one another: they’re all insiders; they’re all tight—they’ve got the same last name, same blood line, same DNA!
Then over here, on this side of the crockpot, we’ve got celery and we’ve got—what did I miss?—the pepper and the potatoes over here. They’ve got same DNA, same last name; and they have the same blood line, and history, and loss story, and everything that ties them together.
And they just kind of—“Pfft”—there they are. You put the lid on; you turn it on, and you walk away—it’s called a wedding. Here, we begin to cook. As it would be, those ingredients begin to soften over time. It usually takes a whole lot of time for that to even to get some heat going, and then you get a little momentum, and then the ingredients begin to soften. Here’s the really strange thing about this: they soften on their own time. I mean, carrots soften at a different pace than the potatoes. Everything is on its own time.
I was doing a seminar one time, and a couple came up to me at the break. She said, “You know what? I was talking to my husband; he’s a chef. He was saying, ‘Ron’s exactly right about that crockpot thing; you can’t fool food.’” And she said, “You can’t make something cook faster than it’s going to cook.”
Well, as I like to call it, lots of stepfamilies have a carrot. Everything else is softening very nicely. Everything else—the couple has started this thing—and everything else is beginning to come together; but you’ve got a carrot, who says, ““Hmm, I don’t think so.” That carrot, sometimes, is an ex-spouse, who is just a thorn in your family flesh. Sometimes, that carrot is a teenager, “Just because.” Sometimes that carrot is a part-time child, who you get very little time they’re with—they’re in for a weekend and then they’re gone—it’s just time doesn’t really accumulate; you kind of start and stop, and start and stop, and start over—it’s a functional carrot; it’s not an attitude—it’s just time; it’s not working.
You’ve got a carrot; maybe two or three different ingredients might be softening at a different pace—that could be frustrating—because you’re going, “Boy, we’ve got lots going here; but we’ve just got that thing there.” Yes, and it is what it is; and you can’t fool food—you can’t rush it; you can’t force it; you can’t demand it—because as soon as you go back into blender-ing/high heat, it tends to work against you—trust the crockpot.
In that environment of crockpot-ting, there’s still some barriers. If we were to just kind of chart this/let’s talk about bonding in a stepfamily. In a first-marriage situation, you have an individual, who marries another individual, and they become a couple. Then they have kids, and they become parents. They develop a relationship with those children.
Let’s just push pause for a minute—because this little equation here—number one, it’s God’s design; and there’s a reason why it works best for adults and for kids. The first thing is the individuals come together, and they form the foundation to the home; that is, their couple-ness. That couple-ness precedes the children. So the whole time the kids are growing up, there’s this natural order to things that kids just know mom and dad came first. That does a whole lot to orient their world, as kids need.
- Number one, it says to them: “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” Every kid in the world need to know that. Because if they don’t know that, then they feel like they should be the center; and they should be able to make demands and everybody should be able to follow them.
- The other thing this does for kids is it teaches them their place in the world: “You’re not the center,” “We’re the authority.” It sets up parenting to be successful; it’s just the natural order.
- The other thing I would point out about this is that, naturally, kids are just as invested in their parents’ marriage as the parents are. I mean, if you split up in this situation, the kids are fighting to get it back together again: that’s their world. Their security and safety is tied to that unity, so they’re equally invested in the success of the marriage.
What happens after death or divorce is that we’ve essentially lost couple-ness, so the foundation has been pulled away. I think the first thing we have to do is just be honest and admit that there’s been a trauma to the family system/to the stability of the home. The foundation it gone—it’s not cracked—it’s gone. Now, the whole unit has to reorganize around something.
I’m thinking of the guy, who was sitting in a conference just like this—raised his hand about now—and said, “Boy, I really don’t like what you’re saying.”
I said, “Okay, talk to me.” He said, “No, no, no; I like what you’re saying. It’s just not my life, but I wish it was.”
I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Okay, I’d never been married before; didn’t have any kids when I met my wife. She was one of those large-and-in-charge moms like you’ve been talking about.” He said:
“She had three children. Boy, she had it going on—schedules/routines—she just kept it all going all the way through the single-parent years. She handled it masterfully.
