Blending a Family
About the Guest
When Sabrina and Robbie McDonald married quickly, they thought they were working in the best interest of her children. What they didn't take into account was the grief her young son, Benjamin, was still experiencing since his father's death. Ron Deal joins Robbie and Sabrina and explains how children grieve differently from adults.
Robbie and Sabrina McDonaldRobbie and Sabrina McDonald were both widowed when they married and blended their families in 2013. Together they have three children at home and a grown son and daughter-in-law. Robbie is a full-time non-commissioned officer for the Army National Guard, a deacon, and a member of The Gideons International. Sabrina is a stay-at-home mom and author of two books, "Open the Widows of Heaven," a devotional for women, and "The Blessings of Loneliness."
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
Sabrina and Robbie McDonald married quickly but didn’t take into account the grief her young son was still experiencing since his father’s death. Ron Deal explains how children grieve.
Blending a Family
Bob: As a young widow, Sabrina Beasley was open to the possibility of remarriage. In fact, her husband, David, had made her promise, before he died, that if anything ever happened to him, she would, indeed, remarry so her children could have a father. Sabrina says that when she met and fell in love with her husband, Robbie, she realized that to marry and to have a man in the home was going to be an adjustment for her children—especially, her oldest son.
Sabrina: There was just so much going on. Then, all of a sudden, I bring a man into his life. As much as my intentions were good—to get Robbie into our home—I think I rushed it too much because it went from “Who is this stranger?” to “Now, this is a person you call Daddy.” And he really had a lot of behavioral problems.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, May 14th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.
Blending a family / starting a stepfamily is an adjustment for everyone, even those couples with the best intentions and with a committed walk with Christ. We’ll hear about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Thursday edition. Our listeners are getting to listen in on a checkup of sorts that’s going on this week.
Dennis: Yes, they’re getting to hear about a true kind of a Camelot experience.
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Dennis: Oh, yes, we’ve got a soldier who went after his woman. [Laughter] I mean, our listeners want to hear the rest of the story—like the juicy details of how this guy proposed. And I want Ron Deal to kind of lead us in this because Ron heads up FamilyLife’s Blended Initiative. Ron—welcome back to the broadcast.
Ron: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Dennis: You’ve just finished a rewrite of a book you wrote about four years ago.
You’re calling it The Smart Stepfamily Marriage. We’re excited about that getting rereleased. It comes out of a lot of research—
Ron: It does.
Dennis: —you did with Dr. David Olson.
Ron: It communicates the strengths of healthy step-couple relationships and blended families.
Dennis: And we’ve got one, right here, in front of us; don’t we?
Ron: We do.
Dennis: Introduce them, please.
Ron: Robbie and Sabrina McDonald are here with us today. Sabrina is actually back with us. Listeners of FamilyLife Today will know that Sabrina writes for FamilyLife.com; but she was on this broadcast a couple years ago, talking about a book I’d written then called Dating and the Single Parent.
And we’ve got her back to get some perspective on: “Okay, you were a single parent then. Now, you’re a married person in a blended family. What have you learned, and how is that process going?” And she’s brought her new husband with her—Robbie. We’re certainly glad to have him. He’s a Sergeant First Class in the Army National Guard. Welcome, both of you, to FamilyLife Today.
Sabrina: Thank you.
Robbie: Thank you.
Ron: The two of them have two children each. So, there are four in their blended family experience. Robbie, you have a 25-year-old son and a 15-year-old son. Sabrina has a 6-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter.
Bob: Now, wait, that’s a pretty good spread right there—25 to 4—is that right?
Robbie: That’s right.
Bob: That sounds tiring, just to start—because, honestly, you parent in kind of stages—
Bob: —and when you’re parenting a married adult son and a toddler at the same time—
Ron: It’s a bit schizophrenic; don’t you think?
