Help For Pre-Blended Families
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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
Preparing for marriage to begin a blended family comes with unique dynamics. Ron Deal, Director of FamilyLife Blended, talks about addressing not just the joining of two hearts, but those of the whole family.
Help For Pre-Blended Families
Ann: I remember, Dave, meeting your stepmom for the first time a few months before we got married; and she and your dad had been married only ten years. She wasn’t a follower of Christ, but she was giving me some advice before our wedding day.
Dave: That should have been interesting.
Ann: Yes, it was super interesting. She said, “Make sure you know Dave.” I said, “Well, I think I do,” even though we had been dating like seven months; and she said—
Dave: Oh, you knew me so well.
Ann: I thought I did!
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
She said, “You may think you know who he is; but when I got married to Dave’s dad, it was my second marriage. I had a son from my first marriage.” It was his second marriage, and he had four kids—five kids, actually—one had passed away—
Dave: —my brother, yes.
Ann: —from that [first] marriage. She said, “I had no idea who this man was.” She said, “I was a mom, who was desperate. I had just moved to a new country. I had just married this very successful man, and I was desperate to not get divorced again.”
Do you know what I’m going to say?—what she found out?
Dave: Yes; I mean, it was something she had no idea—she did not know until—I don’t know how long it was after their wedding—
Ann: Not too long.
Dave: —but she found out, probably within a week or two, that my dad was an alcoholic.
Ann: —like an alcoholic, who was passing out every night, and losing his car.
I said, “What did you do?” She said, “Oh, I thought, ‘I need to do something.’”
Dave: This woman had spunk; let me tell you.
Ann: She said, “I ended up”—she said, “I thought, ‘What’s important to this man?’” She said, “I knew instantly—money—money is what drives him.”
Dave: —money and things.
Ann: Yes; so she said, “He would pass out—and I don’t even know where he was at times when he passed out; he was gone from the house—“I would take the bat, and I would destroy the furniture. I would break mirrors.
Ann: “I would break everything. He’d wake up; he’d come home the next day. He said, ‘What happened?’” She said, “This is what you did when you were drunk last night.” She said, “I did this about five times. After the fifth time, he said ‘I can’t afford to drink any longer.’” [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, it’s funny; but it’s tragic—but it worked; that’s all I know—I remember a different dad the last ten years of his life, because he stopped drinking. It was because my stepmom sort of helped him. But I never knew she had that conversation with you, like, “You better know your husband”; because she didn’t.
We’ve got Ron Deal with us today to talk about that very thing/about: “How do you prepare to get married when you’re walking into a blended situation?” Welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: Thank you. Baseball bat therapy; I had no idea. [Laughter]
Ann: Ron, maybe, this is something new you could—[Laughter]
Ron: Okay; I’ll keep it in mind. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, Ron is the director of our FamilyLife Blended® ministry, here, at FamilyLife. All of you know him; he has written many books. I didn’t know—until our last time we talked—eight books and now a ninth book.
This one is very interesting. We endorsed it; because, number one, because of you, Ron. I mean, everywhere we go, whenever we run into a blended family—we had one a year ago or so walk up to us in an airport—they said, “Are you Dave and Ann Wilson?” We’re like, “Oh, do you go to our church?” They’re like, “No, we heard your voice; we recognize your voice. We have never seen you.”
Ron: That’s cool.
Dave: I’m like, “What?” They were in a blended thing. We said, “Do you know Ron’s material?” “Oh, yes; it’s life-saving.” It’s really—you are—I mean, I don’t know how to say it—a gift from God to the blended world.
Ron: I appreciate that.
Ann: Yes; Ron, I think I have probably promoted you, your podcast, and your books more than any other material that I have ever; because there is such a great need, and people are longing for help that are blended.
Ron: I appreciate that so much; those are very kind words. You are right about that. People, for years, complained to me, “Ron, where is the Christian voice on the blended family?” They were right to do so; because when I started doing this, almost 30 years ago now, there really wasn’t anything. There were a few things, but you couldn’t find them; people couldn’t put their hands on them. Now, that’s just not true anymore.
FamilyLife Blended, the department that I lead, here at FamilyLife—we have books; we have live events; we have virtual events; we have online courses that people can take online on demand; we have a FamilyLife Blended podcast, which I am so proud of/I think it’s a regular dose of really good stuff for people, and it’s free—like there are all kinds of resources that are available now.
We have never had something specifically for engaged couples to help them prepare for the wedding, and to empower pastors, and mentors, and coaches to be able to ready those couples for the wedding; and now we do with Preparing to Blend.
Dave: Yes; so talk about Preparing to Blend; we’ve already talked about it a little bit. It’s a different reality for a blended family—and I say, “family,” because it’s not just a couple now—
Dave: —getting married; it’s a family becoming a family. There are different issues, that I don’t even understand; and you do. As you prepared this Preparing to Blend book, what were you thinking? What was your hope?