“Here we come together. Man, I just knew not to mess with mom’s routine—right?—the style/the way she ran things.” He said, “As a matter of fact, when they would get in the car, when she was a single parent, she had this very elaborate system of determining who gets to ride in the front seat with mom when they get in the car. It depended on whose turn it was, how far they were going, and when it was going to be the next go round.”
He said, “Man, I was smart enough to know not to mess with that; so I got in the backseat, and we went on with life.” [Laughter] Then he looks at me and he says, “We’ve been married two-and-a-half years, and I still ride in the backseat of the car.”
Alright, so let’s talk through that for a minute; right? Something’s wrong in this scenario. We got to try to figure out how to elevate his status to a place of priority; right? Let’s just play it out a little bit. It’s Monday morning; they’re all riding in one car. They’re going to drop off at school, and work, and on, and on, and on. They walk out into the driveway.
Stepdad—he’s sick and tired of getting slapped in the face—stepdad says, “Hey, dude, back seat.” “What do you mean? It’s my turn, front seat.” I mean, let’s just play it out a little bit. What is Johnny going to do when he says, “Get in the back seat”? Little Johnny’s going to look at stepdad, and go, “MOMMY!” He’s going to come up with some GASS; right?—G-A-S-S—Guilt trip, Anger, Silent treatment, or Sadness. These are the tools that kids use against us. His GASS is going to be about a 3 or a 4 [Complaining occurs]. About that time, he spots Mom walking out the front door; and immediately, “Mom!”—right?—“Here’s my savior; she’ll look after me.”
Now, if mom just happens to be one of those paralyzed biological parents, who is easily overcome by the guilt, then she’s probably going to walk up, “What?—back seat?” [Whimpering voice] “Oh, my baby!” and look at her husband and say, “Okay, you’re the adult. It is his turn; just one more time?”
Okay; but let’s play it out—what if she’s not paralyzed?—what if she’s going to embolden herself, as mom, knowing that, in this scenario, this is going to be a heartbreak for little Johnny. And it’s not just a heartbreak for Johnny; we’re changing the rules, for crying out loud. This is all they’ve ever known. This is a rule change—this is a shifting of authority in the family—this is significant. What’s going to happen if she finds the courage to go, “Oh, dude, I’m sorry; it is your turn. Get in the back”? [Laughter]
What’s going to happen? The GASS scale—the 3 just went to a 9.9—and he’s going to pull out his little trump card [sarcastically], “Dad wouldn’t make me do this.” The GASS goes up—he throws a fit—stomping, [inaudible complaining], gets in the car, slams the door, [inaudible complaining] all the way to school. He gets out at school; he slams the door, and he stomps in.
What’s mom’s heart feeling?—guilt, and sadness, and sorrow for this kid; because she realizes this is another change he didn’t ask for—“He didn’t ask for this!” and “He didn’t ask for all those other changes.”If we back up—down the loss story—there’s been a whole lot of stuff he didn’t ask for; it’s another thing. She can feel sorry for him, but she cannot afford to be paralyzed by that sorrow.
But functionally, what it does is—it moves your relationship to the right place/to a powerful place—that systematically, in the crockpot, then puts the stepparent into a place, where they can actually be part of the parenting team; and your marriage strengthens the whole family. If you don’t do this—biological parents, if you don’t find that courage in those moments, it is the equivalent of unplugging the crockpot: no more heat; no more cooking—it’s hard; it’s risky, but there’s rewards there.
Michelle: Blending families is hard; and many times, it’s a slow and painful process. But as Ron said, there are rewards there. I’m so glad we have Ron Deal and his team to help families blend successfully.
If you are part of a blended or stepfamily, and would like some resources—because you might need help, maybe you want to help others, maybe you’re just curious—we have a link on our website to FamilyLife Blended, where you can find articles, and other resources and help—FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s at FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Hey, coming up next week, we’re going to hear from Dave and Ann Wilson. They’re going to talk to us about our true purpose here on earth. I hope you can join us for that.
Hey, thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, and our cofounder, Dennis Rainey, along with our station partners around the country. A big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Bruce Goff; our producer, Marques Holt, and Justin Adams is our mastering engineer. Megan Martin is our production coordinator, and Raven Simmons is our production intern.
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