Sabrina: Absolutely! [Laughter]
Dennis: I want our listeners to know that Sabrina’s husband died in a car wreck after about seven years of marriage. Robbie’s wife died of cancer after they’d been married for twenty-two years. And we heard, earlier, about—well—how Robbie didn’t take “No,” as an answer in his pursuit of Sabrina. So, Sabrina said, “No,” and six weeks later, said, “Maybe”—
—and then, a few months later, said, “Yes.” So, Robbie, how did you propose to Sabrina?
Robbie: First of all, it was a journey to get her to accept me as being a possible husband.
Dennis: To give you a chance.
Bob: Part of the reason for that is a ten-year age difference.
Robbie: Yes, ten-year age difference and the age of our children—
Robbie: —and the difference of age there—but I had already been through that once. I had a ten-year-old, and then, I had a newborn. I said: “Well, I’ve done this before. I can do this again,” and “It’s just another ten year difference in children.” I saw it as a plus because I’d been through it before.
But I didn’t fully realize what it would be like. There is just a difference in children, too, and how my children acted as children and how her children act as children. There are things you don’t realize that you need to think about.
Robbie: Like how a single parent lets their children take control of things because it’s easier to do than to govern.
Ron: Okay, and so, when did that become reality for you?
Robbie: After the marriage, really.
Robbie: And I had the same thing at my house—my 15-year-old—it was just me and him at home. I let him pick what’s for dinner / I let him pick what we watched on TV because it’s easier that way, and it makes everybody happy.
Bob: So, Sabrina, do you remember when it hit you that “Oh, yes, this is not as—this is a little more lax than I thought it was going to be”?
Sabrina: You know, it wasn’t that he was lax with Seth. It was just that Seth’s opinion mattered so much, and I was the new person. They had the relationship—they had the history / they knew all the jokes. It was like being the third wheel on a relationship that had already had history there; and you’re trying to jump in, as the new person—
—that never ever occurred to me. The friendship that you have with your teenager—that is already established—that you kind of have to work your way into to be a part of the family!
Ron: You know, one of the things in this book, The Smart Stepfamily Marriage, that David and I talk about is that there is a natural transition that takes place in blended families. Your expectations are one thing before the wedding. Oftentimes, couples are so centered on their relationship that they don’t realize how much these other family factors are going to influence the home; but soon after the marriage, that reality becomes evident. So, then, they begin to transition of: “How are we going to deal with this?” and “How do we adjust?” So, let’s ask this of the two of you: “How have things changed regarding parenting and those things that existed before the wedding?”
Robbie: Oh, in the beginning, myself and the six-year-old, now—we kind of butted heads with him. He didn’t like the fact that I had a say-so over his mom and him.
At the time, that was difficult because I didn’t see what I was doing; and he’s a six-year-old. She is trying to be the good wife—
Robbie: —go-between—you know, the husband—
Robbie: —have him as the leader of the household. She wanted that to be known. So, she was allowing me to do what I wanted to do there.
Ron: Sabrina, how did you handle that feeling stuck in the middle?
Sabrina: It was hard. One of the things I didn’t realize would happen is the grieving process that takes place. For several months, you realize things are not going to be the way they were before. It’s going to be a totally different way of doing things. So, it takes some grieving there—some loss and some acceptance—to say: “Okay, this is not the way it was before. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s just different.”
It’s like—when I was married to David, it was as if we were speaking Spanish and we were in Spain.
Then, I married Robbie and moved to Germany. So, everything that I knew about Spain, I had to relearn in Germany. The traditions were different, the discipline—the way of discipline was different—the way he interacted with the kids was different. I had to come to a place and say: “That’s okay. I can trust him. If he really loves the Lord / if he really loves God, I’m going to put my trust—not in my husband—but in God who has brought us together and who has created this relationship.”
Dennis: Yes, it occurs to me, Sabrina—that you went to Spain, brand-new with another person, and learned the culture of Spain and created a life with a person. Now, you’re going to Germany with somebody who created Germany and is inviting you into his world. Actually, it’s almost like you two went to a third country—
Sabrina: That’s exactly right, yes.
Dennis: —to establish something totally new.
