Stepdad, a.k.a. Unsung Hero: Ron Deal and Gil Stuart
Stepdad: It can be a role full of landmines--and at the same time, a role vital and unsung. Author Gil Stuart offers ideas to do it wholeheartedly and all-in within the complexities of your blended family.
Reverse betrayal is the aspect that I have a loyalty to my own children, who I don't get to see as much because of the parenting plan, and in that time, I'm actually connecting with my stepchildren. I'm actually starting to like them, and they're starting to bond with me. In so doing, I actually feel like I'm betraying my own children. -- Gil Stuart
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Being a stepdad just might mean being an unsung hero. Author Gil Stuart offers ideas to do it wholeheartedly and all-in, with all its complexity.
Stepdad, a.k.a. Unsung Hero: Ron Deal and Gil Stuart
Gil: Reverse betrayal is the aspect that I have a loyalty to my own children, who I don’t get to see as much because of the parenting plan, and in that time, I’m actually connecting with my stepchildren. I’m actually starting to like them, and they’re starting to bond with me. In so doing, I actually feel like I’m betraying my own children.
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 or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We just spent a couple days with a couple of unsung heroes.
Ann: Yes, we did.
Dave: I mean, it’s our son, Austin, and his wife, Kendall; of course, we’re a little biased. We think they’re heroes. They’re unsung heroes because they adopted two kids that we were with for the weekend.
Ann: Yes, and they started out fostering these kids; and I don’t think we always give credit to foster parents, adoptive parents, stepparents. All of these people are giving life to children.
Dave: I mean, they’re heroes because they step in and fill a role that they don’t have to. I’m not kidding! As I looked over at Holden and Ryder—I mean, they’re too young to know, but I thought, “Their lives are radically different because of these two heroes, their mom and dad, who have taken them [for life].” And today, we get to talk a little bit about blended families and people who step in to take care of people that they’re a hero to.
Ann: Today, we’re going to listen to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended®podcast. Ron Deal was talking with Gil Stuart about step-fathering, and ministering to stepdads, which is always a great topic.
Dave: And by the way, we have the Blended Family Summit coming up on October 12th. We’ll tell you later how you can sign up, but you don’t want to miss that, because that’s what it’s all about.
Ann: And the event’s also virtual this year, which is great, because you can attend anywhere.
Dave: We’ve got Ron Deal with us today. He’s the Director of our FamilyLife Blended ministry, as many of you know, here at FamilyLife. We’re going to listen to a conversation he had with Gil Stuart, who’s a stepfamily educator, coach, and counselor. Gil and his wife, Brenda, have authored a book and a curriculum called Restored and Remarried. They also have a video curriculum for stepfathers called Unsung Heroes.
Ann: And that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. Even though this discussion is specifically about stepdads, it has a really broad application for all stepparents and also parents.
Ron: Okay, Gil, let’s shift and talk a little bit about some of the content you’ve got. Let’s just give guys a bit of a preview. You’ve got seven different main topic sessions. The first one is: “You’re Not My Dad.” Now, many dads listening are going to say, “Yes, I’ve heard that.” Or maybe they haven’t heard those words, but they’ve felt that from their stepchildren. What’s going on, and what do they do about it?
Gil: Well, in that particular episode, “You’re Not My Dad,” with all of the segments—just to try to give you a heads-up on this, I don’t do this in a studio with green screen. I actually went out, onsite, and had conversations with the camera about the issue. So, this particular topic, “You’re Not My Dad,” I did in a garage with a buddy of mine who owns two Camaros. I’m not a car guy, but we got down to an illustration.
Here are these two Camaros that are, you know, classic cars. One’s orange; one’s green. They’re the same. I know I’m a dad, but I’m not your dad. So, the perspective here was, they may look the same, but they’re not. Depending on whether the child’s dad is still around, or if they’ve checked out, what kind of dad are you going to be? There’s an opportunity for redeeming the perspective of “what is really, truly a dad?”
