Ron Deal: Well-Blended–and Challenges Stepfamilies Face
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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
If you’re a stepfamily, you face particular challenges. Author and counselor Ron Deal offers practical help towards blending a family with character.
Ron Deal: Well-Blended–and Challenges Stepfamilies Face
Ann: If I said something was well-blended, what would that mean to you?
Dave: Chocolate milkshake! [Laughter]
Ann: I knew you were going to say that.
Dave: A big chocolate milkshake with thick ice cream—maybe some maltmaybe/definitely whipped cream with a cherry on top—
Ann: Mmm, that sounds good.
Dave: —and about 48 ounces.
Ann: I was just thinking of a smoothie—just throw it all in there—and it’s so amazing, but it has to be well-blended to be good.
Dave: You know that is the difference between you and me. You are healthy with a smoothie. [Laughter] And I am unhealthy with the chocolate.
Ann: But you’re skinny. What’s that?
Dave: I don’t know about that!
Ann: 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!
Why are we talking about blending things?
Dave: Well, we’re talking about it because we have Ron Deal, the director of our blended family ministry at FamilyLife. He is in the studio with us today. Welcome to FamilyLife Today, Ron.
Ron: Thanks, guys. It’s always good to be with you.
I am so hungry for a chocolate shake right now. Thank you very much for that. [Laughter]
Dave: You’re welcome. You know what? After this, we should go get one together.
Ann: That sounds good.
Ron: Let’s do it!
Dave: That would be nice.
But you are in the studio today, talking about some online courses. I didn’t even know how many different ones we have. Talk about what we are now offering, and is it a new thing?
Ron: Yes, FamilyLife has actually been working on this for a couple of years. COVID has sort of slowed all of this down; but as of right now, we have eight courses. I mean:
- The Love Like You Mean It course—you know Bob Lepine’s—based on his book/video series;
- The Nearly Complete Guide to Married Sex;
- Financial Freedom for Couples: How to Talk Money in Marriage;
- Lightbulb Moments with Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn;
- My goodness!—our own Brian Goins teamed up with some people and put together a series for men—it’s called Chaos: A Bold Theory on Manhood.
Again, all of these are online and on-demand.
We now have two courses that are specifically about blended families and blended family ministry. For leaders, we have one called The Certificate in Blended Family Ministry, which is like a mini-course you can go through that basically gives you the basic understandings of how to set up a ministry in your church: what it entails, what it looks like, what the options are. We are very excited about that one.
But the one we are going to be talking about today is a course designed for couples. It’s bent to help them improve their marriage and their blended family situation. It’s called—
Dave: Chocolate Milkshake!
Ron: No. [Laughter] It’s called Well-Blended.
Dave: So that is where this whole well-blended idea came from. So let’s talk: “What does well-blended mean? What does it entail?”
Ron: Well, let me ask you a question; let me turn it around for a minute.
Ron: Let me ask you a question: “How long did it take the two of you—once you started having children—how long did it take each of you to look at the other and go, ‘Oh, my goodness! This person is completely committed to loving this child that we have just had together’? How long did that take?”
Dave: My first thought is seconds/I mean, in the hospital.
Dave: I mean, I’m looking at Ann—and I’m not sure I’ve seen a love for our child like that—but it was instant, I think, for both of us.
Ann: Yes, I would say the same for you, like you were all in.
Why do you ask that question, Ron?
Ron: Well, the truth of the matter is: probably, even before the child was born—
Ann: That’s what I was going to say: yes, you are already connected.
Ron: And that is exactly the point: it was automatic. When it’s your child—a shared child that you had the pleasure of creating together in God’s good grace—it’s just unquestioned—
Ron: —that the other person is absolutely committed to loving this child and is going to see it through.
Well, in a blended family, you can imagine that is a journey for stepparents and stepchildren to look at one another with the same sort of commitment to loving them. I’m not questioning stepparents and their desire to want to have a great relationship with their stepchildren—the desire is often there—but the know-how and, sometimes, there are moments where it is pretty common for them to wobble a little bit.