Sabrina: Yes, it was—another thing that surprised me about a second marriage—is how much the first spouse influences the home. You’re sort of living in someone else’s—the home that they’ve created. Fortunately, the person in front of me was a godly woman, but still you—it’s almost like you have to get to know that person in order to understand why things are done the way that they’re done.
Ron: The one element I would add to our conversation about moving to a new country is that, not only is a piece of you kind of back in the old country, but a piece of the children is back in the old country. They have to learn new rituals, and customs, and language, and norms. There is a part of them that’s grieving. So, there are some challenges there. Typically, what happens with children is—they, then, let us know that through behavior. They kind of let us know they are not necessarily happy. Did you all experience some of that with the kids?
Sabrina: Most definitely with Benjamin. I think he seriously had a post-traumatic stress disorder experience—
Sabrina: —with the whole transition because, you think—within four years, he lost a father that revolved the world around him, and had a baby sister, and then the father died, and then he had a crazy single mother. I mean, when you are grieving, you just aren’t yourself.
Bob: That’s right.
Sabrina: A very peaceful household went to a very chaotic household; and then, we moved to a new house. There was just so much going on. Then, all of a sudden, I bring a man into his life. As much as my intentions were good—to get Robbie into our home—I think I rushed it too much because it went from “Who is this stranger?” to “Now, this is a person you call Daddy.” And he really had a lot of behavioral problems. It showed up at school and home—major fits and things like that.
He was very, very disturbed.
Ron: How did you move forward and help Benjamin?
Sabrina: A lot of it—you have to take time with your kids. And even though Benjamin was very, very young, I still took the time to talk to him. I spend time with the children, before bed every night, and pray with them. I said to Ben, “What is it that you want me to pray for?” And he said, “Well, I want you to pray that my old Daddy would come back.” And he said that to me several times. I would say: “Why do you say that to me? It hurts my feelings that you say that.” He’d say, “Well, I miss him,” or whatever. And I’d say: “Well, he’s in heaven. He can’t come back.” And he really couldn’t express to me why he was saying this.
Well, just a few months ago, he said it again: “I wish my old Daddy would come back.” I was thinking: “Wow! I really thought we had finally gotten to a place where he was happy.” And I said, “Ben, are you not happy with your Daddy?” “No, I like Daddy.” And I said, “Well, why do you say this?” He said: “Well, because sometimes I will ask you if I can do something.
You’ll say, ‘Yes,’ and Daddy will turn around and say, ‘No,.’—then, you say, ‘Well, you can’t do it because Daddy said.’”
Well, what happened, in my mind, was—I was doing the same thing my mother did—which, when we were kids, she was establishing my father as the authority of the household. So, we would ask her, “Can we do such and such?” And she would say, “Well, let me ask your father.” If he said, “Yes,” or “No,” we knew that that was black and white—you know, whatever Dad said—he was the authority.
So, I was trying to do the same thing with my kids—teaching them about Robbie’s authority. Well, the problem is that a blended family is not the same as a first-time family. I was trying to parent my son the way that you do with his biological father and not with his stepfather. So, he was translating that in a different way—taking it to mean: “Well, it used to be that you were the boss; and now you’re not anymore. Now, he’s the boss.” He just had this first-grade/kindergarten mindset of how he was trying to logically figure that out.
But the point is that he knew Robbie wasn’t his dad—and that David was he’s real dad—and he was trying to figure out how that authority figure worked. If I hadn’t taken the time with him to explain this is why it is the way it is, he wouldn’t have understood. He was just using his little mind to figure it out. And I was just taking it for granted that he understood: “Dad is the authority figure in the home.”
So, that is how I think you have to do it—I think you have to take time with the kids. Even if they are little, and you don’t really think they know what’s going on, they really, really do.
Ron: There are so many takeaways from that. One, simply, is that children experience the blended family, oftentimes, differently than the adults do. The adults have an agenda always—and that is bringing people together and letting everyone feel like it is family—but, sometimes, kids—because they are holding on to previous relationships—
—and those are appropriate for them to hold on to those relationships—don’t have the same motivation to be happy with the way things go.