Maybe the biological dad’s doing a great job. Super! If they’re not, here’s your opportunity. I’m just trying to make it really clear with the guys that it might look the same, but it’s not. You might know how to handle a kid, but if it’s your biological child, you’ve got a little more leeway. With stepkids, you’ve got to create relationship before you’re going to get that respect that you think you deserve.
Ron: I like what you put in there. When that moment comes, when that child’s looking at you like, “Hey, you’re not my dad! You’ve got nothing on me!” You suggest sort of a line, or maybe we would call it a posture. You may not even say this to the child, but you sort of carry the posture of, “I agree. I’m not your dad. That’s factually true; but I am your mother’s husband.”
Ron: What does that lend to a stepdad in that moment that he didn’t have, if he can’t lean on his wife and his marriage?
Gil: It’s a posture of humility: “This is the role that I am in.” And hopefully—hopefully— this is where the wives listen in and say, “Whoa! I’ve got to have my husband’s back! Because if I don’t, he’s a hero out in the middle of the battlefield, being a dad, and he’s getting shot up!” No wonder he’s a little—I don’t know how to say this lightly; no wonder he’s a little worked up!
Gil: This is where it’s an appeal to the guys: stand your ground, but do it gently and firmly. Be relentless; that’s a heroic stance. “I am your mother’s husband,” gives me a little bit of a position of authority, but if it’s not backed up by mom, I’m a little handcuffed.
Ron: You’re right. It pulls back to that partnership between husband and wife, and how they work together and support each other. The second session is what you call “Reverse Betrayal,” not getting time with your own kids. Do you want to explain that a little bit?
Gil: Well, reverse betrayal is the aspect that I have a loyalty to my own children, who I don’t get to see as much because of the parenting plan, and in that time, I’m actually connecting with my stepchildren. I’m actually starting to like them, and they’re starting to bond with me. In so doing, I actually feel like I’m betraying my own children.
That is like a major knot! How can I do this and do that at the same time? Realizing that I am now in somewhat of a situation that, if I start showing love and affection and connection with my stepkids, I’m actually—and I hate to say it this way, but I’m actually—scoring points with my wife! [Laughter] And that actually is very endearing to her. Then I kind of insert, and I don’t spend a lot of time on it, but I do spend a little bit of time, where you’re, as a father, stuck in the middle of what’s basically referred to as parent alienation.
I spend a little bit of time on things you shouldn’t say to a child who’s in an alienated position, because, you know, here I am in this betrayal position, but on top of that, I’m dealing with an alienation problem, where I’m being made out to be the bad guy, and I’m not! There are books and videos, and I know you’ve done some really good work around parent alienation, but it’s really just basically, “Hey, here are some things you shouldn’t do if you’re in that place,” while you’re even dealing with this internal feeling, like you’re betraying your children on top of it. So, it’s a really tough place!
Ron: Man, I’ve seen that a bunch, and I’ve just heard from so many men who—and this is referring to people who are biological dads and stepdads—just start weighing out the time that you get with your own children versus stepchildren. I’ve seen guys go one of two ways: I’ve seen guys say, “You know what, it’s easier for me to not deal with that pain—to just, essentially, walk away from my kids in my first marriage, and throw myself totally into my stepchildren. I exchange one family for the second.” And then your biological children go neglected as a result of it, but it’s sort of a coping mechanism for the guy, so he doesn’t have to deal with this feeling guilty thing.
And then, I’ve seen guys go the other way, where they feel so guilty in spending more time with their stepchildren than they get with their biological children that they start withholding themselves from their stepchildren.
Gil: I’ve done that!
Ron: You know, even though the opportunity is there.
Well, tell us. You’ve done that. I mean, talk about how it felt. It seemed like, I’m sure, that was the only right thing to do.
Gil: Well, that’s why I called it reverse betrayal, because I felt like, “I’m betraying my children, but I want to do this. Then, by doing so, I’m holding myself back.” Here’s my wife, saying, “Their father has left. He’s not involved in their life like you could be. What’s wrong with you?!”