Ron: My hope is equipping, not just the couple, but their children and them as a unit to move forward toward the family they are creating.
Now, I will tell you this—anything we do in marriage education and premarital counseling, for example—there is a little bit of, let’s call it “assessment” in it, like, getting you to start talking with your children about your expectations for how life will go and their expectations for how life will go. All of a sudden, sometimes, results in a collision of: “Oh, you have different expectations than we do.”
Couples know this—right?—when you get married—you realize, “Oh, I just thought it would go this way, and you were thinking that way. Now, what do we do?” Well, what if that’s five people or seven people, who have those expectations, rather than just two of you as adults?
Ron: You’re trying to deal with the collision of all those expectations. Well, if you can get out in front of that conversation, and proactively enter it in a collaborative way with children, giving them a voice, especially kids. One of the journeys of children, we know, into a typical blended family is a lot of unwanted circumstances that they didn’t really ask for; but yet, they are being asked to adjust to it. That’s taking control out of their hands. If you can give them a little bit of control into how life is going to go, it makes it easier for them to embrace how life is going to go and be a part/a contributor rather than somebody who is fighting against it.
Ann: What would say are some of the things that couples need to have their eyes open to about this?
Ron: Let’s talk about the wedding for a minute—
Ron: —okay? I’ve really been struck by the feedback we’ve gotten from this manuscript so far. Couple, after couple, after couple said, “You know what? That chapter on planning the wedding just really opened our eyes and made us realize how much we need to involve our children in the planning of the wedding and, then, letting them say how much they want to be a part of the wedding.”
I just want us to pause for a minute. Research is really clear:
When children are involved in the idea of their parent getting married/when they are somehow included in even the decision-making process/invited into the discussion about it—in other words, they are not blindsided by the announcement that their parent is engaged—number one.
Number two, when they are actively involved in the planning of the wedding, and they get to participate in the wedding in a way that they are comfortable with, that honors the couple’s relationship, but also gives some acknowledgment to the child’s previous relationships/their previous family, if you will—the fact that they have another dad or mom—in other words, the wedding happens with some sensitivity to that as a consideration.
Then kids are far more apt: (a) be excited about the wedding.
Ann: Ron, I’m guessing there are some kids that aren’t excited about the wedding; and really don’t even want to participate, because they don’t want it to happen.
Ron: It happens all the time—people hear stories all the time—I get emails all the time: “We planned this wedding. We talked to the kids; they knew it was coming. Six months go by, and then three of my adult kids don’t show up,”—
Ron: —or “My teenage daughter just cried the entire way through and just brought a dark cloud over the entire…” “What’s going on?”
Well, I’m here to tell you: there are a lot of emotions brewing under the surface for kids—weddings, and funerals, and birthdays, and Christmas, and major holidays—all bring those emotions to the surface. They are excited for you; and at the very same time, they are sad.
Ann: They are mourning.
Ron: They are mourning what: “I wish Mom and Dad could get back together; not Mom marry somebody else. This just makes it impossible for that to happen.” Or in the case of a child’s parent, who has passed away: “I can’t see Mom happy, and kissing, and committing to another man, and not think about my dad, and how much I miss him.”
It’s not about: “I don’t want this stepdad in my world,” necessarily—I mean, maybe, there is something about him they don’t necessarily like—most of the time, they do like. They love the idea of their mom being with a partner, and somebody who is going to help take care of her; but what is also going on inside is: “I miss my dad. He was everything to me. This just reminds me/it resurrects that grief and that pain.” All of a sudden, it pours out at the wedding. Well, gosh, that’s just difficult, and awkward, and hard for everybody.
What we want to try to do in this chapter, for example, and in the activity that parents and children do together, is we want them to start talking about the wedding, and your role, and your thoughts and your feelings, so that that stuff comes out sooner rather than at the event. The child is able to say, “You know what? I’m not comfortable with this…but I would be comfortable with that...Would it be okay if we did it that way?” Again, we’re giving them a little control in this lack-of-control world that they live in; and the adults are learning something about their child.
Think about the movement. A parent is going, “Oh, I hear you; I see you.” Now, think about that for just a second—because when people are falling in love—I mean, you guys have talked about this an awful lot; this happens with first married couples as well. We fall in love; we get blind—we get stupid—right? We just stop seeing anything but what we want to see.
Ron: Pre-blended couples kind of do the same thing. One of the things they stop seeing, sometimes, inadvertently—totally inadvertently—is their own children. Yes, they are aware and sensitive; but on another level, all their emotional energy is going into this person they have fallen in love with; they can’t help it!