I just got an email today from somebody—a stepdad—who is trying so hard. He’s just like: “I can’t figure out the secret sauce to connecting with these kids”; and he is just wrestling with that.
Dave: Well, you know, Ron, I remember my dad was remarried when I was in probably 8th grade—I think it was 7th or 8th grade—I can remember going down to see him in Florida, where he lived with his new wife. Her friends came over—and I remember this; this is interesting—I remember her saying, “This is Dave’s son.” My dad’s name was Dave. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m not your son.” It took a while—probably, more than a year—of course, I wasn’t living with them; I was in and out of her life—but it took her a while before she was saying, “This is our son.”
Dave: So it’s exactly what you are saying; it wasn’t instantaneous.
Ron: Right. There is the wobble; right?
Ron: In biological families, it’s instantaneous/nanoseconds at most. In blended families, it’s a bit of a journey. Sometimes, there are some wobbles in the process.
Okay; all of this brings us to our first clip from the new Well-Blended, online, on-demand course. This is me speaking at our 2019 Blended & Blessed® livestream.
[Audio from the Well-Blended Online Course]
Ron: In biological families, love, trust, safety—that sense of dedication to one another: the sense that I can trust you as my parent; I can trust you as my spouse; this is our child, that there is no difference between us—all of that comes the day the children are born. The moment they are born—it is an automatic dynamic of trust, safety, emotional trust with one another—all comes as a bundle immediately.
In blended families, it turns out that happens to be a bit of a process. Love and affection for one another sometimes comes last. What sets you up to be able to get to love and affection for one another is a sense of trust/a sense of safety with one another. If I, as a stepchild, can’t trust you as my stepparent, why in the world/how in the world would I ever get to love you as my stepparent?
I think faithfulness and gentleness—two of the fruit [of the Spirit]—set you up to discover and experience trust and safety that then leads to love and affection. So getting faithfulness and gentleness right is a really important process.
Let’s start with faithfulness. The Beatles sang it: “All you need is love”; it ain’t true. It’s funny—when you say that out loud, like people sometimes come to me—“Well, that’s not right; come on! All you need is love; right?” That’s the mantra: it feels good; it’s romantic.
There is a sense, if you say it’s not true, that somehow you are saying love is not enough; but we all know, intuitively, love is not enough. What is love without faithfulness? What is love without a sense of trustworthiness? If your partner, in a marriage relationship, isn’t trustworthy, how far does love get you in that relationship? At best, love without faithfulness leads to doubt and insecurity; it’s like, “I love you, but I don’t know if I can lean into you.” At worst, it leads to hurt and isolation; and we all intuitively know it. All we have to do is just stop and think about it.
I’ve written a book with Greg Pettys and David Edwards on stepfamilies and finances. I’m very excited about the project. We’ve finally integrated the relational dynamics of stepfamily living with the financial dynamics going on within the home. One of the stories that we tell in this book is about a—there is a designer in the Netherlands who has created—are you ready for this?—he has created a floating prenuptial house; alright?
Here is the way it works. The house is somehow like to two Tetris shapes that are knit together with one another, and they fit together. The idea is: you find the love of your life, and you get married, and you live in this home. It is a houseboat, so it’s a floating prenuptial house. If anything ever goes wrong with your marriage relationship—and you decide to go your separate ways/if you drift apart as a couple—you can just unhook the Tetris shapes. He can go in his half, and she can go in her half. You can drift apart, literally, and each has a home.
Now, when you talk about that, and you say that story out loud, you just intuitively go, “That’s not going to work.” Everything in that whole process says: “We marry; and we move into this house so that, when we go our separate ways, it’s really convenient for us to go our separate ways.” That’s a setup to fail. There is no sense of trustworthiness or faithfulness in that process.