Your Benjamin is now six. The beautiful thing in what you just shared with us, I think, is that you engaged him in a conversation. You opened the door—you asked / you listened. It created an opportunity for you to, then, help explain some things to him. I think the big thing there is just comforting him in his sadness and knowing that he feels differently about it and he misses his dad.
Dennis: And that she’s a woman who can be trusted because she walks with Jesus Christ. I don’t think you can downplay that in that story at all.
It occurs to me, we never left Camelot and didn’t finish tying the knot here. [Laughter] We’re dealing with all the challenges you two have faced. I just want to hear it, Robbie—how did you lay it on her?
Robbie: Okay, she’s a dancer—
Sabrina: —a ballroom dancer.
Robbie: During our dating—ballroom—yes, ballroom dancer—and during our dating time, I got to learn how to dance with her. One of the places she liked to go dancing is down to Hot Springs. They have—every Friday night, at the Arlington Hotel, they have a live band and dancing.
Sabrina: Gorgeous 1930’s remodeled hotel—beautiful atmosphere—you know, a romantic atmosphere.
Dennis: There you go.
Robbie: I pretty sure I didn’t let her know what was happening. You didn’t know what I was going to do there?
Sabrina: No, surely not—of course, not. [Laughter]
Robbie: Anyway, so, we went to dinner at a very nice restaurant, down there in Hot Springs; and then, we went down to the Arlington to dance. Then, we left there to go back home—just make sure everybody knows that! [Laughter]
Dennis: Sabrina, you couldn’t tell he was nervous?
Sabrina: No, as a matter of fact, he says I didn’t know. I suspected, of course—as all women do—but he wasn’t nervous!
So, I thought: “Huh?! So, I guess it’s not tonight because he’s not acting odd at all!” He was so calm, cool, and collected.
Dennis: Okay, so, did you pull the ring out on the dance floor?
Robbie: No, I tried to get the guy to play this song that has a lot to do with starting over, but they didn’t know the song. So, we danced and danced. I had the ring in my pocket. I kind of took her hand and I stuck it down in my pocket. She’s like, “What is this?” She pulls it out. I look at her and say, “Will you marry me?” And she says—
Sabrina: “Yes.” [Laughter]
Ron: So, Sabrina, a couple years ago, you were on this broadcast. You were talking about dating, as a single parent. You were talking about holding out for the right guy. I had made a statement, saying that I think single parents can stay single and that they don’t have to get married.
Dennis asked you how you felt about that. Here is what you said—
Sabrina: Well, it gives me hope; and it also scares me a little bit. You know, I want to get remarried. I do want my children to have a father figure in their lives—I do want someone with them who will love them.
But, you know, when I first was widowed, and I was praying and I said, “Lord, I really want someone to be here,”—I mean, I really had a wonderful relationship with my husband; and I loved him so deeply—we were best friends—and I was praying: “God, I want that again. I want that for my kids. I want it for myself.” And I heard the Lord say, “Wait for Me.”
And later on, I was thinking about Abraham and Sarah, when he told Sarah that she was going to have a baby. She waited, and she waited, and she waited. Eventually, she thought, “Maybe, God meant that he would have a baby and not me.” So, she went into her servant, Hagar, and said, “Here I want you to sleep with my husband so we can have this promised child.” And she ended up with Ishmael.
Then, I said, “I don’t want an Ishmael marriage.
“I want an Isaac marriage. I want the marriage that God wants me to have. I want the man that God brings to me to be a godly man—the man that God wants—His will—and not just a panic or some way of saying: ‘Well, how can I fulfill this? How can I make this happen?’”
Ron: Talk to the listener, right now, who is also waiting for an Isaac marriage—who is not going to settle—like you didn’t want to settle.
Sabrina: I would say: “Waiting is worth it. Don’t make decisions out of panic. Look for the person that you know has the right heart.”
