FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Overcoming Childhood Trauma: Jim Ramos and Ron Deal

with Jim Ramos, Ron Deal | July 5, 2024
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How does childhood trauma echo in our adult lives? When an adult's parents got divorced, it can still impact them decades later— from their relationship with stepparents, to blended family dynamics, and ongoing healing. Jim Ramos, founder of the men's ministry "Men in the Arena," describes his challenging upbringing. Listen in for hope in navigating the complexities of family life and pursuing personal growth, community support, and a steadfast faith.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

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  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Childhood trauma: how does it affect us? Jim Ramos shares how faith and community helped him overcome his tough upbringing and start “Men in the Arena.”

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Overcoming Childhood Trauma: Jim Ramos and Ron Deal

With Jim Ramos, Ron Deal
|
July 05, 2024
| Download Transcript PDF

Ann: Let me ask you this: have you ever noticed that some people get into their profession because of the pain from their childhood?

Dave: You know what my answer’s going to be. [Laughter] Yes. I think we’re sitting here right now in marriage and family ministry, in a lot of ways, because of the pain of my family breaking up. Think about this: we’re hosting a podcast because of our 10-year anniversary pain, where we almost lost our marriage. It’s the foundation of everything we do.

Ann: I think that happens often. If I talk to doctors or someone in any kind of field [and ask], “Oh, what got you into this vocation?” Many times [they answer], “Well, I had someone that I love that was sick.” You were going to go into medicine because of your knee injury.

Dave: Yes, so why are you asking me this?

Ann: Because we’re going to look at that today.

Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.

Ann: This is FamilyLife—

Dave and Ann: —Today!

Dave: Some of our listeners know that Ron Deal directs our FamilyLife Blended® ministry and hosts our podcast for blended families. Today, we’re listening to a portion of an episode that Ron did with Jim Ramos, founder of Men in the Arena. Jim is a friend of ours. I endorsed his last book. I love all the stuff he does.

I didn’t know a lot of the details of his life until we heard this interview.

Ann: Me, either. Even if you’re not a stepchild or [you don’t] live in a blended family, please listen, because someone you know and love is, and maybe this will help to encourage them.

Dave: Jim Ramos and his wife, Shanna, founded the men’s ministry, Men in the Arena. Today, that ministry reaches hundreds of thousands of men in nearly a hundred countries. In fact, Jim just spoke in the church we founded in Michigan a couple of months ago. He’s a speaker, author, and podcaster. He’s written at least ten books, and he’s still writing even more.

Ann: Before the clip we’re going to hear, Jim was describing the day he and his two siblings got the news that their parents were divorcing. Jim was only 13 years old, and he was a little relieved that they were divorcing, because all of the pressure and the conflict in the home would not be there anymore.

Dave: Let’s pick up the conversation with Ron summarizing what Jim said so far.

[Recorded Message]

Ron: We’ve got the picture, eight- to thirteen-[years old], you heard the conflict; life was tough between you and your dad. Finally, they said, “We are divorcing,” and you felt some relief.

Do you have a sense of what your two siblings felt?

Jim: I think they were fairly insulated and oblivious. I have to go back and say this: my brother was younger, he was weaker, he was smaller. My mom had the German Measles when she was pregnant with him, so he was born with some learning and physical weaknesses. My sister was substantially younger, so I feel like they were fairly insulated.

My dad was never hard on them. He always told me, “You are the protector; you are the defender. Don’t ever fight unless somebody messes with your brother and sister, then you go to war.” I was always this incredible defender of the weak. I still am to this day.

They were very insulated. I remember when my dad and mom got divorced, my dad moved out. My dad was and still is the most engaged father I’ve ever met. The guy is so good about being engaged with his kids. When my parents divorced, he moved about 10 miles away, and we saw him all the time. But I saw this breach in his morality as an opportunity for me to attack, because all of my 13 years of life he had attacked me when I had a failure.

Ron: Ironically, he had told you to defend other people against injustice. This time, it was against him.