By the way, in the finances book, we want to do the opposite. We want to help you take—you’re a single and a single parent—or whatever your dynamic is—two Tetris shapes of finances that you already have, and we want to help you put it together and finance togetherness. But when you think about it in the opposite way, we all know: “That’s not going to work.” Without a sense of permanence, there is no trust. Without trust, how do you sustain intimate love in a relationship?
Love is not all you need.
Dave: I have to agree with you. Love is not enough—the trust and faithfulness that you just talked about—that’s a really, really good point.
Ann: Yes, and I think it’s good to know that it does take time as we learn to trust each other. Even that connection with a stepparent or stepchild is a process; and that trust and love can take time.
But Ron, I really think/I’m guessing that a lot of blended families are comparing themselves with maybe a ghost, that is saying, “With everybody else, it probably did happen instantaneously.”
Ron: Yes; oh, that can be kind of haunting them. They look at other families, for example, that seem to have that harmony and cohesiveness; and you feel divided in your life and in your home. Yes, that’s disconcerting and discouraging for people.
You know, I think this notion that love needs faithfulness to go with it is really an important point. Let’s just pause for a minute and think vertically, as you guys like to do. Let’s think about the love of God and how often, in Scripture, the love of God is communicated to us, along with His faithfulness and trustworthiness. It is often that they are mentioned side by side—not every time—but that’s part of it: “Never will I leave you,” “Never will I forsake you,”—is a statement of His faithfulness/His trustworthiness—“I’m here—period; end of story—not going away.”
You think about Psalm 136 that says, “His love endures forever.” Look at that:
- It’s coupling His love—how long?—“forever.”
- “…endures…”; you can count on it.
It puts them together—love and faithfulness—it says it 26 times, by the way, in that one chapter.
What if the story about God was: “His love endures as long as you do everything He says and never make a mistake”?
Ron: What kind of life would we have with the heavenly Father if we lived in fear of doing one thing wrong, and He is going to turn on us? Love goes away; safety goes away; we can’t count on Him anymore, because I’ve failed in some aspect of my life.
Just think about that—think about if the heavenly Father did to us what we often do, as parents, to our kids—sort of convey that message of: “I love you as long as you make me happy,” “I love you as long as you perform well in school,” “…as long as you get the grades,” “…you get the degree and go into the profession we want you to go,”—whatever those conditions are—that sometimes parents inadvertently/sometimes purposefully; but most of the time, inadvertently—put on their kids.
What if that was God? I think we would live in complete fear of God. He wouldn’t be safe and approachable, and Somebody we can go to with our failings and our faults, and ask for forgiveness. All of a sudden, because love is conditional—it could go away—now, we’re worried all the time.
Dave: As you say that, I’m thinking that is so true in a family/in a marriage relationship at the same level. I know that one of the things I tried to do when our—you know, we had three sons who are married now—but when they were boys in our house, and they would see Ann and I maybe get in a conflict, you can see them, whether it is in the family room or kitchen table—there is a sense of fear: “What’s going on with Mom and Dad?”
Every once in a while—I didn’t do this perfectly—but every once in a while, I would turn to them and say, “Hey, just so you know: Dad is not going anywhere; we’re going to work this out. This is part of what happens when you are in love; you, sometimes, you have conflicts.” But it is that faithfulness that: “I hope you know you can still trust me.”
I’m thinking, “Okay; in a family, where there is one husband and one wife, that is really important. I can’t imagine how important it is when a family, now, is blended; because there has already been some lack of trust in some way.” There are all kinds of reasons why that ends up blended; but there has got to be that fear, sitting there with the kids, as well; right?
Ron: Exactly; sometimes, in a blended family situation—let’s say a husband and a wife are having some strife—not only is there this sense of the kids are watching: “Is this creating insecurity for them?” But sometimes, it’s flipped on its head—the kids are watching—“Are they getting happy that we are having conflict?
Ron: “Are they sort of okay—
Ron: —“if we were to be pulled apart by what is going on?”
That, too, just adds a sense of: “I can’t trust my environment in this house to support the marriage that we are trying to fight for.” I mean, think about that—without that sense of confidence that comes with faithfulness and trustworthiness—everybody walks on pins and needles. It’s sort of like we are living with a lack of security about the future.