Ron: Yes, “where’d you go?”
Gil: “Where did you go!? Here are all these things I knew you as. The reason I said, ‘Yes, I’ll remarry this man.’ Where’s the guy that I married who would step up?” And that creates internal fiction all the more. So, yes, it’s a place of going, “Oh, man! What do I do here?” So, when I was in that place, I was like one foot in and one foot out, and it was torturous!
But then, when I submitted to it, it was like, “Yes, that’s where things really began to work.” The beauty of it was, you know, I continued to stay in the battlefield for my kids’ hearts while connecting with my stepkids. That was the best thing for the marriage.
Ron: You say in Unsung Heroes the only way through this internal conflict is through vulnerability. Explain.
Gil: Well, vulnerability is not a weakness; it’s a strength. We need to reframe that perspective, because vulnerability basically comes from the great foundation—I think it’s Latin, which talks about courage. The concept of it is that courage grows strength from a wound. Let me repeat that: courage grows strength from a wound.
You’re wounded. Your children are wounded. Somebody has to step up with courage and be vulnerable and call it what it is. It’s kind of that concept of, if you can’t name it, you can’t change it. In a way, you may be stating the obvious, but somebody’s got to step up and do it! Until you do, nobody’s going to lead.
Ron: For example, this might look like being vulnerable with your wife about this internal conflict, and how you are having this internal debate. “I’m not really sure what to do here. I feel this if I do that, and I feel this way if I go that way. I just need you to know, this is what’s going on with me.” Is that what it sounds like?
Gil: That’s what it sounds like, and that takes courage.
Ron: It takes a lot! It does [take] a lot of courage.
Gil: Because I don’t want to express weakness in that, because we’re the adults. We’re supposed to know what to do. Really? Have you ever been a stepdad before? [Laughter] Probably not! Was there a handbook on it? No, there’s not.
Ron: No, there’s—
Gil: There are a few good things! I think there’s one or two. I’ll take that back, Ron! You did a really good job on that a few years ago.
Ron: And now your video series is another contribution.
Gil: Your Smart Stepdad stuff. But it’s kind of like, “What do I do?” Well, be vulnerable! Be open, because when you do, your wife now becomes your ally rather than a perceived enemy.
Ron: Right. You invite her into the struggle with you instead of someone who’s on the outside, judging you because of what she sees. They don’t quite understand what’s going on on the inside. And they can also help you explore, “What could we do so that you get more time with your kids?” You know, there might be some practical things that you can talk through at that point, but without the vulnerability—
Gil: You don’t get that!
Ron: You don’t get there.
Gil: You remain as an “I,” not a “we.” And if you try to take this on by yourself, you’ll get shot up. You really will.
Ann: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today, and we’re listening to a portion of a FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal and his guest, Gil Stuart.
Dave: You know, we love supporting families with a variety of structures. Today is an exciting day because we’re focused on blended families.
Ann: So, keep on listening, because at the end, we’re going to be talking about how you and your church can support one another in this through our Summit on Stepfamily Ministry.
Ron: Okay, let’s jump to another one. You talk about, in this series: “Your Rules.” You caution people about doing too much, too soon.
Gil: Yes, in that one, we set it up at a playground, and I’m talking about pushing a swing and, you know, doing underdogs and all that stuff. Really, the simplicity of it is, if you don’t have a respectful relationship with that kid, you could actually be pushing them and demanding too much of their obedience or respect too soon. If you don’t have that foundation built, you could actually be demanding something that you probably are due, but if you haven’t earned that as the stepparent or the stepdad, you could actually do damage rather than instilling trust, honesty, and transparency, and [becoming] a trusted entity.
That starts with just being a friend to the kid, or “the crazy uncle,” I say to a lot of my stepparent clients: when you’re in that role, just be the crazy uncle. Allow them some extra space, and then, when you do get into a disciplinarian issue, that’s when the two of you—you and your spouse, their biological mother—pull together. At that point in time, you have each other’s back; but if you push too soon, too much, the kid’s going to come, so to speak, flying out of that swing! You’re going to do some damage that you may not be able to repair for a long time.