So when the child speaks, and the parent says, “Oh, that’s what you need,” now, I’m seeing my child. A child needs that; they need to feel their parent’s presence, if I could say it. They need to feel that their parent is not completely abandoning them in this wedding.
It’s sort of like this delicate dance of all these relationships that the parent is connected to. When the child gets seen—when they feel like they have a little bit of a voice/being considered—they’ve had time to ponder, “What will it be like to walk down the aisle during the wedding and do what I am supposed to do?”—light the unity candle or whatever it is. They get a head start on all the emotions and on the grief, so that it is less intense and less overwhelming the day of.
Ann: That is so wise and just another reason why premarital counseling is for the family, not just for the couple.
Dave: Yes, I would think—you’ve said a little bit—the kids can be there. It sounds like they really should be there—maybe not every session but part of them—just because you want communication to be happening throughout, not later. It’s going to happen later, one way or another—maybe, not in a healthy way—but this could help prepare them for that; right?
Ann: I’ve never asked you, Dave: “Were you there when your dad got remarried?”
Dave: No, I wasn’t there; didn’t even really know it happened.
Ann: But you went on their honeymoon?
Dave: I didn’t know it was their honeymoon. I thought I went on a trip with my dad and his new wife. I found out later it was their honeymoon to Europe, and I was not probably the best thing they wanted on that trip.
Ron: Do you remember how you felt when you realized: (a) “This is their honeymoon”; and (b) “I didn’t even know he was getting married,” and “Where does that leave me?” I’m just wondering how you processed that, and how old were you?
Dave: I was 12/maybe, 13.
Dave: Yes, I felt like nobody saw me and cared—like, “That would have been nice to know,” type deal—I felt left out.
Ann: I remember your stepmom said that they were in Europe at a strange hotel; and you were in a room all by yourself across the hall, and you were petrified.
Dave: Yes; so I went into their room. How about that on your honeymoon night?
Ron: Right; but of course—isn’t that a little metaphoric; right?—here, you want to be seen; you want to be included; you want to be cared for. You feel like you’ve been pushed to the side, literally, in a different room across the hall.
That is the exact opposite of what we want parents to do; because you process that through the child’s heart and mind: “I’m small. I’m insignificant. Nobody sees me. I’m over here. I’m left out; I’m left behind. Now, you want me to fall in love with my step-parent and fall in love with your new us.” That’s just one chapter, talking about thinking about your wedding and involving the kids in that.
There are so many other things that are discussed. Just imagine, Dave, if you had had a conversation with your future stepbrother: “So what do I call you?”—just/and somebody would have given a little guidance to that discussion, where you work through that awkward thing. You don’t have to guess at it because, you actually had a structured conversation that allowed you to figure out a way to come to something you and he were comfortable with.
It’s when you guess in life—that you just say, “Well, I think this is what I am comfortable with,” and you start calling somebody that—and they are like, “Hey, I don’t like that; don’t…”—now, we’ve got a disconnect. All of that stuff can be avoided, to be honest. It just takes time on the front end in order to get there.
Dave: How many sessions? How would you do it if I want to help somebody?—or if I am a couple that is going to go through it, what’s it going to look like?
Ron: Well, there are ten working chapters to the book. When I say, “working chapters,” there are ten content chapters that have a growing activity attached to them. The activity is: “Alright; we’re not just going to talk about this conversation needs to take place between stepbrothers. We’re going to actually do it.” There is a guided process in each chapter. It’s very much a working pre-blended family counseling program for couples. Again, they can do it in conjunction with a pastor, a mentor, or somebody who is giving some additional guidance to the process.
Ideally, it’s ten sessions—however you want to spread those out—I do talk about in the Leader’s Guide: “Sometimes, you don’t get that. Somebody comes to see you; and you’ve got three weeks, and they are getting married. What do you do? Here is some guidance on how to choose what you’re going to do with your time.” I think you can just jump in and do what you can do in the amount of time you have. I actually think couples can just keep doing the activities after the wedding as well.
Dave: I was going to say, “Do it after”; yes?—why not?
Ron: It’s still/it’s still intentionality.
Ann: Can you give us an example of these growth activities for a family? Like what would be one of those?
Ron: Okay; so the one we sort of just were talking about was: “Let’s have a conversation around what names or terms we’re going to use for one another.” The growth activity is: first of all, kind of asking the couple to have a conversation with just the two of them around the parameters of this: “What are you comfortable with?” “What am I comfortable with?” “Now, let’s go to the kids and see what they are thinking.”
It gives the couple a little lead-in/a little script to say something like:
“Hey, look, you know, we’re all getting to know each other really well; and the wedding is coming up in a few months. At that point, we’re going to be a family. Someday, I may, as your stepparent, take you to school; and you may introduce me to your teacher. You’re going to sit there and kind of go, ‘Wow; who is this guy to me? Is it Mom’s new husband? Is that my stepdad? Is that my bonus dad? Is that Dave? What do I call this person?’