Jim: Yes, it really was. I remember going fishing one time. We were all sitting on the shore, fishing steel head in Camary, California, and he started talking. I just erupted on him, and I made him walk away crying. My brother and sister were yelling at me, because they had no idea; but I called out his adultery, and, man, it felt good.

But to watch your father cry—I will tell you this, Ron, my dad’s divorce broke him, and his failure broke him. He became a different man after the divorce. I went from 13 years of being raised with an over-bearing, aggressive, often-cruel man, to a broken, humble man who just wanted a relationship with his kids. That was a hard bridge for me to cross, to be honest with you, because he was married about nine months [to] a year later.

Ron: Okay.

Jim: Now, I went from a broken dad to a married dad to a stepbrother and stepsister who my dad had in his home now. That was an interesting bridge to cross when [I went] from a dad who [was] a cruel dictator to a broken, humble guy. It was interesting.

Ron: Yes, absolutely. Okay, I want our listener to pay attention because we’re going to jump into the shoes of a kid who feels that great sadness about his family coming apart, and, at the same time, maybe justified in being angry toward dad.

Let’s explore what impact that had on you and your blended family. Let’s start with your dad for a second. Divorce broke him. First, I want to say, “Halleluiah!” and thank God that we all have that same opportunity in life. Through Jesus, we can recover from who we were, to being who He makes us to be.

I’m so glad to hear that, but I hear in what you’re saying [that] it was hard to forgive; it was hard to restore trust. Just because it broke him, and began a process of changing him, didn’t mean you could let him off the hook. Am I saying that right?

Jim: Yes, because at 13 years of age, certain things had been deeply solidified in my life. One, that “performance equals validation,” was deeply, deeply engrained, and, two, “Your father is not a safe place, but he’s a place that’s safe when you perform.”

Those two things were deeply, deeply engrained in me, so even though I saw a broken—now realize, I was not raised in a Christian family, so I want to add that caveat; so, for me watching this brokenness—it didn’t lead him back anywhere except to his kids. His kids became everything.

In his second marriage, his kids became the center of the family relationship, not the marriage. The second wife, my stepmom, became the “My kids are first. If you don’t like it, you can leave”-type of program, [and] it swung the other way.

Ron: So, she was on the outs even with your father. Is that what you’re saying? She knew his kids came first, and she was going to have to honor that or else.

Jim: Yes, which is the problem in second marriages, because even in a second marriage, the marriage comes before the kids; but people enter that second marriage broken and wounded from the first marriage and guarded. This concept of “kids come first” is a way to ruin the second marriage.

My stepmom and my dad have been married for 45 years, but it’s been a struggle for them. Most of their struggles have revolved around her handling of her children and my dad’s. She’s great with us, she’s a phenomenal stepmother, but a lot of their relationship struggles revolved around the kids because they came before the marriage.

Ron: Going back to [age] 13 or 14, Dad’s now married. How did you view her? Was she the enemy? What was that like, and how did bonding go in the early phases?

Jim: She—again, I was the oldest, so I was the slowest to accept her—she was “the other woman.” She was the one who I heard mentioned in arguments. My dad says that they never had any kind of physical adulterous affair, but it was definitely an emotional affair, looking back on it.

I was bitter and angry. Even though I realized the cruel nature of my dad as a father, I viewed her in some ways as the villain in the story who broke my parents up, which is not true, as I learned later it wasn’t true. So, it took longer for me to accept her, even though she is a wonderful woman, and she was a wonderful stepmother. But she entered the marriage realizing that I was going to be the problem for her. [Laughter]

Ron: That was evident on the front end, right?

Jim: Yes, I could tell early on she was trying to win me.

Ron: Okay, to our listener: if you have ever heard me saying—if you have heard any of my podcasts, you’ve probably heard me say—at some point or another, “Loss gets in the way of bonding.” Loss in the past gets in the way of bonding in new blended relationships. You just heard that from Jim.