And with Robbie—a lot of what I was looking at and saying “No,” to had to do with circumstances of where we were—but I never ever had to say, “No,” to his heart. I knew where his heart was. I knew that he loved the Lord. I knew where he stood in his relationship with Christ, and that was what was most important to me. I knew that he had kept his vows to his wife.
There was a lot I could know about him, just by looking at the life that he had and by talking to people who knew him. There was a lot to be said by his character, and that’s the kind of person you want to wait for. You definitely don’t want to just find anybody and try to make it work.
Dennis: Sabrina, you just said it—it’s a quote by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was a great English preacher. Somebody needs to hear this, right now: “Faith is the refusal to panic.” God is able—trust Him.
Bob: Yes, trust and obey. I mean, trust and lean into the wisdom of others, who can offer you good, solid, godly counsel. I know, Robbie and Sabrina, you guys leaned into Ron Deal, all the way through this process—not only having the opportunity to talk with him—but his resources. His books, I know, have been helpful for you as you’ve charted this course for your stepfamily.
I just want to mention—Ron has a new book out, called The Smart Stepfamily Marriage that provides you with a checkup. Whether you are thinking about blending your family—you have just done it, or you’ve been in it for a number of years—this is a book that will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses in a blended marriage relationship and will help you build on your strengths and shore up those weaknesses.
We’ve got copies of The Smart Stepfamily Marriage in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. I’d encourage our listeners: “If you are in a blended marriage / you’re considering blending a family—or if you know someone who is and you’d like to give them a great gift—get a copy of The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family by Ron Deal and David Olson.”
You can order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. When you get to our website, click the link in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that says, “GO DEEPER.” Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com.
Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to ask about The Smart Stepfamily Marriage by Ron Deal and David Olson—1-800-FL-TODAY—or online at FamilyLifeToday.com. When you get to the website, click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” in the upper left-hand corner of the page. You’ll find information about Ron’s book there / information about the DVD series he’s done for stepfamilies called The Smart Stepfamily DVD series.
There’s also information about the upcoming 2015 Blended and Blessed™ Summit on stepfamily ministry, taking place in November—November 13 and 14—at Mariners Church in Irvine, California. This is a gathering of people, who are currently engaged in blended family or stepfamily ministry, or for those who are interested in starting a stepfamily ministry in your church or in your community—this a great event to come to.
There is going to be a special focus, this year, on how youth pastors can be more alert to and more involved with the young people in their youth ministry who are struggling with blended family dynamics. Again, find out more when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “GO DEEPER”; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information.
By the way, I should really mention here that all that we do, here at FamilyLife, including the work we’re doing with blended families and stepfamilies—Ron Deal’s work, here at FamilyLife, and heading up the FamilyLife Blended area of this ministry—all of that is possible because folks, just like you, have said, “This is important.” And the way you’ve said it is important is by donating to make this ministry possible. We’re listener-supported. We depend on your donations for every bit of what happens, here at FamilyLife Today; and we’re grateful for those of you who partner with us.
During the month of May, there is a special opportunity for you to engage with us and to see the impact of your donation doubled.
We’ve had some friends of the ministry, who have agreed to match any donation we receive here, during the month of May, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, up to a total of $300,000. That’s particularly significant, here at the beginning of summer, because as you head into the summer months, oftentimes, you see a decline in donations to a ministry like FamilyLife Today. So, to be able to go in with a little bit of a surplus will really help us out—help us make it through the summer—pay it forward a little bit.
Would you consider going to FamilyLifeToday.com, click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen that says, “I CARE,” and make an online donation? Again, know that your donation—the impact of it—will be doubled as your donation is matched, dollar for dollar. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—you can make your donation over the phone; or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR. And our zip code is 72223.
Now, tomorrow, we are going to talk about the issue of grief and how everybody has to process grief when a blended family comes together. There is great joy in the blending of a family, but there is also a sense of loss that is involved—not just for the people who are marrying—but for everyone close to them. We’ll explore that tomorrow. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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