“I’m going to have to introduce you, at some point, as my stepson or daughter. You know what? I just think it would be good for us to figure out what we are comfortable with and what we call each other.
“Now, here is the deal: whatever you are comfortable with, I’m going to be good with as long as it has some basic respect to it; but I want you to know I don’t need you to use any particular term.”
Now, notice what we are doing there. We are giving the child permission to have their own feelings and their own opinion about this relationship; and they get to decide the term they are comfortable with, which by the way, tells you a lot about how they are feeling about this parent.
If they are like, “Well, you’re my dad,” that just told you something; right? By the way, a very small percentage of children ever use the term, “Dad” or “Mom” for their stepparent. But if they say, “I’m comfortable with that,” you go:
“Well, okay; if you’re good with that, I’m good with that. I’d love to introduce you as my son. Would that be okay with you?
“Oh, by the way, is there ever a time that would not be okay?—like a little awkward? If your dad were standing next to me—we’re at your soccer game—and another friend comes up. I say, ‘This is my son’; and you know, your dad is listening to me say this about you. That might be a little awkward. How would you feel about that?”
The child says, “You know, I don’t want you saying that when my dad is around.”
“Got it; I’m good with that. What would you like me to say in that moment?”
What a conversation! The child is empowered. The child—listen to what is happening—they are seeing you as somebody approachable/loving: “I can trust you with this stuff; you care about my feelings. You are not this ogre, who is just telling me, ‘What’s what,’ and ‘We’re going to do this,’ ‘You’re going to call me that...’ You’re not dictating anything. You’re actually connecting with me; you actually care about me.”
If you do that, you’re gaining trust and emotional safety, and you just took a huge leap forward to be a family.
Ann: Ron, it brings tears to my eyes; because I have so many friends, whose parents were divorced, and felt like they were never seen or heard. What you are doing is you are giving the kids a voice; and they feel like, “What I say and what I feel matters.”
Bob: It is so smart for couples to think, in advance, about the issues that may be ahead—not to be caught up in the emotional swirl of an engagement, and the infatuation and the love that is there, that is beginning to grow and blossom—but to think practically about how to build healthy, strong relationships. One of the things I love about Ron Deal’s new book, Preparing to Blend, is the number of exercises he has included in the book/projects that you do together, as a couple and as a family with your children, to help you get ready for the blending that is coming.
I mean, there are going to be challenges ahead. We’ve got to know that, going in; but you can help reduce some of the severity of the speed bumps you are facing by going through Ron’s book, Preparing to Blend. We’ve got the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can request your copy online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call to get a copy; the number is 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book is Preparing to Blend by Ron Deal. Order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Don’t forget there is an event happening two weeks from now on Thursday,
October 14; Friday, October 15, in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a national conference, The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. The focus this year is helping couples prepare; in fact, that’s the title: “Prepare.” If you are involved in organizing the premarital counseling in your local church; if you are involved in doing premarital counseling; and if you have started doing a lot more premarital counseling with couples, who are blending a family, or couples who are bringing kids into a first marriage, to come to this two-day event in Atlanta will do a great job of equipping you to help others prepare to blend. You can find out more about The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry when you go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; there is more information available there.
In fact, David Robbins, the president of FamilyLife, is here with me. David, we’ve been hosting these summit events for many years now, and it’s always exciting to us to see how God is working in and through the couples who attend to help strengthen blended families and marriages.
David: Yes; the thing I love most about The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry is that—I’ve been to several now—and the people you meet there are like-minded. They care about others in a deep, passionate way—that’s why they are there—to learn. I’ve met some people at the summit that have become dear friends over the last few years.
The reason we are committed to this is that our vision says: “Every home a godly home.” Every home means every home—whether that is a blended family, whether that’s a family in a US suburb or the inner city, whether you live in a mega city in China, or a village in Africa—we are committed to bringing the gospel, and the principles of marriage and family, and what God offers up in His Word to as many homes as possible.
There is a rising group of families that are blended families, and we want to speak to the felt needs and the pain points that meet them where they are at and help their marriages last.
Bob: I know this vision of every home being a godly home resonates with many of our listeners. We know that because many of you make this vision possible through your financial support of the ministry—either as occasional financial supporters or as monthly Legacy Partners—thank you for providing the fuel necessary for this kind of ministry to occur.
If you are a regular listener, and you’ve never made a donation to support the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today, this is a good day to do that. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com, donate online; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate over the phone. Thanks, in advance, for partnering with us to help every home become a godly home.
We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when our friend, Janel Breitenstein, is going to be here to talk about how we can mark, and mold, and shape our children, pointing them in a positive direction, and marking their lives permanently. We’ll have that conversation with Janel on Monday. I hope you can join us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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