The loss of his family, even though—by the way, I’ll just throw in this observation; even though—it was a relief for you that Mom and Dad broke up, still, there was a sense of injustice about it and pain and disruption, and it was still wrong.

The object of your pain quickly became your stepmom. She’s the one to blame. It’s got to go somewhere. Dad carried that blame; she carried some of that blame for you. That pain of the loss got in the way of you being able to move toward her.

[Studio]

Ann: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today, and we’re listening to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal and Jim Ramos.

Dave: We think blended families, obviously, can be redemptive homes. I grew up in one, but it does take the Spirit’s help and a lot of practical life wisdom, and that’s what our FamilyLife Blended ministry offers. Be sure to check them out at FamilyLife.com/Blended.

Ann: Let’s get back to Ron’s conversation with Jim Ramos.

[Recorded Message]

Ron: Moving between households—so one household was very boundary-less—your mom and stepdad’s household.

Jim: Yes.

Ron: Dad was trying to keep the reigns on everything, it sounds like. By the way, was that motivated by any spiritual value in his life at that point?

Jim: Nothing. He was born and raised Catholic, but at that point, had just abandoned it. I think that moral code was there.

Ron: Got it; that moral code that he was pursuing. How, if I can use the word loosely, schizophrenic is that for you, that one household [was] “Boy, Dad’s tracking me down because he heard that I might be with so and so or having it,” or whatever, and at Mom and stepdad’s house, there were no boundaries, no limits? In fact, they’re encouraging lascivious sort of behavior. Where did you live in that space?

Jim: It was the new normal for us.

Ron: Yes.

Jim: I knew that when I was at my mom’s, I could exhale, and when I was at my dad’s, I had to be aware of what was going on. My dad is a big-time hunter and fisherman, sportsman. I loved that; my brother loved that. So, we spent a lot of time with Dad hunting and fishing and doing that. We spent—when we were doing that with him, that was our sweet spot. That is what has held us together all these years.

But it was outside of that, sports, he would be what you would call a helicopter parent, I would think. Back then, he coached me in every team in high school. On the football team, he was always my football coach. He was my head varsity baseball coach. There was a lot of clashing because he wanted me to live at this value, and I always would, in my mind, travel back to when I was 13 and think, “Wait, but you did these things so you’re not living to the value you set for me.”

There was a gap, a moral gap there, and we would go at it a lot; a lot of arguing. Now I am Italian and Portuguese, so that’s normal for our culture, but we would have these things. My mom’s house was very peaceful.

I already was an over achiever, so for me, you didn’t need to give me rules. I was going to play by the rules, because the rules gave me trophies and caused me to perform. I naturally was able to do that. But my mom’s the mom who, when I was 18, I went to the high school; she wrote a note that said, “Jimmy can ditch school whenever he wants.”

I did. I did whatever I wanted. I could write my own notes. She didn’t care, and my dad never knew.

Ron: Dude, I’ve got to fast forward a little bit, because having grown up with those two spiritual climates—

Jim: —yes!

Ron: —how did you ever come to put your faith and trust in Christ?

Jim: I had a freshman basketball coach [who] was a Campus Life director, Campus Life/Youth for Christ. He roped all of us kids in, all the guys on the team, to go to different games. The two guys that were our coaches were the Campus Life directors. We didn’t know what that meant, but that meant that they were Christians. They were always trying to tell us about Jesus.

It got a little annoying, but we got through that year. We had a good season. My senior year, he showed up again as one of my football coaches. He said, “I want to help you guys win football games. I want to do this group on Thursday mornings. You’re the team captain. Will you get this thing going?”

I said, “I’ll do anything to win football games.”

We would meet once a week on Thursdays. He would start preaching to us about Jesus. We were all sitting there with fried egg eyes. [Laughter] But I remember, he was the first guy—I was born and raised Catholic—but I remember one time, he and I talking about my parents’ divorce, and I told him, “Gary, I have no problem with God, but I will never go to church again.”