Ron: As I watched this session, I reflected on a conversation I had with a stepdad who came to me at one point and said, “I am so frustrated! I’m trying to bond with this young man. I know what he likes!” And one of the things you and I have recommended to people in the past is, you know, start with building that friendship or find common interests and connect to what the child is interested in.
He said, “I’m trying. I’m doing that. This kid loves football; he loves sports. I’m inviting him to go throw the football with me in the backyard, and he won’t do it.” He said, “I know he does that with his father. I know that’s something he enjoys. Here I am making offers, and he won’t go.”
Some time went by. He came back, and he said, “I figured it out. I’m asking him to give me something that’s very special with his dad. He just can’t do it. He just can’t give that part of himself also to me. He feels guilty about that.” I said, “Dude, you nailed it! You had the best of intentions. You’re on track in terms of strategy: find something the kid likes. But in that particular space, it’s poisonous for that child to give that to you.”
“You’re going to have to find something else you guys have in common. Maybe, eventually, he’ll come around, and he’ll start sharing that part of himself with you, but that’s got to be his call. It can’t be yours.”
Gil: Yes, and that could be years down the road, because that allegiance between the child and the biological parent is way strong! Even if that biological dad is really messing it up, and isn’t participating with that kid, that might be your opportunity; but even if they’re doing a horrible job, and the biological parent backs out, that kid still wants to love that parent.
Yes, I like what your illustration was, because that’s something special between the kid [and the parent], and if that’s the case, respect that; honor that. You do want the child to have a good relationship with their parents!
Ron: To use your analogy, if you press him on that, [and say], “He should be giving me that part of himself,” it’s equivalent to pushing him out of the swing.
Ron: It’s too much, too soon, and it’s going to damper the relationship.
Gil: It will backfire!
Ron: Yes, yes.
Ron: You know, this really kind of brings us to the next point that you talk about, and it’s: allow the kid to love, and don’t make them pick sides. Is this also for biological dads and for stepdads?
Gil: Of course! [Laughter]
Gil: The answer is “yes!” If I am creating a place where I am pushing that kid to pick one side or the other, what happens underneath is that I’m actually setting that kid up to be resentful, and that is poisonous all the way around.
Ron: What are some ways guys inadvertently push kids to choose?
Gil: Well, I think you may have heard it as well as I have, where they push kids to say, “You’re supposed to call me ‘Dad,’” or “You’re supposed to call her ‘Mom.’” And it’s not that! So, let the kid choose. You know, I think one of the things we did within our own family was say, “Hey, when we’re out in public, how do you want to be introduced, and how do you want to introduce me?”
Gil: Obvious statement, but it doesn’t seem so obvious when you’re out in public. That’s a difference of being in a stepfamily; but if I don’t allow that child to recognize me or their biological parent for who they are, and that it’s okay to love me as much as their other parent, then I’m actually causing them to be in a squeeze, to have favoritism one toward the other. In that case, I’m actually creating a power struggle.
Well, who loses? Everybody loses! So, I think there was a session [where] you had talked years ago, Ron, where it was a stepmother situation, where the child was given permission by the stepmom—a brilliant idea—of saying, “Well, Sally, if you need to go over to your mom’s house and hate me, then that’s okay. But when you’re here, and we actually have a good relationship, I’ll understand.”
That mom—or a dad in this case—has done that child a marvelous favor by taking the pressure off and allowing them to love, rather than being stuck between a rock and a hard place, in a squeeze. The kid may not have the maturity to know how to navigate that; so, don’t put them there.
Ron: Yes. That is an unsung hero; that woman you just talked about. And I think dads and stepdads are making those decisions day-in and day-out. In effect, it’s taking the shorter end of the stick, and yes, that’s what heroes do.
Gil: It’s exactly what they do!