That’s why we talk about—in this new course, Well-Blended—how important it is/how important it is—I’ve got to repeat that—that each person walks with integrity and faithfulness in order to build trustworthiness over time in the new blended family dynamic. As long as there is a lack of trustworthiness, well, we are insecure; we are walking on pins and needles: “Who knows what is going to happen?” [As opposed to]:
- “But you know what? My stepdad—I’m not sure I like him—but my goodness! I can count on him. I sort of love him on certain days; and other days, I’m not so sure. But my goodness!—he is a man of his word; he has integrity.”
- “You know, my stepmom—I’m still trying to figure her out—we’re still trying to connect and see how deep our relationship can go. But I don’t have to worry that she’s just going to throw me to the side or cast me away. She’s not a wicked stepmother; she’s a loving stepmother, who is committed to me. She has proven that.”
That sort of stuff really begins to overcome those doubts and insecurities that people have about one another, and it facilitates that bonding and connection that the family has to have to move forward.
Ann: I like those, Ron. Practically speaking, what other things can we do to develop that trust? What does that look like?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear Ron’s response in just a minute; but first, let’s face it: blending a family can be complicated, but a little help can go a long way. That’s why I am so glad that we’ve got Ron’s new online course, Well-Blended. It’s available now at FamilyLifeToday.com.
FamilyLife Blended® is an amazing ministry, and they have been guiding stepfamilies for years. So now, they’ve pulled practical, biblical solutions for blending a family and marriage into a five-session online course for blended families. So if that is you, or you know a family who could benefit from that, be sure to check out Well-Blended by going to FamilyLifeToday.com.
Alright, now, back to Ron Deal on how to build trust in your blended family.
Ron: I guess the first one I already said—
Ron: —just be faithful in the little things. Let’s emphasize “little.” If you say you’re going to be there, show up. To the best of your ability, be true to your word. Don’t underestimate, if you break your word, how that can harm this fragile relationship. See, that’s sort of what we’re saying: is that some stepfamily relationships—not always all; but often, in the beginning, many—are just sort of fragile; so it doesn’t take much to fracture it. So you want to be true to your word/you want to stick that out.
You want to be trustworthy in the marriage. You want to show them: “I’m committed. You and I,”—stepparent/stepchild—“we may not have each other figured out yet, but I want you to see that I’m committed to your mom/your parent. I want you to see that that is true to my heart; I’m going to be right by her/by him,”— whatever the case is. That helps a child gain a little confidence in who they are.
This clip that we just listened to—our theme for Blended & Blessed that year was out of Galatians 5—we were talking about the fruit of the Spirit. Well, right before the fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5, he talks about the works of the flesh. Let’s just say this: “One of the ways you break trust and show yourself not to be trustworthy is by living those works of the flesh: jealousy, and envy, and strife, and pride.” Obviously, when people see that in you, it becomes harder for them to want to trust you/to lean in to who you are. So there is a discipline there: “Make sure you are walking by the fruit of the Spirit rather than the works of the flesh.”
Dave: Yes, I could even add, Ron: watching my dad in his second marriage, he had to prove to his new wife that he was going to control his sensuality that sort of led to the divorce with my mom and dad. It was like: “Okay; I have to earn trust/prove faithfulness that I’m a new man; and that’s no longer who I am, and that is not something I’m going to pursue anymore.”
I remember, as a middle school boy and then high school boy, watching my dad sort of change his whole life, which built trust,—
Dave: —not only with me, but definitely with my stepmom.
Ron: Yes; no, that is absolutely true. In fact, this brings me back to that initial point that we made. Love without trustworthiness really doesn’t get you very far in a relationship.