He said something to me that rocked my world. He said, “Christianity is not about a religion. It’s about a relationship with God.” That rocked my world.

By the end of my senior year, outside of a pizza place, he led me to Jesus. He led me to Christ. That was really where I, for the first time, understood what it meant to be a Christian. He’s the Vice President of Men in the Arena, the organization, to this day.

Ron: Get out!

Jim: To this day, we’re very close.

Ron: That is amazing!

Jim: I told him “You led me to the Lord. You got me into this, so you’re coming on my board.” [Laughter]

Ron: I love that. That is really good.

Jim: Yes, they say that there’s six degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon. We say, “There’s three degrees of separation with Gary McCusker.” [Laughter]

Ron: Man, you shared with me—when I was on your podcast, we were talking, [and] you were telling some of this story, but I’ve learned so much more today—but I’ll never forget, you mentioned that you never told your stepdad or your stepmom that you loved them. I think that’s the way you said it—

Jim: —yes.

Ron: —but that you have been able to say that to your biological parents. Take us inside that. For somebody who’s listening right now who doesn’t quite get why that child or that stepchild can’t let them in. What was that about for you?

Jim: I don’t know if I’d used the phrase “let them in,” because I would let them in to a lot of areas, but for me to say, “I love you”—I didn’t start saying, “I love you” to my dad until the last couple of years. My dad and I—he never could articulate that. My mom says it until it’s boring. [Laughter]

For me, saying, “I love you,” was really a deep and special position. It was a position in my life, and I was not going to bring my stepparents into that. I would say I love my stepmom and I love my stepdad, but it was more of a phileo love. It was not an agape love. It was a different love.

Ron: I think the big take away for listeners is—Gary Chapman and I, in our book, Building Love Together in Blended Families, talk about different love associations; the nature of different relationships, love means different things about different people. I love my mother-in-law, but it’s not the same as how I love my mom. I love one sibling differently than I love another sibling.

You loved your stepparents, but not in the sense like you love your biological parents, so the words “I love you” just weren’t appropriate in those relationships. That makes total sense to me.

The other observation I have is that, and we say this all the time in our ministry, blended families are a process. You’re still in process. Even now, those relationships for you are developing and evolving over time as the relationships mature.

One of the big problems that biological parents and stepparents have is: “Why doesn’t everybody love each other to the same degree?” I think you’re hearing this narrative from a child’s point of view. It’s difficult. People fit in different categories in your heart. Those expressions of love will take the shape that it needs to take for that child at that particular time.

Don’t fret that it’s not exactly the way you want it. Rest in what is and keep hoping and trusting for more. Just keep walking as Christ, and that makes it more likely that the relationships will grow. 

Jim: I would also add, Ron, that I’ve got a library of about 2,000 books, and I read about 40 books a year. I want to tell your listeners that your book, the book you wrote with Gary Chapman, is by far and away the best book I’ve ever read on blended families and how to deal with divorce.

Anybody listening, if you are from a blended family, that book has to be in your library. It will help you and guide you. It will be your compass in so many ways. You need to get that book. That’s my own opinion.

Ron: I appreciate it, man. I really do.

I’ve got one last question for you. We started our conversation—pretty quickly, we happened on some of those, we’ll call them bruises and coping styles that you picked up as a young teenager that still linger today. Do you have a sense of when any other bruises on your heart flare up, when they get activated—the little pieces that are left over from those days of instability or uncertainty?

Jim: Yes, two come to mind. I don’t know if these fit your question, but I have a very high maintenance marriage. It’s been a high maintenance marriage since 1992. I love this woman. I love her, and we have a wonderful marriage, but I knew early on, and this still creeps up because we have a high maintenance marriage, divorce for us is not an option. I will not marry couples who have divorce on the table as an option.

Whenever a couple asks me to marry them, I ask them this: “If divorce is an option under any circumstance, I won’t do your wedding.” The reason for that is because I’ve been scarred by divorce. Now I’ve healed, but I have the scars to show for it.