Ron: And it’s so unfair if you step back from it, and you say, “In the scales of life, that just doesn’t seem right.” Yes, but this child needs us to give them that. So, it’s beautiful.
Gil: Yes, yes.
Dave: Well, we’ve been listening to a portion of the FamilyLife Blended podcast with Gil Stuart and Ron Deal, who’s the host of that podcast. Ron now joins us in the studio!
Ron, let me ask you, as you think about unsung heroes, here’s what I thought: thirty-plus years in the NFL. The guys I’m working with and their wives, everybody thinks they’re our heroes. They’re it, you know? They’re at the top of their profession. Even in Detroit, people think they’re heroes, where we don’t win football games. But they’re not really heroes! What you and Gil were talking about are really the heroes of our world.
Ron: You’re exactly right. It’s the people who bless other people’s lives by making sacrifices of their own that really are the unsung heroes. Yes, this conversation’s an important one; because there are, as you said at the beginning, foster parents, there are adoptive parents, and there are stepparents who are making sacrifices every single day.
Ann: Ron, one of the things I really appreciate about you is the practicality that you bring into every household. Let me ask you, as you had this conversation with Gil, was there anything that really stuck out to you?
Ron: You know, when he talked about what he calls “reverse betrayal” in particular, I was thinking about a stepfather who is also a biological dad. As life would have it, just because of the circumstances, he is spending a whole lot more time stepparenting his stepchildren than he is able to do parenting his own children. So, time with stepkids versus time with biological kids. I mean, think about that. Your heart’s in both places! At the same time, you really want your children to benefit from [having] you in their lives.
Maybe there are circumstances that are beyond your control, where you’re just not getting much time with them. By the way, that’s an easy, rewarding relationship, right? Our relationship with our kids; we feel good about that, and they feel good about that. The hard work is happening with the stepchildren, and that’s less rewarding, but that’s where he ends up having to be a good bit of his time. That’s a difficulty. And then, you feel guilty about that. You feel like you’re cheating your own children, and there’s not much you can do about the circumstances. That is really difficult, and that just really captured my heart.
By the way, guys, this is a really good example of one of those unique family dynamics that blended families face that we try to help leaders in local churches to understand, so that they can target these families in the adult education program, student [programs], and small group programs that they offer in their church.
And that’s what we’re going to be talking about at this year’s Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. Our theme this year is “Merge.” In other words, what we’re saying to church leaders is, you don’t have to start an entirely new blended family ministry in your church. What you can do is—and for many folks, the simplest thing to do is—just simply merge some basic principles into the programming that you already have at your church.
So, for example, with adult education programs, maybe you have a marriage course that you offer once or twice per year. Well, just integrate a [few] principles for the blended families that are in it; that is very simple to do. Student ministry programs can do this; children’s ministry programs; of course, parenting and marriage ministries; but even Senior Pastors, from the pulpit, can just do little things.
That’s what we’re going to be focused on this year. The Summit is virtual, so you get the advantage of just staying home. If you want to watch from home, you can. But if you want to have others join you at your church, you can watch as a group and talk about how you can integrate some of those principles.
We’re very excited! It’s Thursday, October 12th. We hope a lot of people will register. Just go to SummitonStepfamiles.com for all the information.
Ann: Ron, this has been so good, and I’m really excited about the Summit. We’re looking forward to talking to you again tomorrow.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to a FamilyLife Blended episode on FamilyLife Today. Now, if you want to find the full episode of what we’ve been listening to, you can search for “Episode 83” on the FamilyLife Blended podcast, and you can find that wherever you get your podcasts; or you can get the link in the show notes at FamilyLifeToday.com.
I just found out that up to 40% of families in your church and community are blended families. So, what Ron has been talking about today with Gil Stuart and Dave and Ann Wilson is so important. You can join the virtual Summit on Stepfamily Ministry event that’s happening on October 12th. Again, the link to that is SummitonStepfamilies.com.
Now, tomorrow, Ron Deal is going to be back again with Gil Stuart to talk about experiences and challenges faced by stepfathers in blended families. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
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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