Again, here is an obvious example that you just brought up; but it helps to make the point. We’ve all known situations, where somebody had an affair—maybe, it was something that you lived through; or maybe, it was something a friend of yours went through—well, let’s just say the wife had an affair. Well, she can say to her husband, “I love you.” Those feel like empty words—in the midst of an affair or right after—like, “Okay, you’ve ended that [affair]; but it is still to be determined really, now, ‘What does your love mean to me?’ So you have feelings for me—you love our family, our kids, the idea of us—but can I trust you?’” At that point, there has been a huge fracture in trust. Love only gets you so far; it takes both.
So for you, in that situation with your dad, well, he had already proven something else—
Ron: —that maybe he wasn’t trustworthy—now, he had to get back on the right track, and start walking that, and maintain his integrity. Otherwise, that ghost sort of haunts and just hangs around the room, making people wonder, “Will this relationship last?”
Dave: The hard thing—but the good thing—about trust is you have to, not just earn it one time; there has got to be consistency. I watched my dad have to not—it’s like one month/two months—“Okay, is he really going to live this out?” But over six months, a year, three years, five years—it’s like, “Okay, trust is rebuilt,”—it takes a long time. It is torn down in a second.
Ron: That’s right.
Dave: You have to rebuild over a long time; but man, that’s exactly what you’re talking about: integrity is proven over time.
Ron: You can forgive somebody for something that tears down the trust. Forgiveness can be there; but trust is not there for a long period of time, like you just said.
One of the things that occurs to me—there are other ways to build trust—one of them is to discipline our tongues.
Ron: The words that we say is one of those things, Dave, that can just tear down trust fast. Being overly critical of your partner, of children, of people—being angry and having a temper, and showing yourself to be: “Oh, you’re that kind of person that I’m supposed to run in fear from; you scare me because of how you react,”—to discipline ourselves in that manner.
Let me throw another one in for blended families: is not being critical of the other home—let’s say you are the mom and a stepdad—to be an overly critical mom of her former husband in front of her kids or for the stepdad to be critical of the biological dad—wow; the kids just look at you and go, “Okay; no, you are out!” Harsh judgements come quickly because of the words that we use. So to restrain your words/to put a bridle on them—“Say kind things or don’t say anything at all,” as my mom used to say—that really matters. It doesn’t feel like a lot today; but over time, those little things can really build up trust.
Then, the last thing I’ll just add for stepparents is we like to talk about being stubborn/stubbornly persistent in continuing to pursue the heart of your stepchildren. Rejection sometimes happens: sometimes, they are not rejecting you; they are just not really open to you either. Those are discouraging times. Continuing to press in—just being gentle, staying right there on the nip of their heels—so if they ever turn around, you are right there, and you can have a relationship. That persistence/stubborn persistence, often, we find, pays off over time.
Ann: Ron, this is so helpful. It’s only a glimpse of what families can get online with this course.
Dave: Yes; and I was thinking, “Man, oh, man, what would it have been like if we would have had a course like that when my family blended?” You know, there were a lot of things—even as I hear you, Ron—that my dad/and my mom never did talk bad about my dad after he left, and my stepmom never talked bad about my mom—so they did some things [right]—but I can remember, as kid, just not knowing what to do: “What is our new reality?” There was not really any help available; there were not classes or courses.
Now, we have this course. Way to go! I’m just going to tell you: “If you are a blended family—or you’re starting one or, maybe, you’ve been in it for years; and you still haven’t [blended well]—go online to FamilyLifeToday.com and order the course, Well-Blended. I’m telling you: “It is going to change your life.”
Shelby: That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. The new online course is called Well-Blended. You can find out more and enroll today at FamilyLifeToday.com.
If you know anyone who needs to hear conversations like the one you heard with Ron Deal today, we’d love it if you’d tell them about this station. You can share today’s specific conversation, too, from wherever you get your podcasts. While you are there, it would really help us out if you’d rate and review us.
You know, a stepfamily can’t happen unless there is a loss involved, either a divorce or a death. Sometimes, we can forget that when it comes to our kids in a blended family. Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be with Ron Deal, again, as they talk about staying engaged with our kids as they wrestle through the complexities of growing up in a blended family. That’s tomorrow.
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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