For me, I’m passionate about making a marriage work. I think people throw words around that don’t exist just to get out of a marriage, because they’re weak or lazy or selfish. I am committed to marriage; I’m committed.

The second thing is, for me personally, I want my kids, my three sons, their wives, and my grandchildren to hear until it is boring the words, “I love you.” I think that is so important that they hear those. I think that a stepparent can use those words. Don’t expect it to be reciprocated, but it’s okay to use those words.

One of my sons has a girlfriend who we tell her we love her, and every time we do, she melts in our arms because you can tell she really needs to hear it. For us, [it’s] telling our kids we love them until it’s boring. I’ve got these manly 26-year-old [and] 24-year-old kids saying, “I love you,” and people look at them. It’s so important that we remind our kids that we really love them, no matter what.

Ron: There’s what can happen when one generation decides to turn the tide; that they’re not going to live the same way that they were brought up, and that they’re going to do better, and they’re going to bring the Lord with them. In one generation, it changes the course of your family.

[Studio]

Dave: We’ve been listening to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended podcast with Jim Ramos in an interview with Ron Deal, the host of the podcast. Ron joins us now in the studio. Welcome, Ron.

Ron: Hi. It’s good to be with you guys.

Ann: Ron, let me ask you this: it seems like at least part of Jim’s whole motivation to be in men’s ministry is related to his childhood. Would you agree with that? That’s where we started today.

Ron: Yes, exactly. His dad was very pressuring, demanding, and emotionally distant, while his stepdad (there’s a big section of this story that you guys didn’t get to hear) didn’t have any boundaries at all. So, neither of those men in Jim’s life really demonstrated what a healthy father or husband should do.

Here you have Jim rising up and saying, “No, we’re going to be a better model. I’m going to help men be a better model for their families.”

Ann: That’s good. This whole thing—to hear the whole episode, it’s Episode 51. Is that right?

Ron: That’s right, of the FamilyLife Blended podcast, of which we have a whole series, a subseries, if you will, within our podcasts where we talk to people and have them tell their story. It’s so informative, because what’s happening for the listener is, you get perspective on what’s going on with your kids, what’s going on with your step kids, how are they making sense of that world, how are they coping with things, and what is it you can do and not do that will be helpful to your children as your family moves through time?

Dave: Yes, Ron, and I want to say “thanks” for what you do, the whole Blended ministry, and the “Growing Up in a Blender.” We just spoke at a Weekend to Remember. There were probably 1,000 people there. We asked at some point: “How many families, marriages, in this room represent a blended family?” It was almost half the room, if not a little bit more. We don’t often speak directly to their circumstances like you do, so it’s a valuable ministry. Thanks.

Ron: Thank you. I appreciate that. 

Ann: You’re a gift, Ron, not only to FamilyLife, but to so many families across the country and across the world. Thanks for all you’re doing.

Ron: Glad to do it.

Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal as he talked with Jim Ramos on FamilyLife Today. If you want to hear that full episode with Jim, you can find the link in the show notes, and it will take you right there to Ron’s full conversation about “Growing Up in a Blender.”

Today, we’ve been talking about blended families. The cool thing is, we’ve got a Summit on Stepfamily Ministry® coming up. It’s going to happen from October 10th through the 11th. We encourage you to join us for two days, where you can hear valuable commentary, coming from ministry leaders across the nation, specifically targeted at blended families. You can leave equipped and inspired to better serve blended families in your community. Just register now to be a part of the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry.

Again, it’s happening from October 10th to 11th. It’s going to be at The Hope Center in Plano, Texas. For more information, you can head over to SummitonStepFamilies.com, or you can check out our link in the show notes.

Coming up next week, I and many people I know struggle with perfectionism. Are you one of those people who wrestle with perfectionism? And how does it impact you spiritually? It affects me quite a bit. Next week, Faith Chang is going to be here with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about peace over perfection. We hope you will join us for that.

On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

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